Time to Calmly Freak Out
Busting myths on the Biden polls so we can all calmly, and productively, freak out
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Since the New York Times broke the dam a few weeks ago, several pollsters have produced polling suggesting that Biden is trailing Trump. Social media has tried to reckon with this new reality, frequently spreading erroneous information. We are going to break through three key narratives so that we can all freak out collectively, calmly and productively.
Myth #1: Obama was trailing Romney at this point
Many Democrats (including former Speaker Pelosi) have dismissed polling showing Trump winning by claiming that Obama was trailing in 2012. Jim Messina cited polling a year out showing Obama losing to Romney by 5 points across battleground states and called polls a year out “absolute garbage.”
Fact #1: Obama consistently led Romney
It is true that Obama overperformed the polling averages and that there were 2011 polls (and headlines) blaring that “Obama would lose to generic Republican”.
Emphasis is “generic”.
One year out from the 2012 election, Obama consistently led in polls against his actual opponent, Mitt Romney.
Biden’s absolute share of the vote in the average of November polls (44.8 percent) is also lower than Obama’s at this point (45.6). And Trump has not just gained in the two-way, he has gained a larger absolute share of the vote in recent months, as the rate of undecided voters has gone down. People are not just becoming less likely to endorse Biden, they are increasingly comfortable identifying Trump as their preferred 2024 candidate.
One thing that is certainly true from 2012 is the popularity of candidate “Generic” - both Biden (losing 48% to 37%) and Trump (losing 46% to 40%) fare far worse against an unnamed opponent from the opposing party in a recent NBC poll, and others.
Myth #2: Biden’s weakness is coming from his handling of Gaza and liberal defections
The narrative has become common: Biden is losing young and Black voters and the reason is his handling of Gaza. Progressive groups like Sunrise penned a letter to the President claiming that the President’s position on Israel would lead to depressed youth turnout and the Washington Post warned that the war could cause him to lose Black voters.
Fact #2: Biden’s weakness comes from weakening support among moderates due to his handling of inflation
The reality is more complicated. As Daniel Cox notes, polls of the youngest voters show everything from a Biden -4 deficit to a Biden +25 lead and John Burn-Murdoch shows that young voter preference is strongly associated with the mode of the survey. The timing doesn’t support the Gaza war theory either – in the Real Clear Politics tracker, Trump pulled ahead in early September, before Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel. Trump was already leading by 1 point on the date of the attack (Kevin Drum finds a similar result, looking at the Biden approval data).
Rather than being driven by weakness among progressives due to foreign affairs, Biden is losing the moderate, independent voters that delivered him the 2024 election. The chart below shows the change between the high-quality Fox News polls (Fox News uses both a Democratic and a Republican firm who collaborate) taken immediately before the 2020 election and this month’s poll. The 2020 poll had Biden leading by 8 (he won by 4.5) and their most recent poll had him trailing by 1 point. As the chart shows, Biden is losing the most ground with moderate and conservative voters, not liberals.
Why? Data points to voter’s core concerns about the economy: rising prices. Internationally, incumbents are struggling because of inflation. Recent research suggests that rising prices are the largest headwind to Democratic presidential approval (more powerful than unemployment).
The Blueprint project recently conducted a survey that included large samples of both base Black voters and vote switchers, people who had at any point in the last three elections between the two major parties (people who switched to third party or non-voters were excluded from the analysis). In the Blueprint polling, both Black and vote switchers prioritized prices over jobs, with 51% of Black voters and 61% of vote switchers selecting prices as their top priority. But only 14% of Black voters and 11% of vote switchers chose jobs as their top priority.
Myth #3: To win, Biden should embrace “base mobilizing” policies like student debt cancelation
A corollary to myth #2 is that to win in 2024, Biden should mobilize the “base” of young voters and voters of color by embracing progressive policies, with ABC News claiming these voters want “action on climate change” and “are further to the left on immigration.” An NBC News coverage has focused on this lens, for example this NBC News piece citing “left-leaning voter engagement groups” and quoting an organizer who highlights “issues like climate, criminal justice reform, affirmative action, debt relief, people’s identities, reproductive rights.” The Hill reports that, “Black voters in particular have repeatedly identified their top issues as addressing white supremacy and racism, student loan forgiveness.” An Associated Press story also highlights student debt cancelation, highlighting a Biden voter for whom, “Getting her loans forgiven, both for her bachelor’s degree and a planned master’s program, is a top priority for her.”
Fact #3: To win, Biden should embrace policies that excite the actual base and swing voters
Far from needing to embrace progressive policies to appeal to Black voters, the Blueprint polling suggests that only 17% of Black voters view Biden as too conservative, similar to the 16% of vote switchers who feel that Biden is too conservative. More Black voters (27%) view Biden as too liberal than too conservative. Specifically looking at Black voters in the Blueprint poll who voted for Biden in 2020 and are not currently voting for him, 27% say he is too liberal, while 45% say he is too conservative. Crucial to Biden’s victory in 2020 (and, of course, to an encore next year): A clear majority, 56%, of Black voters see him as “about right.” And the 34% of independents who find him not just Grampa Joe but Grampa Goldilocks didn’t hurt either.
Similarly, while there was not universal agreement among Black and vote switchers about the most popular Biden accomplishments, there was some key overlap, and none of the top five policies with Black voters had negative support among independents (and vice versa). Top testing policies (policies that appeared in the top 10 for both groups) included:
Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug pricing to lower the cost of prescription drugs
Banning companies from charging hidden or misleading “junk fees” for products and services
Passing the bipartisan CHIPS and Science bill to revitalize domestic manufacturing and create jobs
Reducing the federal deficit by $1.7 trillion
Capping insulin at $35 a month for seniors
The fact that the recent Mississippi gubernatorial election featuring the strongest Democratic performance among Black voters in decades was for a pro-life Democrat who supported George Bush in 2004 should make us question these media narratives about Black voters.
Embrace reality, with vigor
If myths are public dreams, it is time for those who who share this view of reality to wake up and counter those who have espoused and embraced the false knee-jerks to the damning polls. It is revisionist history to suggest that the Obama re-elect – one of the most fearsome campaign operations in history that used organizational expertise to salvage a damaged presidency – consistently trailed Romney in 2012.
While the war in Gaza provides a top-of-mind, leads-the-news excuse for Biden’s weaknesses, in truth voters have drawn back from the president for reasons far more deeply embedded in his own domestic policies. Further, his foremost vulnerabilities lie not among the liberal Black and young voters who provide the Democratic Party with reliable quadrennial ballast. Instead, as the chart above shows in dramatic relief, the independents and moderates who delivered the White House to Biden three years ago – and whom he needs most next year – are the ones who have retreated the most. And that trend was growing long before Gaza.
Is it time to freak out? It is definitely time for Biden to win the middle, with all hands on deck. Whatever gets you - and your fellow realists - to bring more energy to the cause is a good thing. Just do so calmly, and productively.