Looking at a New Poll

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There’s a bit of a collective freakout this morning, at least in some quarters, about a new Times/Siena poll showing a tied race (link to crosstabs) between President Biden and Donald Trump in a 2024 rematch — a rematch which as we’ve discussed is almost a certainty. They’re currently tied at 43%. The upshot is that this shows a closer race than the 2020 election and, in the words of Times polling guru Nate Cohn, “to the extent the survey suggests a slightly closer race than four years ago, it appears mostly attributable to modest Trump gains among Black, Hispanic, male and low-income voters.” These days when a media organization invests in a big poll they really go to town with it, producing multiple articles. Here’s Cohn’s take on it. Here’s another focusing on the fact that Biden has consolidated Democratic support significantly since last year.

I’m still working through these numbers. But I wanted to share a few reactions and perhaps an outline guide to making sense of them.

First, a lot of this is about assumptions one brings to what the poll should say. For many it’s simply a shock to see this as a tight race when the economy seems to be improving and we have almost daily reminders about the degree of Trump’s criminality. The only thing I can say to this is to drop that assumption because it’s a bad one going into the 2024 race. By every measure this is set to be a replay of the 2016 and 2020 elections. By which I mean a tight popular vote contest that is won or lost in a series of states in the upper midwest and the sunbelt.

What’s the story with Trump appearing to make modest but real gains among Black and Hispanic voters? My sense is that there’s a sliver of this driven by Democrats’ attachment to “woke” language and mindsets about race and race’s role in American society — an attachment held by college-educated voters across races, but one that seems alien even to many non-white voters. But gender seems like the bigger driver. The appeal of dominance-driven, authoritarian politics which gives Republicans such an advantage among white men (and vice versa with Democrats) affects Black and Hispanic men too, just to a much lesser degree. It’s also important to remember that we’re looking at very small differences here and the sample sizes are quite small.

This poll also shows a pattern we’ve seen in other recent polls. Among voters who don’t like Biden or Trump, more opt to vote for Biden. But here the bump Biden gets from assigning those leaners to his column is modest. Cohn does some additional number crunching, reassigning voters based on how they actually voted in 2020 or using only those who actually voted in 2020 and 2022. In both cases the experiment gives Biden a two-point lead. That’s sorta good. But the past two elections would suggest a tiny popular vote lead like that would mean a Trump electoral college majority.

The most glaring finding of this poll is one mirrored in all recent polls: the country has seen up close a lawless authoritarian model of government and is ready to vote for it again. Twice impeached, multiply indicted, promising a more consistently authoritarian round two — a big minority of the country is ready to sign on for that.

For myself, I remain guardedly optimistic about the outcome of the 2024 election. Here are my reasons, ones in which I do my best to set aside any assumptions or beliefs about what should be happening.

We’re almost 16 months out from the 2024 election which this poll shows as roughly a tie. We seem to have an economy which is improving and a Trump legal situation which is deteriorating. It seems very likely to me that the upshot of those two things is a net advantage to Biden. The question is just how much. We’re already seeing a growing consolidation of Democrats around Biden, which is what you’d expect as the election grows closer, the certainty of his renomination becomes clearer and the outlook for the economy gets better. The other thing these numbers or rather the top line numbers don’t take into account are key salient issues, especially abortion. This poll shows 61% of voters think abortion should be always or mostly legal versus 32% who think the opposite. Democrats need to get that issue more directly on the ballot, either through literal ballot measures or by campaigning on very concrete abortion rights deliverables. That is a vote driver quite apart from what people think of either Biden or Trump.

The danger I see in this poll isn’t so much the tie or near-tie topline number. It’s that most of those 14 percent who didn’t pick either candidate said they’d either vote for another candidate or not vote at all. Most of those people likely won’t be saying the same thing next October. That’s just how general elections work. But it doesn’t always turn out like that, and 14% is such a large number that even if many of those people pick between the major party candidates, a lot of voters will remain in that category. As I and many others have been arguing for months, Trump’s real path back to the White House is an election in which one or two third party candidates pull enough support out of the two party column to allow Trump to win with 45% to 47% of the vote. That’s how Donald Trump wins. Thats why Republicans are already spending so much money on RFK Jr., the No Labels committee and, eventually, in all likelihood, Marianne Williamson and Cornell West.

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