Why Biden doesn’t sweat the polls — even when he should

Team Biden keeps saying people need to chill out. But 2024 is not 2020

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Monday 13 May 2024 20:31 BST
Trump says hush money trial is 'rigged' as he claims he is leading in all swing states

President Joe Biden started his week on a negative note when a New York Times/Siena College poll showed him losing five out of the six swing states he won in 2020. The poll showed that while the race looks better when surveying likely voters rather than just registered voters, he still loses Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, even if he wins Michigan.

This comes after a Monmouth University poll showed Biden losing to Donald Trump — despite the fact that he tends to win with “double-haters,” voters who are unhappy about the Biden-Trump rematch.

Biden and his campaign have consistently responded to bad polling news by brushing it off. Geoff Garin, the Biden campaign pollster, did just this in a statement after the most recent poll.

“The reality is that many voters are not paying close attention to the election and have not started making up their minds — a dynamic also reflected in today’s poll,” he said in a statement provided to The Independent. “These voters will decide this election and only the Biden campaign is doing the work to win them over.”

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 9: U.S. President Joe Biden seems not to be swearing the low poll numbers. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

This is a common refrain from the Biden campaign: voters are not paying attention. It’s only May, and once voters realize that the choice is between Biden and Trump, they will come around to vote for Biden.

Other times, Biden’s team has outright dismissed the polls as wrong. In the most recent survey, 58 per cent preferred Trump on the economy. But In an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Biden said, “We’ve already turned it around” and then added that “the polling data has been wrong all along.”

Of course, this is not to say that polls are entirely infallible. Team Biden has reasons to be skeptical.

The Times/Siena poll showed Biden trailing Trump by double digits in Nevada, a state every Democratic presidential candidate since Barack Obama won, that also has two Democratic senators. Nevada has historically been difficult to poll, which is why most political prognosticators tend to prefer looking at early voting numbers.

The same polls showed voters support Democratic Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Arizona. That is hard to fathom in an era where split-ticket voting — that is to say, voting for different parties for president and other offices like House and Senate — has declined significantly in the past decade. Indeed, Democrats are fretting about potentially losing Senate seats in Ohio and Montana, both states Trump won twice, and they are all but guaranteed to lose Senator Joe Manchin’s seat after Manchin announced his retirement.

The Biden campaign is also correct that other surveys show Biden winning. Earlier this month, an ABC News/Ipsos poll showed him beating Trump nationally by four points among likely voters.

But beyond the numerous holes that can be picked into individual surveys, Biden has consistently benefited from many of the elite press and Democratic consulting class frequently writing him off.

Biden was the long-shot candidate from his first Senate campaign in 1972, when he beat an incumbent Republican the same year Richard Nixon won in Delaware. That led to him spending 36 years in the job. Similarly, he parlayed his 2008 presidential campaign into becoming Obama’s running mate, which turned him into an indispensable part of the administration.

All the while, he has regularly been dismissed as garrulous, gaffe-prone and overly gregarious. The same folksy quality that endears him to many voters makes some in the political class bristle.

In 2016, he passed on running for president. While he decided against it partly because he and his family were still grieving the loss of his son Beau, the other reason was that much of the Democratic Party felt Hillary Clinton was more qualified. A lot of those insiders subtly discouraged him from running (for what it’s worth, his 2016 Democratic National Convention speech was one of the most thundering and effective critiques of Trump I’ve ever seen).

The same dynamic came into play in the 2020 Democratic primary. Much of the Democratic class saw him as a relic of an old time. His penchant for getting too physically close to women made him seem unsuitable for a post-MeToo Democratic Party (to say nothing of his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings). Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren were treated as the shiny new toys.

Then he busted their expectations: Harris didn’t make it to the primaries; Black voters never trusted Buttigieg; and Warren failed to have enough of a voting base. All the while, good ol’ Joe triumphed because of his deep ties to traditional constituencies in the Democratic Party.

All of this means Biden has plenty of reason to brush off the stuffed shirts. But this time is different. For much of the 2020 campaign, Biden consistently beat Trump in the polls, which was the main reason Democratic primary voters picked him and set aside their own policy ambitions.

And if anything, Biden underperformed expectations, despite still winning.

But now, Biden continues to trail Trump. Yet his campaign remains sanguine. This sense of calm can at some times be reassuring as everyone else in the Democratic Party worries about another Trump term. But at a time when the threat of said Trump return is immeasurably high and Trump continues to use increasingly authoritarian rhetoric, it can come off as blithe ignorance.

Looking for a long-read about the weirder side of US politics? Read John Bowden’s Followed home, frozen out the party and driven abroad: How one state’s politics went way too far’

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