Donald Trump is running for president for the third time in eight years, but the world has changed around him — and his campaign is confident that the state of America in 2024 tilts more than ever to his promise to reverse “American carnage.”
One reason Democrats were slow to take Trump’s rise seriously in the 2016 cycle is that some of the issues he talked about most — “law and order,” “open borders” — were not seen as especially dire. Crime had risen modestly, but was still near its modern lows. The undocumented immigrant population was actually declining.
Since then, things have changed. Border crossings have spiked to record highs and asylum claims are overwhelming the system, prompting the White House and many Democrats to pivot to more hawkish positions. Crime is on a downward trend, but only after a much larger surge in murders in 2020 during the pandemic and intense nationwide debates over police practices. Public opinion has also shifted in response: Support for a border wall has surged, with Quinnipiac University finding majority backing last month for the first time since they began asking about it in 2016. And Gallup this month found that 63% of Americans consider crime an extremely or very serious issue, the highest they’ve ever recorded in over two decades (albeit a relatively small recent increase).
Jason Miller, a Trump adviser, boasted an added benefit to the news environment: The topics all tend to split moderate and left-leaning Democratic voters, who have been especially vocal recently in their disagreements with Biden over Israel.
“Not only is it the issue that Biden has created all of these crises, it’s the fact that he can’t reverse course on any of them without alienating massive chunks of his radical liberal base,” Miller said.
Then of course there’s the economy, where voters were split in exit polls on which candidate was the better steward in 2020, while Trump held only a small 48-46 advantage over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Despite booming growth and historic low unemployment, poll after poll shows Trump preferred by a wide margin this time as voters continue to blame Biden for the post-pandemic inflation spike.
“It’s not like these aren’t real issues,” Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini of Echelon Insights told Semafor. “It would be one thing if these were sideshows. It’s kind of hard to argue, at this point at least, that oh, inflation and interest rates won’t be in the news for a significant period of time.”
A new, previously unreported poll this month of 1,006 likely voters from Echelon Insights, reviewed by Semafor, showed that voters trust Trump over Biden on a number of key topics: On inflation and costs, 51% of those surveyed saw Trump as more trustworthy, compared with Biden’s 39%. Jobs and the economy had similar results, with Trump at 51% and Biden and 41%. For immigration, Trump led 50% to 40%, and for crime, he was up 49% to 40%.
“It’s not like people don’t know these two candidates, and sometimes the weaknesses of a candidate a year out are the weakness of a candidate on election day,” Ruffini added.
It’s clear there are a number of factors currently playing right into Trump’s M.O. – and to make matters worse for Biden, voters seem to be siding with the former president when asked who they trust more to take care of these key topics. On the ground, the economy, immigration, and crime are the topics most consistently mentioned when I speak with voters. Clearly, it’s top of mind for a huge swath of the country at the moment.
But it’s still somewhat mysterious why voters ultimately pull the lever for a candidate, and their decisions can’t always be boiled down to one or two issues in a poll. It’s hard to explain Trump’s 2016 victory without looking at Hillary Clinton’s overall unpopularity, and Biden’s 2020 victory without looking at Trump’s. While Biden’s approval ratings have been anemic, Trump’s favorable ratings are still at least as weak. An ABC News poll/Ipsos poll this month found only 29% of voters had a favorable impression of Trump, behind 33% who said the same of Biden. And the general election attacks on Trump — as well as his pending court dates — are only beginning.
What happens when it actually comes down to the wire, and voters unhappy with both Trump and Biden are forced to choose? Sarah Longwell, executive director of the anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project, argued that voters could ultimately turn out to support Biden in a general election — not because they like him, but because they dislike Trump more intensely.
“I don’t think this moment is indicative of where we’re headed, because I just think that a more visible Donald Trump, once he’s the actual nominee, has a different dynamic than the one we’re in right now,” Longwell told me. “You are not building a pro-Biden coalition. You are building an anti-Trump coalition.”
The View From Democrats
Democrats, of course, point to their continued strong performance in real-world elections — especially against Trump-like candidates who challenged the 2020 results — as evidence they’ll be able to turn things around once voters begin paying more attention. In the case of the midterms, inflation was significantly higher at the time.
“The American people saw this movie in 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023, and demanded their money back,” Ammar Moussa, the director of rapid response for Biden’s campaign, said in a statement. “Donald Trump and his flailing campaign can bring back the same strategy that made Trump the loser he is today — and it won’t distract from his dangerous MAGA agenda of banning abortion, making us less safe, and shipping jobs overseas.”
The latest Quinnipiac poll found that “preserving democracy” was the second-highest choice as voters’ top issue priority — ahead of both immigration and crime, including among independents. The term is ambiguous — Trump makes his own “democracy” argument challenging election practices and claiming he’s being unfairly prosecuted — but has so far proven effective in key races for Democrats.
And then there’s another uncertainty for Trump: Polls continue to find that Biden and Democrats are better trusted to handle abortion, which has been a boost for the party across the country since Roe v. Wade was overturned. It’s still uncertain whether a national election will play the same as state elections on the issue, but Democrats are betting it will matter in a big way and continue to make sure voters are well aware of the topic heading into 2024.
“I actually think the environment is much worse for [Trump] than it’s been before, because abortion and reproductive freedom is much more of a vote driver than it was when Trump ran in 2016 or 2020,” Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. “And that’s happened as a direct result of Trump’s own Supreme Court appointments. Similarly, protection of our democracy is a much more important issue than it’s ever been for voters — again, as a direct result of Trump’s own actions on Jan. 6.”
Room for Disagreement
Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, said polls this early on are “close to meaningless” and expressed confidence Biden would win once he has a chance to sell his “many successes.” But his bigger concern is the potential for a third party spoiler: His group has been warning Democrats to beware of a potential No Labels run that could split the anti-Trump coalition.
- Everytown, a nonprofit group focused on getting stricter gun laws enacted, argued there’s a way for Democrats to make crime a plus for them in the upcoming election by focusing on gun violence: Axios recently reported on their polling, which found that “48% of Virginia battleground voters said that Democrats addressed their concerns about public safety and crime better than Republicans (44%).”
- Semafor’s David Weigel recently detailed how some Republicans believe they actually did better than anticipated on the abortion issue during this latest election cycle, particularly in Virginia: Republicans in the state, Weigel wrote, “saw a story to tell; their ticket had run even stronger than their 2022 congressional ticket, making some inroads with Democrats and mitigating the abortion challenge.”