In August 2021, President Biden hit an inflection point, shifting from net positive to net negative in his approval rating — and he has never recovered. Ominously, he passed what looks to be another inflection point in November, definitively falling behind Donald Trump in the ballot test. And he might not recover from that either.
Despite the noise, the battle for the presidency in 2024 has followed a fairly simple incumbent-challenger dynamic, if impeded somewhat by Trump’s unpopularity. The sitting president started out with a strong inaugural “honeymoon” polling bounce, which degraded over time as challenges to the president naturally created division and disappointment.
That said, this is not a typical race, with a former president with more than 90 criminal charges running and an incumbent president whose polling has had an almost unbroken collapse, with little sign of any improvement. The approval and ballot test polling have been fairly stable — the politics may be roiling, but the voters are moving at a glacial pace.
First inflection: Positive to negative approval
Biden’s job approval hit a high of 55.2 percent favorable on April 9, 2021. The botched Afghanistan withdrawal was a disaster for his rating; soon after, he fell to net negative approval. By July 2022, Biden hit a low point, at 57.5 percent negative with a net negative over 20 points. The incompetent Republican midterm election campaign, terrible Trump-backed candidates and an historic overperformance for Democrats boosted Biden to a mere 6-point net negative in February 2023.
But it’s been downhill ever since, just not quite the same erosion as happened from summer 2021 to summer 2022. Biden has skidded to a 15-point net deficit with 55.5 percent disapprove compared to 40.5 percent favorable. While not record-setting, his deficit is well below what most presidents see at a similar point in their first term.
Second inflection: From winning to losing to Trump
Normally a collapse in approval ratings is matched with a fall in support for re-election. But that has not happened with Biden. Trump and Biden mostly traded places from November 2022 through early October 2023, with no more than 1.5 points separating them. When Biden’s numbers tanked in early 2023, Trump did initially gain on the ballot test, but he then lost ground over the summer. It appeared the GOP front-runner’s own abysmal favorability ratings were insulating Biden from too much damage.
But that changed in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel and the intensifying migrant crisis. In mid-October, Biden managed to tie Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average, but he fell behind soon after and has been trailing ever since. Trump has even managed to pull 3- and 4-point leads at times — something Biden has never managed.
In polls commenced after the Hamas attacks, Trump has led in 50 while Biden has led in 20, with 12 ties. Aside from a recent Quinnipiac poll that looks like a significant outlier, Biden has not shown a lead of more than 2 points since Nov. 12. Meanwhile, Trump has had 21 leads of over 2 points.
After three years of loathing Trump and nearly that long also loathing Biden, it appears that a key slice of the public has decided they loathe Biden more, and have moved into the Trump camp. Given how settled most Americans have shown to be in their opinions on Biden v. Trump, this is a dangerous development for Biden. Unlike most past presidents who have had their down time in the first term but have been able to bounce back, Biden is demonstrating none of that.
Even worse, Biden’s polling has collapsed in several key states since October and put him behind in the electoral vote race. Arizona shifted to Trump in August, with Biden now trailing by 4.5 points. Georgia flipped to Trump in mid-October (7-point lead) and Michigan in November (5-point lead). Shifting those three states into the Trump column in November would give him 277 electoral votes — and a win.
And Trump has a cushion, with Nevada shifting to him in early November (7-point lead), giving him 283 electoral votes. Wisconsin moved from a definite Biden advantage to roughly a tie, also in early November. Pennsylvania has been up and down, with Biden recently bolstered by what might be an outlier poll by Susquehanna and a few low-quality college polls.
The combined shift of that national ballot test and the Biden collapse in key swing states makes the president a clear underdog at this point.
How stuck is Biden?
Biden is in real trouble, and no whistling past the graveyard or statistical gymnastics can change that. While losing the lead in the national ballot test is bad, it is his terrible polling in the swing states that puts his re-election in serious doubt. The deficits are significant, and Biden still must hang on to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Given the relative stability of voter opinion, any sudden move is not likely.
What is bedeviling Biden is the deteriorating international situation and the migrant crisis. In the former, his team has shown no ability to calm the waters and his administration has no discernible national security strategy at all. To expect a coherent policy to be whipped up in a few months when none has existed in over three years strains credulity.
As for the migrant crisis, Trump’s ham-fisted tampering and Republican chaos have helped Biden — but only in the finger-pointing game. The fact remains that the crisis has not been addressed. As president, Biden is going to get most of the blame. His claim that he is powerless to do anything without new legislation is patently ridiculous and not likely to wash with the public over time. Worse, that claim exacerbates the public image that he is a weak leader not up to the job.
Biden is seen as a weak leader by 63 percent of the public, including 74 percent of Independents and 25 percent of his own party. In contrast, Trump is viewed as a strong leader by 55 percent of the public and 53 percent of Independents. In times of chaos, people look for a strong hand. Biden’s buck-passing may buy him some time, but it won’t help in the long run.
Biden is mostly dependent on Trump self-destructing — a good bet. But given the challenges facing Biden and his administration’s seeming inability to deal with crisis, any Trump self-destruction will need to be quite impressive. Incredibly, the polling is so bad, Trump might even survive a conviction. The recent Marist poll gives Biden a lead in the national ballot 51-45 percent if Trump is convicted. But Marist is a Biden-friendly poll, and it does not survey the individual states.
A conviction would certainly help Biden a lot, but the trial must happen before the election, and there is a lot of room for things to get worse for the president. Biden would be well served by aggressively addressing the migrant crisis even if it alienates his base. He has to bet on their antipathy to Trump. Muddling through is just not an option.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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