WASHINGTON — The idea is somewhere between conventional wisdom and an article of faith for Democrats: Joe Biden beat Donald Trump once, so he can do it again.
For Trump’s Republican primary challengers, most notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, that concept is a necessary predicate for convincing GOP voters to switch horses after nominating Trump twice.
But a new NBC News poll released Sunday showed Biden with a relatively narrow 49% to 45% lead over Trump — which falls within the survey’s margin of error and is far lower than the 10 percentage point edge Biden held in NBC’s last poll before the 2020 election. The new survey shows DeSantis, who is less known than Trump, tied with Biden at 47% each.
Despite an air of confidence from Biden and his team, some Democrats say they believe Trump has a very serious shot at winning back the Oval Office.
“If you think otherwise, you have literally had your head buried in the sand,” said former Rep. Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, who fell short in his bid to woo Trump-friendly voters to his side in a 2022 Senate race against JD Vance. “You’re living in a world of delusion. And it’s dangerous.”
Mandela Barnes, who lost by 25,000 votes to Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, in 2022 and has since launched a political action committee, said he'd like to see Democrats in battleground states "go on the offensive" and tout Biden's accomplishments.
“The president has a done a lot to help working people, and the threat of a Donald Trump presidency is very real," he said, adding, “It was Wisconsin that put Trump over the top in 2016. ... We take the threat very seriously."
Most of the Democrats who spoke to NBC News said they believe Trump is an easier draw for Biden than some of the other Republican challengers — if only because Trump is a known quantity.
Faiz Shakir, who ran Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said the familiarity factor means it’s easier for Biden to remind voters of the reasons they rejected Trump three years ago than it is to build a new argument against DeSantis or another lesser-known candidate.
But, he said, Trump’s political agility should not be overlooked.
Shakir pointed specifically to Trump’s maneuvering on abortion rights after the GOP’s disappointing results in the 2022 midterm elections. Trump once said women should be punished for having abortions and appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn federal abortion protections. But now, Trump says Republicans should ensure abortion prohibitions include exemptions in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the pregnant person.
“Trump is so amoral that he’s able to reinvent himself on issue after issue and deceive enough people to feel like they might give him a second look, at least in some critical battleground states,” he said. “A lot of it hinges on, are there outside events that kind of prevent him from doing the reinvention?”
Those outside events include upcoming trials in New York and Florida, a Georgia investigation into his efforts to overturn the 2020 election in that state, and a federal special counsel probe into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
At the same time, Trump’s trials and tribulations appear to have solidified his position as the favorite for the Republican nomination. The NBC News poll shows his lead over DeSantis has expanded from 15 points to 29 points since April. Trump support is now at 51%, compared with 46% then, while DeSantis’ support among Republicans has fallen from 31% to 22%. Former Vice President Mike Pence leads the rest of the crowded field with 7% in the latest survey.
Because nomination battles are fought state by state over the course of months, such national polls do not take into account how a candidate's performance in early contests can affect the rest.
“To the extent we’re not doing state polling yet is a big blind spot,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican polling expert and founding partner of Echelon Insights. He pointed to the close finishes in battlegrounds in 2020 — Biden’s Electoral College margin amounted to less than 43,000 votes spread across Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona — to demonstrate that slight changes in public opinion could have a magnified effect in November 2024.
“It wouldn’t take much to shift it in those key states,” Ruffini said.
Biden’s approval rating, which fell to 35% in a Pew Research survey released last week, has been in the same territory as Trump’s during the run-up to the 2020 election. Coupled with a series of head-to-head polls that show Biden and Trump within the margin of error, that has given some Democratic strategists reason to believe Trump remains a very viable challenger to Biden.
“What you have is statistical ties across almost every single recent poll,” said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and public opinion expert. “Are Democrats discounting the threat that Trump poses even with his series of indictments? Absolutely.”
Most political experts believe the 2024 election is likely to be close in terms of the all-important Electoral College and that the number of swing voters will be small.
Even in losing, Trump won far more votes than any Republican ever had in battlegrounds such as Arizona, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan.
It is not clear how, if at all, third-party candidacies will affect the Electoral College. Biden was helped in 2020 by a decline in third-party voting in swing states. Author and professor Cornell West has announced a bid for the presidency, and a group called No Labels is looking at promoting a candidate under its own flag.
One question, then, is whether the electorate more resembles 2016, when Trump narrowly won, or 2020, when he lost by an even smaller margin of sum votes in pivotal states.
“What we need to learn from 2016 is that some people want to hear his message and believe his message,” said Raquel Teran, the former Arizona Democratic Party chair who is now seeking a House seat.
Teran expressed optimism stemming from voters’ increased familiarity with Trump.
“There are more of us that know his message is extreme and out of touch and authoritarian, and we cannot underestimate what can happen under a Trump candidacy,” she said. “And the worst is that we cannot forget what the actual consequence [is] of having a Trump presidency.”