WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is polling even with President Joe Biden in a likely 2024 rematch, sparking mixed feelings among Democrats 14 months from Election Day. Some are alarmed by the neck-and-neck race, while Biden campaign officials and other allies downplay the recent polls as meaningless this early in the cycle.
But there’s one thing Democratic strategists agree on: An insurrection scheme and a torrent of criminal charges won’t be enough to stop the former president and runaway Republican primary front-runner from returning to the White House.
“Despite awaiting trial on 91 felony counts, Trump is a coin flip away from the presidency,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote. “Because of the Electoral College and our highly polarized politics, we should assume that every presidential election will depend on a number of voters smaller than the attendees at a Taylor Swift concert.”
A CNN poll released Thursday found Trump leading Biden by 1 point, 47% to 46%. A Wall Street Journal survey published Sept. 3 found them tied at 46% each. A New York Times/Siena College poll taken in late July found Biden and Trump tied at 43% apiece. The former president is currently polling stronger against Biden than he did at any point in 2020, when he trailed by as many as 10 points and never came within 3 points in the FiveThirtyEight average.
Pfeiffer added that the tight surveys fit “into the moderate worry category,” gleaning from the New York Times poll that Trump is currently “holding onto more of his 2020 vote than Biden.”
Two factors appear to be driving the close race. The first is apprehension within Biden’s base. While 95% of self-identified Democrats voted for Biden in 2020, the CNN poll found him winning just 87% of Democrats. The New York Times poll found Biden winning 87% of his 2020 voters, and Trump holding 91% of his. The second is that the polls show Biden significantly underperforming compared recent elections with nonwhite Americans, mainly Black and Latino voters. After winning 92% of Black voters in 2020, Biden is winning just 71% of them in the Times poll.
Polls show Biden's nonwhite support eroding
Those findings caught the attention of the Trump campaign.
Democrats “have continued to take for granted American blue-collar workers, Black Americans, and Hispanic Americans, and every other voting bloc that typically votes Democrat,” Trump campaign co-manager Chris LaCivita said.
The good news for Biden is that he’s holding his own with independents and white voters, including white college graduates.
Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina quipped that “every Democrat was calling me and losing their minds” this summer about the tight race. But he said Biden has beaten Trump before and remains the best candidate to do so again.
“There wasn’t a poll this time in 2011 that showed Barack Obama winning re-election,” Messina said Thursday on MSNBC. “I just think Democrats need to take a deep breath, realize the polls are going to suck for a little while, as they did for Barack Obama, and next year when it’s Trump versus Biden, we will win that race again.”
Still, James Carville, a former top strategist for Bill Clinton, said he finds the situation alarming.
“The polls are not great,” Carville said Thursday on CNN. “Jim Messina said Democrats need to quit bed-wetting, but my wife’s already changed me to rubber sheets.”
Matt Barreto, a political scientist and pollster with ties to Biden, who studies Latinos, said national surveys rarely capture a sufficiently large and weighted sample of Hispanic or Black voters to be representative. He added that he isn’t discounting the challenges ahead for Biden, but that it’s natural for those voters to be “frustrated with incumbents” and want progress to come faster.
“They’re not saying, ‘I hate Joe Biden and I think I need to vote Republican.’ They’re just saying they’re frustrated with some issues,” Barreto said in an interview. “We think when we fully sell the Biden plan, and the Democratic plan, more of these frustrated voters are going to side with us than to take a chance back on Trump and other Republicans.”
Biden campaign says it's not 'fretting about polls'
Biden campaign officials say the best barometer for the contest is the 2022 midterms and recent special elections, where Democrats have over-performed and held their ground in key states. The re-election campaign and party committees have yet to fully mobilize and activate voters, and, the officials said, a “massive” TV and paid media campaign is just beginning. They also note that Biden is already preparing a general election campaign while Trump is bogged down with primary rivals and legal bills.
“Coming off the President’s historic midterm performance, President Biden is delivering results, his agenda is popular with the American people, and we are mobilizing our winning coalition of voters well ahead of next year’s general election,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement. “Next year’s election will be a stark choice between President Biden and the extreme, unpopular MAGA agenda. We’ll win in 2024 by putting our heads down and doing the work, not by fretting about polls.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the polls are close because voters have “not focused on the choice yet” of Trump versus Biden.
“The more people focus on the comparison, as opposed to favorable-unfavorable on each of them, the stronger Biden will be,” he said in an interview. “Even people who support Trump’s policies — Republicans — have said to me: ‘I don’t want to see him in the White House again.’”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Democrats can move voters by selling Biden’s record — more infrastructure, manufacturing and lowering prescription drug costs. “Prices are coming down,” he added. “All the trends are in the right direction. So my strong prediction is that as people begin to feel the benefit of those initiatives in their daily lives, things will change.”
Electoral College is friendly to Trump
Trump’s allies say the polls solidify his front-runner position in the Republican primary and undercut GOP rivals and elites who argue that he has too much baggage to win a general election.
“It shows that this idea that Donald Trump can’t beat Joe Biden is a farce,” Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, a Trump ally, said in an interview. “There’s this weird idea that’s very prevalent in this building — I hate to say it, among too many of my Senate colleagues — that we lose the presidential election if Trump is the nominee.”
“Look, it’s not going to be easy. I won’t pretend that it will be. But I think he has a very good chance of becoming president again,” said the first-term senator, a former Trump critic turned loyal ally.
Part of the Democratic anxiety is due to the GOP's Electoral College advantage. In 2016, Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote by 3 million (or 2 percentage points). In 2020, Trump came within 45,000 votes across three states of getting re-elected while losing the popular vote to Biden by 7 million (or 4.5 points). Barring a massive and sudden shift in party coalitions, Biden will again need a resounding popular vote win to secure re-election.
“If the popular vote is tied, I don’t see any way that Trump doesn’t get 300 electoral votes, at least,” Vance said.
Tony Fabrizio, a longtime Trump pollster who now works for his super PAC, said he believes the ex-president will win the Electoral College as long as he finishes within 4 points of Biden nationally.
Barreto said Biden’s team will focus on those key battlegrounds.
“People are overly focused on about eight to 12 states. ... If you shift 15,000 votes in Nevada, it could have a bigger difference than shifting 500,000 votes in Pennsylvania,” he said. “What I am personally focused on is just looking at: Where do things stand in these key states and who do we need to mobilize on Election Day?”