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The ‘lesser of two evils’ voters who could decide 2024

Voters who “somewhat disapprove” of President Joe Biden’s performance are uncomfortable with his two main potential GOP rivals in the general election.
Biden Approval Ratings
President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on Friday.Susan Walsh / AP

President Joe Biden’s path to victory in 2024 runs through voters who think he’s been a disappointment in the White House — but say Donald Trump or another Republican would be even worse.

Biden’s approval rating stands at 43% in the latest NBC News national poll, not enough support to translate to a re-election win. But another 10% of registered voters say they only “somewhat disapprove” of Biden’s performance. And in a hypothetical rematch with Trump, half of those voters say they would support Biden, while 39% say they would back Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fares better with those voters, but he only fights Biden to a draw.

The poll’s margin of error for this subsample of voters is a wide plus-or-minus 10 points — yet even within that gaping range, the result highlights deeply unusual behavior of a voter group that typically breaks hard against the president’s party in elections, according to national exit polls. 

But in the recent 2022 midterms, when voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden made up about 10% of the electorate, according to NBC News exit polling, they supported Democrats by a 4-point margin. That helped Democrats limit their House losses and even expand their Senate majority in Biden's first midterm.

The data show how concerns about Republican candidates and the GOP broadly kept Democrats competitive in the last election and are keeping Biden competitive in the next one, even though voters harbor their own concerns about him. That’s backed up by poll respondents’ own words when they were asked to describe why they would choose Biden over Trump or DeSantis.

“Donald Trump is nuts,” said a self-described white, female, moderate respondent from Pennsylvania, who said she’d choose Biden despite somewhat disapproving of his performance.

A Black male voter from New Mexico who is an independent said: “Donald Trump lacks moral compass. Joe Biden somewhat has a moral compass. That was it.”  

A female Hispanic liberal from Florida said about choosing Biden over DeSantis, “I would rather vote for a dead shark than the devil himself, I suppose.” Other voters described DeSantis as “extreme” or “far right,” especially on LGBTQ issues.

Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research has nicknamed the group “BOWA” Biden voters: “It’s really thinking about these voters as the ‘best of what’s around’ Biden voters,” he said.

“And that’s how they see Biden compared to Trump — he is, in fact, the best of what’s around,” said Horwitt, who conducted the NBC News poll with GOP pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

This group of voters tends to be younger, and they are slightly more likely to be people of color, according to the poll. They also lean slightly Republican, with 37% identifying with the GOP and 33% identifying with the Democratic Party. Almost a quarter of them — 23% — say they are independents, nearly double the share of independents in the overall polling sample. 

Voters who say they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden say they supported Biden by 8 points over Trump in 2020. And they have intensely negative views of Trump — 48% have negative views of Biden personally, but a whopping 72% have negative feelings about Trump.

That showed through in respondents’ more detailed descriptions of their thinking. Many relayed disappointment with Biden — but disgust with Trump.

A man from California who is a self-described “very liberal” voter likened the matchup to “choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Another white woman from Texas said: “I somewhat disapprove of Biden, but I wholly disapprove of Trump. Even though I lean Republican, you could not pay me to vote for Donald Trump. I think Donald Trump is the worst thing to happen to this country in 50 years.”

The voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden appear more open to supporting DeSantis if he is the Republican nominee. In a hypothetical matchup, Biden leads that group by just 1 percentage point, with 46% backing Biden and 45% backing DeSantis — though again, the sample size remains small.

Still, that movement helps explain why Biden leads DeSantis by just 1 point among all voters in a hypothetical matchup, while he leads Trump by 4 points in their matchup. Even though that group is a small share of the electorate, their choice in 2024 is set to be crucial.

“That’s the difference between winning and losing an election,” Horwitt said.

The NBC News poll of 1,000 registered voters — 831 of whom were reached by cellphone — was conducted June 16-20 and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.