You’ve probably heard pundits tell you to ignore polls this far out from an election. This is not advice people are taking this week as surveys keep showing President Biden and Donald Trump tied after 91 felony charges and a string of positive headlines on jobs and inflation. Voters seem more judgmental than ever about Biden’s age, while polarized along familiar lines on the charges against Trump, and even a little nostalgic for his economic record.
But there are reasons campaign professionals tend to wave off early surveys, which have notoriously overstated threats to incumbents. Here’s why pollsters and strategists we spoke to say they’re not panicking yet.
There is no campaign. Every time you see a poll showing Biden’s approval in the 30s, mentally add an asterisk that says “before Democrats spend $1 billion.”
This isn’t so much about a prohibitive spending advantage (Republicans will have money too), but about what that money goes towards. In this case, it’s a message that so far has worked for Democrats in real-life conditions.
In the midterms, postmortems found that Democrats performed poorly in noncompetitive contests, but they won big in highly contested, swing state races where they could devote millions to ads on issues like abortion, drug prices, and entitlements while painting their opponents as “MAGA extremists.” The same formula has held up well in off-year elections since then, including a blowout judicial race in Wisconsin centered on abortion rights and gerrymandering.
“If you look at elections we’ve had this year — the Wisconsin Supreme Court race and in the Ohio August ballot measure — you can see voters on the left are already getting mobilized,” Democratic pollster Margie Omero said.
Known unknowns. Obviously, polls this far out are unreliable because the future is so unreliable. Imagine trying to explain to someone in September 2019 that the election would be a referendum on a disease killing hundreds of thousands of Americans and upending the lives of many millions more.
In this case, though, there are at least two big question marks we can clearly identify: “The economy and the indictments have not played out,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told Semafor.
Polls show a significant percentage of Republicans say they might not vote for Trump if he’s convicted of a crime. While odds are high the vast majority of these voters are lying to the pollsters, themselves, or both, even a tiny fraction abandoning him is a major downside risk.
As for the economy, Biden’s polling on the issue has been abysmal since prices shot up in 2021. But inflation has plummeted since then, job growth has surpassed expectations, and independent forecasters’ predictions keep getting rosier.
It’s possible voters blame Biden for that first-year inflation and never forgive him for it. But economic perceptions can also be slow to come around: In the summer of 1995, there were polls with Bill Clinton tied or losing against Bob Dole — and the GOP was seen as favored on economic issues. Biden is betting on a turnaround as voters feel the recovery more, with his early ads emphasizing decades-low unemployment.
The Trump factor. People don’t tend to change their minds about Donald Trump much. This is often seen as a strength — every poll that shows him unshaken after an indictment reinforces the story — but his favorables are also as low as ever, and his baseline going into 2024 is as a leader who presided over three disappointing elections in a row.
Democrats are hoping opinions of Biden, who doesn’t have a polarizing cult of personality, are a lot more malleable. Hatred is a hard thing to fix, but a vaguely dismissive attitude among some Democratic-leaning voters towards his age and record is something the aforementioned billion dollars might be able to influence at the margins.
“Whereas Trump is basically at his ceiling, Biden is close to his floor,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said on X. “That’s the key difference”
In general, Democrats tend to assume voters know about Trump’s liabilities: They barely spent any money on ads mentioning Trump scandals in the 2018 wave, for example, instead plowing it into ads about GOP threats to protections for pre-existing conditions, which are hard to keep in the news. Expect plenty of ads emphasizing Biden’s achievements and raising wedge issues on similar policy topics that — unlike Trump’s legal liabilities — marginal voters are unlikely to hear much about through ambient headlines.
“We can’t count on the networks to talk about all the good things that are going on with the infrastructure bill,” Jaime Harrison, chair of the DNC, told Semafor. “So that means, guess what, we got to dig a little deeper to make sure that the message gets out.”
Room for Disagreement
Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini thinks Democrats shouldn’t count on the economy to be a winning issue for Biden. Voters still associate Trump with growth, even in polls showing his favorability ratings hitting new lows, and Republicans will have plenty of campaign dollars of their own to try to sell them on a return to pre-COVID jobs, inflation, and interest rates. “Biden’s [argument] relies more on technocratic accomplishments,” Ruffini said. “But that risks being out of touch if the accomplishments are not things people can see and feel.”
Damon Linker worries that Biden’s age problem is, by definition, not getting any better before Election Day. He recommends party leaders and elder statesmen pressure him to step aside in response: “By complacently resigning themselves to sticking with Biden as their nominee, Democrats, I worry, are sleepwalking toward catastrophe.”