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Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Biden and the Democrats are sleepwalking into a potential Trump win | Osita Nwanevu | The Guardian

Biden and the Democrats are sleepwalking into a potential Trump win | Osita Nwanevu

"Barring an act from a God, who has seemingly forsaken the American electorate, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will, again, be the Republican and Democratic candidates for president. Tuesday’s results all but assure that, and they can’t really have been a surprise to anyone who has paid close attention to the campaign thus far.

In fairness, most Americans still haven’t tuned in, nor many Democrats, who have spent much of the last year hoping against hope that one or more verdicts against Trump in the courts might hand them the election ⁠– and perhaps even put Trump behind bars before November. That was always a risky bet, but now the supreme court has put the trial over his attempted coup in 2020 on hold, while the other cases against him have uncertain timelines.

Meanwhile, Biden’s team and Democratic officials have been telling the press that Biden’s replacement on the ticket isn’t any likelier. The race, they insist, is already on.

Who’s ahead? All but a handful of high-quality national polls taken since January say it’s Trump. A New York Times poll fairly representative of the rest that drew a significant amount of media attention over the weekend put Trump ahead by five points, 48-43%, among registered voters. That’s the largest lead Trump has held in a Times poll since he launched his first presidential campaign in 2015.

Meanwhile, Biden, more unpopular than ever, sits at an approval rating of 38%. Ten per cent of those who voted for him in 2020 now say they will vote for Trump. And the demographic picture the poll paints is dire ⁠– not only for Biden but perhaps for the Democratic party as a whole.

Biden led strongly with women in 2020 and is now evidently tied with Trump among them; Biden won an estimated 72% of minorities without college degrees last time around and now leads by a mere six points, 47-41%. And while making broad demographic pronouncements on the basis of one poll is unwise, these results are roughly in keeping with some other data.

In Michigan for instance, where much of the focus last week was on the uncommitted vote against Biden in that state’s primary, Biden has generally been polling under 70% with that state’s crucial Black electorate, which he won with over 90% of the vote, according to exit polls, in 2020. Deficits like that with previously strong Democratic constituencies go some way towards explaining why Biden, at present, seems to be losing in every swing state given current polling.

The Biden campaign’s response to these numbers has been simple: all of the polls are wrong. “Polling continues to be at odds with how Americans vote, and consistently overestimates Donald Trump while underestimating President Biden,” Biden’s communications director, Michael Tyler, said over the weekend in a statement. “Whether it’s in special elections or in the presidential primaries, actual voter behavior tells us a lot more than any poll does and it tells a very clear story: Joe Biden and Democrats continue to outperform while Donald Trump and the party he leads are weak, cash-strapped and deeply divided.”

As Tyler and his colleagues surely know, though, the point about “actual voter behavior” is wrong. Primary election results are not very indicative of how strong candidates will be in a general election; if they were, Trump, who didn’t even win a majority of the Republican primary vote in 2016, never would have been president. And there’s basically zero relationship between results in special elections like the one Democrats just won in New York ⁠– which involve small, unrepresentative electorates in small, unrepresentative places ⁠– and presidential election results.

As flawed as they might be, general election polls are our surest guide to how the general electorate is feeling about the general election. In fact, as the political scientist David Faris noted recently, the leader at this point of the year in Real Clear Politics’ average of polls has gone on to win the election in every race since 2004 other than 2004 itself, with only a few points worth of difference between the margin and the final result.

In 2004, the exception, Kerry and Bush were virtually tied in early March, around 44-44%, while Bush went on to win the popular vote by just over two points. And even that exception is reflective of a trend that can’t be of much comfort to Democrats ⁠– in every race since 2004 save 2008’s post-crash election, the Democratic candidate has performed slightly worse in November than polls at this point in the year have suggested.

All told, we have every reason to believe that the hole Biden is in is real, as unfair as it might seem to his supporters. As rosily as they might evaluate his record in office so far, it looks substantially more mixed now than it did six months ago. It’s true that the economy is roaring by all available macroeconomic metrics and that Democrats under Biden have managed to pass the most expansive domestic policy agenda of any president since at least Lyndon Johnson.

But it’s also true that voters have been stung by high prices and interest rates, as well as the expiration of pandemic relief programs. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was brave and laudable ⁠– both morally and strategically overdue. But he was hammered for it in the press and now faces a progressive insurrection over the US’s support for Israel’s inhumane offensive in Gaza so severe that the campaign is reportedly reducing large in-person events to avoid protesters.

And on immigration, still at the front of mind for many voters, Biden has functionally conceded that Trump has been right about the state of the border; while immigrants are less prone to crime than the native-born population and substantially responsiblefor the economic boom we’re experiencing, Democrats are trying their best to outflank the right on border security and asylum, to little effect thus far, rather than countering the racist myths Trump has propagated directly and focusing on a positive immigration reform agenda.

Most voters haven’t plugged into these policy debates; Biden wears his greatest liability to them on his face. According to the New York Times’ poll, 73% of registered voters, including 61% of voters who backed Biden in 2020, say he’s too old to effectively serve as president.

And as much as Democrats might want to blame the media for that perception in the wake of the Robert Hur report, this is a problem many of them foresaw themselves during the last campaign. “If Biden is elected he’s going to be 82 years old in four years and he won’t be running for reelection,” one campaign adviser told Politico’s Ryan Lizza flatly in 2019; according to Lizza, four sources close to Biden at the time told him that it was “virtually inconceivable” that he would mount another campaign.

Yet here we are ⁠– sitting between a Super Tuesday that Biden swept and what could be the most consequential State of the Union address in some time, given the opportunity it presents for the president both to demonstrate his lucidity and to outline, at long last, an actual plan for his next term. Previews of the speech suggest it will feature now familiar language about protecting democracy and “making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share”, along with some proposals on the opioid epidemic and veteran care.

But Biden will have to do substantially better than that to get his campaign right side up. Plainly, he’s become a symbol of our political system’s decrepitude ⁠– a stand-in for all the old men in Washington who voters believe, rightfully, can’t or won’t do much to dramatically improve their lives. He’ll have to prove to voters that he’s capable of both dreaming and doing ⁠– to sell an ambitious vision of further material progress over the next four years, not woolly rhetoric about ending polarization and bringing serenity back to politics that will leave him looking dishonest and even more ineffectual when the tenor of political life remains the same, as it surely will.

Whether or not Democrats control Congress will naturally constrain whether Biden makes good on that policy agenda; but having a compelling agenda in the offing to begin with might lift the candidates he’ll depend upon in his next term to victory. All that aside, faith in Biden’s capacity to lead and accomplish will rest in some part on whether and when the situation in Gaza comes to a peaceable resolution ⁠– getting a handle on the situation and pressuring Netanyahu into ending the war would be a significant turning point in his presidency.

There and elsewhere, Biden needs to find a new course. Otherwise, the election may be over before he realizes it.

  • Osita Nwanevu is a Guardian US columnist"

Biden and the Democrats are sleepwalking into a potential Trump win | Osita Nwanevu | The Guardian

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