Joe Biden is currently losing the election
Don't be a doomer, but don't take false comfort from 2022 either
I try not to spend my days being a doomer or a catastrophist, but in both casual and formal conversations I’ve come to think that there is one very basic point about politics in 2024 that is being broadly underrated — Joe Biden is currently on track to lose the election because he has lost the confidence of some of the swing voters who backed Trump or Gary Johnson in 2016 but then rallied to him in 2020.
I don’t mean to engage in any elaborate forecasting or modeling or to be making any specific predictions about the future. It’s just that if you look at the polls, Biden is losing in most of them. And by margins that, while not enormous, aren’t tiny either.
Could things change between now and November? Yes. Could the polls be wrong? Sure. But there’s no particular reason to think that polling error, if any, will favor Biden. And while things could absolutely change in ways that favor Biden, they could also change in ways that hurt Biden. All we really know is that if the election were held tomorrow, Biden would likely lose. And I think more people need to understand this. Not because I’m trying to promote ill will or demoralization, but because I think people who don’t want that outcome need to understand that we are, in fact, on track for a Trump comeback, and they should consider doing things differently.
Too much of the Democratic Party seems to be suffering from complacency.
Biden’s communications strategy is risk-averse. Democrats’ political strategy continues to overwhelmingly emphasize intra-coalition peace, and insofar as Democrats worry about anything, it’s about defections from the left over Palestine. But that’s just another example of risk-aversion and the hunkering-down mentality. Tending the base is what you do when you’re winning and want to make sure nothing bad happens. Ducking a live Super Bowl interview is what you do when you’re winning and primarily interested in avoiding gaffes. When you’re losing, you go for it more aggressively on fourth down. You pull the goalie. You swing for the fences. You deliberately take calculated risks that, if they pay off, can change the game.
What about the midterms?
Hanging over all of this is the 2022 midterm.
A lot of proponents of complacency have recommended Simon Rosenberg’s interview with Ezra Klein as a solid case for optimism. And there are plenty of people out there echoing Rosenberg-esque talking points, suggesting that we ignore the polls and look at how people have actually been voting as evidence of how they will vote. And to a limited extent, I agree with one part of this. If you just look at Biden’s approval ratings and put them in historical context, you’d assume he’s getting crushed by a historic margin in general election matchups. And that’s not true; he’s losing narrowly because lots of voters disapprove of both Trump and Biden.
And in 2022, a lot of Democratic candidates did clearly get people who like neither Trump nor Biden to vote for them.
Rosenberg’s theory of the case is that this showed the power of the Democratic message. That in the big contested races where Democrats focused their efforts, they won, while they lost ground in non-battleground states where the narrative was dominated by the conservative media machine. So his advice for 2024 is to stick with the status quo, but campaign really vigorously everywhere:
I think it’s sort of very foundational to understand where we are today. And so in 2022, there were two elections. There was a bluer election inside the battleground and a redder election outside the battleground.
Inside the battleground, where Democrats turned on their big campaigns, we were able to actually not just do well, but we got to 59 percent in Colorado, 57 percent in Pennsylvania, 55 percent in Michigan, 54 percent in New Hampshire.Those would be extraordinary performances in a good year, and this was supposed to be a bad year for us. We were supposed to be the party that was — the red wave was going to wash all across the country and wipe us out. And so we did extraordinarily well, where we were contesting Republicans, in many cases, these Trumpy Republicans that were nominated in these states and where the issues of abortion and democracy were on the ballot.
And we actually gained ground, against all conventional wisdom outside the battleground, where we didn’t have these big campaigns, where we didn’t control the information environment and push our turnout to the upper end of what was possible. We actually lost ground in New York and in California. And it’s one of the reasons we lost the House in 2022.
And so to me, the admonition is where we run our big campaigns, we do really well. When we go head to head with Republicans and the grass roots of the Democratic Party is focused, we keep winning. But when we don’t run those campaigns, it reminds us of the power of the right-wing noise machine and their politics, which is still formidable.
This is an intriguing theory. And I admit there is some truth to it. But I think it’s wildly overstated, particularly the idea that House losses are attributable entirely to New York and California.
What happened in 2022
A useful corrective to Rosenberg’s optimism is to look at the House vote. Nationally, most Americans voted for a GOP House candidate in 2022. What’s more, if you do a state-by-state breakdown of the House popular vote to generate a kind of “electoral college,” you get a clear GOP win.
Democrats, in this map, consolidated their hold over the blue-leaning swing states of New Hampshire, Virginia, and Colorado. We know that these are high education states where people don’t like Trump, and they increasingly dislike the entire MAGA-fied Republican Party. But the GOP won the two red-leaning swing states of Arizona and Georgia. And they won two out of three of the decisive Great Lakes swing states. And they flipped Nevada, a formerly blue-leaning state with low educational attainment that now seems to be red-leaning.
Now, look, the House margin is very narrow in terms of seats. So if you squint at it right, you can make the argument that New York and California were the GOP margin of victory. Or you can say that had New York Democrats been allowed to implement an aggressive gerrymander, that could have made a big difference.
All true. Still, the basic fact is that most voters in Nevada voted Republican. Same in Arizona, same in Georgia, same in Wisconsin, same in Pennsylvania. So it’s not true that anti-MAGA sentiment has consolidated in the tipping point states.
In the Senate, obviously, things were different. Democrats gained a seat, which was a tremendous triumph. But it raises the question of exactly how much interpretive weight you want to place on the fact that the GOP’s nominee for the Pennsylvania Senate race was a fake doctor from New Jersey who held dual citizenship in Turkey. Can you imagine an Obama-Trump crossover voter who’s too Islamophobic to vote for Doctor Oz and kinda likes John Fetterman’s vibes? I sure can. Is that guy a lock to vote for Joe Biden in 2024? I don’t think so.
Similarly, when I look at Mark Kelly beating freakazoid Blake Masters, I don’t say to myself “well, Biden is a guaranteed winner!” I say “if Joe Biden were 20 years younger and also an astronaut, I’d like his odds.”
Biden’s also not a 54 year-old Black minister like Raphael Warnock. Kelly and Warnock both won with electorates that mostly backed GOP House candidates. They won by having the privilege to run against deeply flawed opponents in Masters and Herschel Walker. And Biden is also privileged to be running against a deeply flawed opponent in Donald Trump. But the edge in candidate quality is not nearly as favorable in the presidential race, which I think is obvious if you ask yourself whether Democrats would be better off with a Kelly-Warnock ticket than a Biden-Harris ticket.
When people don’t vote, we win
The other thing people point to is that Democrats have been doing well in special elections. That’s notable on its own terms, and is unusual for the party that holds the presidency — especially with an unpopular president.
But as Nate Cohn has detailed, this is almost entirely a triumph of turnout rather than persuasion. Very few people vote in these special elections, and while Rosenberg is overstating the size of the anti-MAGA electorate, what’s true is that anti-MAGA sentiment is extremely strong among the people with the highest propensity to vote. All else being equal, this is a nice advantage to have. Obama-era Democrats enjoyed the romance of voter mobilization efforts. And having the lower-propensity coalition is a nice psychological salve when you lose — you can always tell yourself that you just need to work harder at mobilization. Democrats are lucky to now have the high-propensity coalition. It helps them in special elections. It helped them a little in the midterms. And it means that in a hypothetical evenly matched opinion landscape, they are essentially skating downhill.
It also means that they need to set the psychological salves aside.
Democrats have the high propensity base. They need to worry that tons of media coverage about the high-stakes presidential showdown will succeed in mobilizing lots of low-propensity voters, voters who mostly — but somewhat reluctantly — like Trump more than they like Biden. And they need to try to counter that by persuading people to like Biden more.
Focusing on what matters
Because Donald Trump has performed better than Romney or George W. Bush with less-educated voters but worse with educated voters, I think Democratic Party professionals are in a kind of bubble.
Most of us know, personally, some ex-Republicans who are now Democrats and some GOP loyalists who don’t really like Trump and wish Nikki Haley or someone else were the nominee. We don’t know very many people who voted for Obama enthusiastically in 2008, tepidly in 2012, and then flipped to Trump in 2016. So the whole headspace of the Democratic Party is weirdly dominated by the specter of TikTok addled youth activists who need to be told about Joe Biden’s climate achievements or appeased with an Israel-Palestine ceasefire. And I do narrowly agree that it would be helpful if people who care deeply about the climate and Palestine would stop criticizing the candidate who is better on their issues and instead criticize his opponent. But there’s very little evidence that “people who would prefer it if Joe Biden were more left-wing” is a large block of people or that defections from this group are a serious problem.
I think it’s useful and important to instead try to get into the headspace of a crossover voter, and the best way to do that is to start with what we know about 2020.
We know that Joe Biden won. But he did not win in the crushing landslide that the polls predicted. Instead, he won a modest popular vote victory and a narrow electoral college victory. During that campaign, one of the issues he enjoyed a very large advantage on was the idea that he would handle the Covid-19 pandemic better. Since that time, the salience of the Covid issue has dropped massively, and we learned that Operation Warp Speed was successful, which makes Trump’s handling look better. So that’s a big blow to Biden. To compensate, Biden currently has a nice advantage on abortion rights. But even though abortion rights is much more salient in 2024 than in pre-Dobbs cycles, it’s not dominant on the level of Covid in 2020.
And we know about thermostatic public opinion. Any time a Democrat is in office, public opinion tends to drift to the right and vice versa. This is probably most obvious with immigration, where it turns out that separate from people disliking Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, they are not actually as eager to welcome refugees as they maybe convinced themselves they were.
So that’s Biden’s problem. He won narrowly four years ago. His best issue in that race has lost salience, and his best issue in the current race isn’t as salient as that issue was. Meanwhile, public opinion has become more conservative, and he is down in the polls as a result. I don’t think any particular solution follows in an obvious way from that analysis. But I do think it clearly implies less time stressing about unifying the base and less time projecting confidence and more time trying something different — most likely, I think, a communications strategy that involves a stronger presence of Joe Biden and other members of his administration in the media, delivering messages precision-targeted at crossover voters. Democrats genuinely did do way better in the midterms than the “in” party usually does, which was great. But I think one cost of that victory is that the White House never executed the traditional post-midterm pivot to the center. But it’s not too late!