The prevailing conventional wisdom about an increasingly likely Biden-Trump rematch in 2024 is that a deeply alienated electorate will weigh fears about the incumbent’s age and alleged incapacity against fears about the 45th president’s authoritarianism and alleged crimes. Predictions of the outcome vary from a Biden second term based on precisely the same factors that led to his narrow victory in 2020 to a Trump second term based on depressed Democratic turnout and a metronomic rejection of the current incumbent by unhappy swing voters.
But the comparison that my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti described earlier this year as old versus crazy may not tell the whole story, two highly influential new national polls suggest. The drag on Joe Biden’s reelection prospects may have as much to do with persistently dark perceptions of the economy as with concerns about a president who would turn 86 before a second term ended.
The latest ABC/Washington Post survey of the presidential contest probably affected a lot of fearful Democratic political junkies like an electric cattle prod plunged into their Sunday-morning bathwater. The top-line numbers showing Trump leading Biden by 52 percent to 42 percent among registered voters represented a hair-raising departure from the very close general-election contest most polls have recently documented; indeed, the Post described its own poll as a probable outlier. (The last ABC/WaPo survey in May gave Trump a six-point lead, which also raised eyebrows.)
Yet some of the poll’s internal findings arguably should worry Team Biden as much as the horse-race numbers, suggesting that voters are not at all internalizing expert analysis of a steadily improving economy, as ABC’s pollster Gary Langer explains:
Forty-four percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say they’ve gotten worse off financially under Biden’s presidency, the most for any president in ABC/Post polls since 1986. Just 37% approve of his job performance, while 56% disapprove. Still fewer approve of Biden’s performance on the economy, 30%.
The poll finds widespread unhappiness with the economy even on metrics that objectively would tend to indicate recent improvement. Only 35 percent of voters consider the current unemployment rate “excellent” or “good;” 57 percent rated it “not so good” or “poor.” But it’s prices that are really causing Biden problems, Langer notes:
The poll probed for details on that sentiment, finding two major irritants: food prices, rated negatively (as not so good or poor) by 91%; and gas and energy prices, rated negatively by 87%.
The same “irritants” are very evident in a new NBC News poll that shows Biden and Trump tied in a general-election trial heat:
What … stands out in the poll are the warning signs for Biden beyond his age — including an all-time high disapproval of his job performance, fewer than 4 in 10 voters approving of his handling of the economy and lagging interest in the election among key parts of the Democratic base.
Both the ABC/WaPo and NBC polls indicate that Biden is dangerously unpopular among younger voters. The former shows Trump actually leading him among those aged 18 to 35 by a 53 percent to 38 percent margin; NBC News notes his job-approval rating is underwater with the same group.
Trump, of course, arouses major concerns among a majority of voters, as he has since he first began running for president in 2015. But something odd seems to be happening to his benefit as a by-product of current unhappiness with the economy, as ABC’s Langer observes:
When he reluctantly left office in January 2021, 38% approved of his work as president, essentially the same as Biden’s rating now. But currently, looking back, 48% say they approve of Trump’s performance when he was in office — matching his peak as president. Essentially as many — 49% — now disapprove, down from 60% when he left the White House.
Comparison with Biden may be a factor. Among the 56% of Americans who disapprove of Biden’s work in office, a wide 75% say that, looking back, they approve of Trump.
It seems that a significant share of voters are buying Trump’s argument that he built a sensational economy before COVID and then the 2020 election, interrupted his fine work. The Trump “boom,” of course, was arguably just a situation he inherited from Barack Obama. But to Americans who have been disgruntled with the economy since the pandemic unhinged it, the early Trump years look good in retrospect (indeed, even the early COVID years under Trump left many voters flush with stimulus checks). This way of viewing the economy also robs Biden of credit for incremental improvements in economic conditions during his presidency. If voters mainly want to know if they are better off now than in 2020 rather than in 2022, the answer can change from positive to negative quite decisively.
Yes, it’s entirely possible there is simply a lag in public perceptions of the economy, which will become brighter at precisely the right moment for Biden if runaway inflation doesn’t return and the economy avoids a recession. But on the other hand, as New York’s Eric Levitz recently noted, there are potential economic storms on the horizon that could harden or even intensify unhappy-voter perceptions. The odds of even higher energy costs (including gasoline-pump prices) largely beyond the administration’s control is just one vote-killing peril to keep in mind.
Economic jitters don’t, moreover, displace concerns about Biden’s age, which remain very real; in fact, the fear that Biden may be unable to respond appropriately to economic problems, or won’t be in a position to push Democrats toward sensible policies, makes the “age issue” even more compelling. Negative attitudes toward Biden’s job performance in other areas, notably immigration, are also problematic.
In the end, of course, Trump has more potential problems than anyone who has won a major-party presidential nomination in living memory, and “crazy” could lose to “old” and “incompetent” even if Biden remains dangerously unpopular for an incumbent. But the incumbent’s challenge in selling Bidenomics really is becoming urgent. If swing voters look at Trump and mainly experience warm memories of peace and prosperity rather than images of insurrectionists besieging the U.S. Capitol, a second Trump administration will become much more likely.