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Double Haters

Everyone Is Talking About the Wrong Biden Poll

The New York Times poll has set off panic among Democrats. But a different poll should give them hope.


Even the most dismal political poll usually has some silver lining for the trailing candidate: a demographic in which the flailing politician is overperforming; a geographic region of particular strength; or, at the very least, evidence of where and how a political message can be improved. Sunday’s New York Times/Siena poll is a rarity in that there is no good news for Joe Biden, and it has predictably set off panic among Democrats even though we’re still a year out from the next presidential election.

There’s another recent poll, though, that’s been quickly forgotten amid the panic, and its results should actually buoy Democrats’ hopes—even if, ultimately, what it portends for 2024 is a dreary slog of a general election race between two candidates whom many Americans simply cannot stand.

But first, the Times/Siena poll: It found that Biden was losing to Donald Trump by five points across the board and lagging, in many cases by significant margins, in five of the six swing states that are expected to determine the election. To make matters worse, it’s not easy to see how Biden can improve his standing with voters: 71 percent think he is “too old” for the presidency, compared to 39 percent who feel the same about Trump, even though Trump is not even four years younger than Biden.

There is widespread dissatisfaction with inflation, even though it has been reined in. Swing-state voters trust Trump over Biden by 22 points on the economy—a perception that isn’t likely to change, given how dramatically prices increased throughout 2021 and 2022. It will be a while before prices go down (if they do at all), and Biden won’t get any political benefit for simply halting the rise of inflation. The Israel-Hamas war, only a month old, has only just begun to register in polls. It too seems bad for the president, with both young voters and Muslim Americans—a key voting bloc in Michigan—deeply critical of the administration’s response.

Yes, we are a long way from the 2024 election and a great deal can change between now and then. But the Times poll has understandably sent Biden’s supporters and allies into a panic. NBC News began its story about the Democratic response with three metaphors from Democratic strategists: a “five-alarm fire.” It’s a cardiac case in need of a “defibrillator.” Or a lemming on course to “slowly march into the sea and drown.” Not good! Things are especially dire because, at this late stage, it’s almost certainly too late for Biden to drop out: Vice President Kamala Harris is even less popular than he is, making a handing over of the reins fraught. A contested Democratic primary, moreover, would be chaotic and further damage the party heading into the presidential election.

Those looking for more hopeful news should look to another poll. This poll is also extremely depressing, albeit for somewhat different reasons: It suggests that lots of voters hate both candidates—and that there is reason to believe that Biden will have an edge with these voters a year from now. Last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found Biden with a slim lead over Trump in a head-to-head race: 47 to 46, well within the margin of error but much better than the subsequent Times/Siena poll. More intriguing, however, was what Quinnipiac found happened in a hypothetical three-way race. Asked to choose between Biden, Trump, and deranged anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Biden still led, this time 39 percent to Trump’s 36 percent and Kennedy’s 22 percent. The Times/Siena poll found a similarly close three-way race in battleground states—albeit one that favored Trump, not Biden.

I’ll stick my neck out: Kennedy won’t get 22 percent of the vote a year from now. Despite his famous name, he is still relatively unknown among voters and there are signs that both Democrats and Republicans don’t like what they see when they look under the hood. (One thing they particularly don’t like is the possibility that he could play spoiler for their guy next November.) Third-party candidates typically fade as the general election nears—think John Anderson in 1980 or Ross Perot in 1992.

Still, Kennedy’s strong performance in the Quinnipiac poll is qualified good news for Biden in one crucial way: It suggests that a lot of voters really don’t like either candidate. And with several Trump criminal trials ongoing, that may very well favor Biden—even if it portends an ugly and deeply dispiriting general election.

The same Times/Siena poll found that a “generic Democrat” would vastly outperform Trump in every swing state, beating him by 12 points in Wisconsin, eight in Georgia, and seven in Pennsylvania. There are, of course, no “generic Democrats”—though that is a strong case for Gretchen Whitmer’s presidential candidacy. Still, presidential elections are choices between two candidates, typically two flawed candidates that lots of voters don’t particularly like.

One could argue that the 2024 presidential race is not yet a binary race, even though Trump has been the clear front-runner and presumptive nominee for months. Trump’s refusal to participate in any Republican primary debates and his crowded courtroom schedule have likely, and somewhat ironically, boosted him in the polls. Though still a national force, and perhaps more deranged than ever, Trump is not the headline-generating banshee that he was between 2015 and January 6, 2021.

That will change as Republican primary voters begin to cast their ballots and the general election nears. At that point, Trump will have likely been tried—and possibly convicted—several times for a myriad of crimes. It’s not clear how voters will respond to the results of those trials. Being convicted will strengthen his connection with many in his base, but others will be turned off. Biden, though old—and don’t get me wrong, he is very old—can make a version of the case he did in 2020: that he is a steady hand (even if he is very old) and that Trump’s temperament, his sinister underlings, and his penchant for doing crimes make him unfit for office.

The fear is how voters known as “double haters”—those who hate both Democrats and Republicans—will respond. In 2016, these voters broke heavily for Trump in the final days of the election, helping him defeat Hillary Clinton. The Times/Siena poll found that Trump once again was preferred by these voters in five of six battleground states. Still, as the election becomes a real choice between two candidates—two hated candidates, it’s worth emphasizing—Biden can make the case that he is the safer option. He hasn’t had that opportunity yet. And he might not even have to make that case explicitly if it turns out that his opponent is a convicted felon.