After Democrats fared well against MAGA candidates in the midterms last year, it might have been reasonable to think that President Joe Biden would have a clear advantage in a rematch against Donald Trump.
Yet despite the stop-the-steal movement, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the numerous investigations facing Trump, Biden and Trump are still tied, each at 43%, among registered voters in the first New York Times/Siena poll of the 2024 election cycle.
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The possibility that criminal indictments haven’t crippled Trump’s general election chances might come as a surprise or even a shock, but the result is worth taking seriously. It does not seem to be a fluke: The Times/Siena polls last fall — which were notably accurate — also showed a very close race in a possible presidential rematch, including a 1-point lead for Trump among registered voters in the final October survey.
Trump’s resilience is not necessarily an indication of his strength. In most respects, he appears to be a badly wounded general election candidate. Just 41% of registered voters say they have a favorable view of him, while a majority believe he committed serious federal crimes and say his conduct after the last election went so far that it threatened American democracy.
But Biden shows little strength of his own. His favorability rating is only 2 points higher than Trump’s. And despite an improving economy, his approval rating is only 39% — a mere 2 points higher than it was in the poll in October, before the midterm election. At least for now, he seems unable to capitalize on his opponent’s profound vulnerability.
Democrats can’t necessarily assume the race will snap back into a clear Biden lead once people tune into the race, either. The 14% of voters who didn’t back Biden or Trump consisted mostly of people who volunteered — even though it wasn’t provided as an option in the poll — that they would vote for someone else or simply wouldn’t vote if those were the candidates. They know the candidates; they just don’t want either of them.
It’s reasonable to believe that Biden has the better path to winning over more of these voters. They dislike Trump more than they dislike Biden, and the political environment, including promising economic news, seems increasingly favorable to Biden. But it hasn’t happened yet.
And the upside for Biden among the dissenting 14% of voters isn’t necessarily as great as it might look. He leads by a mere 2 points — 47% to 45% — if we reassign these voters to Trump or Biden based on how they say they voted in the 2020 election. And Biden still leads by 2 points, 49-47, if we further restrict the poll to those who actually voted in 2020 or 2022.
A 2-point edge is certainly better for Biden than a tie, but it’s not exactly a commanding advantage. It’s closer than his 4.5-point popular vote win in 2020, and it’s well within a range in which Trump can win in the key battleground states, where he has usually done better than he has nationwide.
The survey suggests that the electorate remains deeply divided along the demographic fault lines of the 2020 presidential election, with Trump commanding a wide lead among white voters without a college degree, while Biden counters with an advantage among nonwhite voters and white college graduates.
To the extent the survey suggests a slightly closer race than four years ago, it appears mostly attributable to modest Trump gains among Black, Hispanic, male and low-income voters. The sample sizes of these subgroups are relatively small, but we’ve seen signs of Trump strength among these groups before. In some cases, like Hispanic and lower-income voters, they’re groups that have already trended toward Republicans during the Trump era. It would hardly be a surprise if those trends continued. Here again, it’s a story worth taking seriously.
Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s “predictive” of the final result, certainly not with 15 months to go. What it means, however, is that Trump doesn’t appear to have sustained disqualifying damage — at least when matched against a president with a 39% approval rating. For now, it suggests that the Biden campaign can’t necessarily count on anti-Trump sentiment alone; it may need to do some work to reassemble and mobilize a winning coalition.
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