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Biden trails Trump in key battleground states, polls find

First Read is your briefing from the NBC News Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
President Biden Delivers Remarks From The White House On His Administration's Handling Of The Economy
President Biden at the White House on Oct. 23, 2023.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Happening this Monday: Israel says it’s split Gaza into two… Ukraine’s Zelenskyy, in interview on “Meet the Press,” rejects possible peace negotiations with Russia… President Biden, in Delaware, discusses the economy and rail transportation at 1:15 pm ET… Donald Trump takes the stand in civil fraud trial in New York… Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds officially endorses Ron DeSantis at event in Des Moines, NBC’s Dasha Burns reports… And Tim Scott campaign memo argues — ahead of Wednesday’s debate — that the has the “conservative credentials” and “optimistic vision” GOP voters want.

But FIRST… The assumption has been that 2024, ultimately, will be a referendum on Donald Trump if he wins the GOP presidential nomination. 

And that could very well remain true a year from now — given all the criminal indictments, the multiple trials, that mugshot and even Trump taking the stand today in New York.

Yet battleground-state polls released from the New York Times and Siena College on Sunday raise a different possibility. 

What if 2024 is more a referendum on President Joe Biden? 

In the polls, Trump leads Biden in Arizona (49% to 44%), Georgia (49% to 43%), Michigan (48% to 43%), Nevada (52% to 41%) and Pennsylvania (48% to 44%), while Biden is narrowly ahead in Wisconsin (47% to 45%).  

More than that, however, the surveys show Vice President Kamala Harris and a generic Democratic nominee faring better against Trump than Biden does, especially among younger voters and voters of color. 

Now it’s one set of polls (in fact, our Sept. 2023 NBC News poll found how Trump galvanizes his opposition, including among those who have reservations about Biden). The general election is still a year away. The war in Gaza appears to have hurt Biden’s standing with Dem voters (see here and here). And we’re about to embark on months of Trump legal drama. 

Still, the New York Times/Siena poll — as well as other surveys out there — show Biden in dangerous territory for an incumbent president.

One year from election day, Biden’s approval rating is lower than Barack Obama’s was, and it’s lower than Donald Trump’s was, too.

Headline of the day

The number of the day is … 74%

That’s the share of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers who say that it is “extremely important” for GOP presidential candidates to be able to beat President Joe Biden, according to the latest release from the NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.

Of nine candidate qualities mentioned to voters, the ability to beat Biden was the most popular one.

Other qualities that were important to Iowa GOP voters include the belief in a strong American role in world affairs and being the “adult in the room,” both of which had over 50% of likely caucusgoers rating those qualities as “extremely important.”

The latest release from the poll came just hours before Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis for president, per NBC’s Dasha Burns and Abigail Brooks. Reynolds’ endorsement also comes just days before the third Republican presidential primary debate and three months ahead of the Iowa Republican caucuses.

DeSantis is one of several candidates — including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — who are campaigning with a heavy focus on Iowa. Still, former President Donald Trump holds a commanding lead among likely Republican caucusgoers in the state, with 43% of voters listing him as their first choice to win the nomination. 

Eyes on 2024: Virginia to test Youngkin’s message and political power 

Tuesday’s legislative elections in Virginia will provide key tests for both parties’ messaging ahead of 2024, as well as the state’s GOP governor. 

“I think they’re the most important elections in America because these issues that are so important to Virginians are also the ones that are going to be so important to Americans next year,” Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

The battles for the state House of Delegates, which Republicans control, and the state Senate, which Democrats control, could come down to a handful of districts. And they’ll test Youngkin’s own political power as he’s brushed off questions about his presidential ambitions.

NBC’s Gary Grumbach and Katherine Koretski caught up with Youngkin over the weekend while he was campaigning in the Senate’s competitive 10th District, where GOP state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant is running against Democrat Schuyler Van Valkenburg. 

Youngkin did not bring up abortion, a top issue in competitive races. Youngkin has supported a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and he told NBC News that “all these people know where we stand. These are the issues that I think people are most concerned about — we are most concerned about jobs, inflation, runaway inflation, safe communities, and quality education.”

The Virginia elections have also seen last-ditch efforts to gin up enthusiasm and win over swing voters. Grumbach reports that the state is sending out tax rebates ahead of Tuesday’s election. And on the Democratic side, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris endorsed 23 Democratic candidates on Saturday.

In other campaign news … 

Rural worries: NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez, Julia Jester and Megan Lebowitz explore Democrats’ struggles to win over rural voters, writing that ”the improving economy remains a tough sell for Biden to rural voters, who already are voting in larger numbers for Republicans.“

Wolverine State worries: As Biden has voiced support for Israel in its war against Hamas, Biden’s support among Muslim and Arab Democrats in Michigan has “cratered” according to a new poll, per NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald. 

Debate watch: The Republican National Committee raised the thresholds for GOP candidates to qualify for the fourth debate on Dec. 6, per the New York Times. The new qualifications include garnering a minimum of 80,000 donors and reaching the 6% threshold in two qualifying national polls, or one national poll and one early state poll.

Cloudy skies for DeSantis: A Florida Republican Party event over the weekend underscores how Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis is “not only losing the presidential race but also his grip on the Florida GOP grassroots base that helped him secure re-election just one year ago,” writes NBC’s Matt Dixon. 

Behind closed doors: NBC’s Jonathan Allen, Ali Vitali and Megan Lebowitz delve into former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s paid private speeches, noting that she did not keep records of what she said to the groups. 

What’s in a name: The term “Bidenomics” to describe the president’s economic agenda “mystifies Americans and confounds even its namesake,” write NBC’s Peter Nicholas, Megan Lebowitz and Carol E. Lee

Looking back: The New York Times chronicled South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott’s 1996 state Senate run, where he challenged a sitting Democratic state senator in a majority Black district and lost.

Doubling down on anti-vaccine rhetoric: Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. “came home” to his anti-vaccine roots at an event last week, per NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny, saying he would direct federal agencies to take “a break” from studying infectious diseases, like Covid-19 and measles, if he is elected president.

He’s running: Former GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, who lost his primary last year to a Trump-backed challenger, announced Monday that he is running in Michigan’s open Senate race

A Democrat who’s not campaigning on abortion: Some Democrats in Mississippi are struggling to justify their vote for Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley in the upcoming gubernatorial election, because he joins GOP Gov. Tate Reeves in supporting the state’s sweeping abortion ban.

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

U.S. and European officials have started to broach the topic of peace negotiations with Russia, Senior U.S. officials tell NBC News’ Courtney Kube, Carol E. Lee and Kristen Welker. 

A Trump-era move to expand the interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include “discrimination rooted in anti-Semitism” could result in a flood of student legal claims against universities in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

At a speech in Iowa, Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., accused Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., of secretly running for president, despite Newsom saying he fully supports Biden’s re-election bid, NBC’s Jillian Frankel and Alex Tabet report.