The devastating verdict voters deliver on President Joe Biden in a new CNN poll is especially stark ahead of the most unprecedented election in modern times. Fourteen months before his fate is decided, Biden’s unpopularity may be brewing the only possible conditions in which a disgraced and anti-democratic ex-president, who might be a convicted felon by Election Day, would be able to squeeze back into power.
It begs the question of how GOP front-runner Donald Trump, whose administration was a four-year cacophony of chaos, scandal and fury, and who tried to cling to power after losing the 2020 election, could be locked in a statistical tie (47% to 46% among registered voters) with Biden after facing 91 criminal charges across four cases.
The chief rationale behind Biden’s bid for a second term is that he is the best positioned Democrat to beat Trump again. But unless political conditions change significantly in the coming months, that narrative may be in doubt.
If the president goes on to lose reelection to Trump – or any other Republican – the warning signs contained in the CNN poll, which mirrors his troubles in other recent surveys but goes far deeper on reasons for his malaise, will have foreshadowed the story of his downfall.
The survey, conducted by SSRS and released on Thursday, paints a picture of a pessimistic and divided nation that is far from experiencing the return to normality that had been promised in 2020 by Biden – a president the country finds neither inspiring nor worthy of confidence.
Biden has frequently been underestimated. And a national poll so far ahead of an election that will be won in a handful of tight battleground states can never predict how it will turn out. There’s an added caveat in 2024: Trump’s multiple looming trials could reshape the electoral terrain significantly.
Yet the findings nevertheless pose dilemmas that Democrats have so far been unwilling to confront. They include the question of whether an 80-year-old president with a 39% approval rating is really the party’s strongest bet for next year’s election. The poll contains sufficient data to suggest that voters doubt Biden, who has been on the Washington stage for a half century, has the energy to turn his political standing around – as did Democrats like Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama after embarking on what looked like treacherous reelection races.
The poll also poses the implicit question of whether Biden will end up like Jimmy Carter, who tumbled out of office after a single term and is the only commander in chief who had a worse approval rating in the third August of his administration than Biden. Much is written about Trump’s control of the GOP. But Biden’s grip on his own party – manifested by the unwillingness of any significant party figures to risk their own futures by challenging him – remains unshaken.
The CNN poll and other snapshots of public opinion will come as a gut punch for a White House that has had an industrious term by comparison with recent administrations. Biden passed the kind of sweeping bipartisan infrastructure law that had eluded many predecessors. He took office amid the worst public health crisis in 100 years, which had been botched by Trump, and helped nurture an economic recovery. With the republic reeling after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, he sought to stabilize the country’s democracy. Biden has sought to unleash an industrial reawakening, has lifted millions of kids out of poverty and is seeking to broaden access to health care and some key prescription drugs. And he has revived the Western alliance in mustering support for Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in the most striking display of transatlantic leadership since President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War.
Yet he’s not getting credit for much of it, despite efforts to parlay historic jobs data and a dip in inflation as a great success.
The poll leaves an indelible impression that Biden’s age – and a sense that he is far less robust in mind and body since he took office – are overshadowing his achievements. Only 26% say he has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as commander in chief. And 76% of Americans say they are seriously concerned his age could affect his ability to serve out a full term if reelected.
The data in the poll also helps explain why there is so little incentive for Republicans who trail Trump by massive margins to get out of the primary. Anything that forces the front-runner from the race would leave most of them locked in a tight margin-of-error duel with the incumbent. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who makes barely a ripple with GOP voters, is best placed to consign Biden to the ignominious one-term presidency club – in part because of her stronger support among White college-educated voters than other Republicans. That Haley leads Biden 49% to 43% in a hypothetical matchup but is stuck in the single digits in primary polls underscores how the GOP is still more beholden to its base than the general electorate.
But by definition in a 50-50 nation, a president facing majority disapproval across a slate of issues must be alienating independents. Those voters break for Biden over Trump, but the president gets poor marks from the cohort. Such vulnerability might encourage anyone mulling a third-party bid for the presidency – like strategists with No Labels, who held an event featuring West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin over the summer. The group says it will only field a candidate if there’s a chance of victory. But analysts warn that a third-party candidate could doom a weakened Biden and help Trump win a non-consecutive second term if he is the Republican nominee.
The CNN poll conducted between August 25-31 has few silver linings for Biden, even if 44% of voters feel that any Democratic candidate would be a better choice than Trump. Some 58% of those polled say that the president’s policies have made economic conditions worse. Only 33% describe him as someone they are proud to have as president. And the discontent runs deep even among his own party – with 67% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters saying the party should nominate someone else, though that number represents a tick down from the 75% who thought so last summer. Still, 82% of those who’d prefer another candidate don’t have any specific alternative in mind. This may reflect the apparent paucity of the Democratic bench, the low profile of new generation party leaders, or on the performance of Vice President Kamala Harris.
On a day when it emerged that a special counsel intends to indict Biden’s son, Hunter, relating to gun charges, the poll also hints at the damage Republican efforts to link the president to his son’s business activities may he having. Their tactics may be designed to distract from Trump’s far greater legal exposure. But 61% of those polled think Joe Biden was involved in those dealings while he was vice president, although only 42% think he acted illegally. (Republicans have offered no concrete proof of wrongdoing by the president.)
The best case for Biden’s reelection is that he’s running against Trump, whom he beat in 2020 and who may have to spend more time in court next year in his quartet of criminal trials than on the campaign trail.
But the fact that there’s no clear leader in the hypothetical matchup between them must especially concern Democrats since generally, the party’s nominee requires a slightly higher margin in the popular vote than the Republican to win the presidency due to the vagaries of the Electoral College. Even if Democrats discount the findings of a single poll, plenty of other surveys and anecdotal data suggests the liberal conventional wisdom that Americans could never elect Trump again is misplaced.
Of course, Trump’s clear liabilities with millions of voters could become even more pronounced when he actually goes on trial, and potentially if he is convicted in one of the cases in which he has pleaded not guilty. Even the possible return of the ex-president to full national prominence in the 2024 campaign might remind many voters – especially moderates in swing states – of the volcanic character traits, lies and autocratic impulses that convinced them to kick him out of office three years ago.
Democrats might also look back with hope at last year’s midterm elections, when Biden’s strategy of running against Trump when he was not directly on the ballot was far more successful than pundits expected and quelled a Republican red wave. And the idea of a democracy on the brink might be a far more tangible motivator for voters if Trump is on the verge of regaining power. In fact, Biden’s best shot may lie in his capacity to make the election a referendum on the trauma and disruption that a second Trump term might bring.
Yet, while Trump has shattered every ritual in politics, one convention might hold firm. Reelection races typically unfold as a referendum on the previous four years under the incumbent. Biden will not just be judged by comparison to Trump – as he was four years ago with the country staggering through a pandemic. His own record will be on the ballot this time. Unless he can raise that 39% approval rating by 10 points, he will be in trouble. If there’s a GOP upset and some other candidate besides Trump wins the nomination, Biden could be even more exposed.
And it is a daunting truth that some of Biden’s biggest liabilities seem hard to fix.
The one thing he cannot change is his age – which will likely be an even greater factor next year, when he will turn 82 weeks after the election. Aging is a painful subject for everyone, let alone a person who is in the public spotlight. (Trump, who will be 78 when voters cast ballots next November, has endured less scrutiny on this front.) The health and mental acuity of the president is going to play a more prominent role in this election than any previous one in US history. Biden has been certified fit for office by his physicians, but there are doubts over whether he will be able to maintain the kind of rigorous campaign trial schedule that is often adopted by incumbent presidents running for reelection. Any failure to do so, or even a minor health blip, will be used as proof of infirmity by opponents who already ruthlessly pounce on any misstatement, stumble or senior moment to argue Biden’s too old.
Then there’s another liability: the economy.
In a polarized age, the idea that every presidential election turns on the economy might not be as reliable as it once was. But Biden’s weak spots as revealed in the poll may be as difficult to repair as questions about his age and mental fitness. By most measures, the economy is doing well. Unemployment is near historic lows. Inflation, which was raging a year ago at some of the highest levels since the 1980s, has stabilized. And life is far closer to normal than it has been since the Covid-19 emergency. Americans are traveling again in vast numbers again, for instance.
Yet Biden is not benefiting from the kind of “Morning in America” moment that helped return President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Some 70% of those polled think things in the country are going badly. Only 49% of Democrats think things are going well. Biden retains control of the key Democratic coalitions but the question is how motivated his base will be to show up.
While the White House can point to indicators that show an improved economy, life is still tough for many Americans. High interest rates introduced by the Federal Reserve to fight inflation have made it hard for many to buy a house, move or purchase a new vehicle. Small businesses that rely on borrowing are seeing profit margins squeezed. Food prices still seem high and gasoline prices are going up again.
Despite the extraordinary liabilities Trump would carry into any general election as the GOP nominee, Biden has plenty of his own – one reason why the 2024 election is likely to be just as close as their previous clash.