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New poll not good news for Biden, but how bad is it really?

Voters not happy with economy, but they were last year as well and Democrats overperformed expectations

A poll showing voters  saying they are worse off than before President Joe Biden became president needs to be read in the context of the election that just ended.
A poll showing voters saying they are worse off than before President Joe Biden became president needs to be read in the context of the election that just ended. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — A new poll on Joe Biden’s standing is a mixed bag for the president’s 2024 prospects. It’s also an opportunity to relearn how to digest polls beyond the dire headlines. 

“Record numbers of people are worse off, a recipe for political discontent,” topped the ABC News story about the poll it conducted with The Washington Post. “Record number of Americans say they are worse off under Joe Biden,” according to the Fox News version

Four in 10 Americans said they were worse off financially since Biden became president, the most in ABC News-Washington Post polls dating back 37 years. That’s terrible news for an incumbent when voters often prioritize the economy in elections. 

In 2022, the economy was far and away voters’ top issue, according to the AP VoteCast exit poll used by The Associated Press, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Forty-eight percent of voters said it was the top issue, and those voters supported GOP candidates by 33 points. (Abortion was a distant second as 10 percent of voters said it was their top issue.)

This latest national poll of adults was conducted Jan. 27 through Feb. 1 by Langer Research Associates for ABC News-Washington Post. 

The survey also showed Biden losing a hypothetical rematch to former President Donald Trump, 48-44 percent among all adults and 48-45 percent among registered voters. But while Biden would be vulnerable in a reelection race, those horse race numbers aren’t particularly useful. 

National polling numbers aren’t helpful when we don’t have national elections. We should all know by now that we elect presidents through a state-by-state race for the Electoral College. Polling results from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and Michigan would be more helpful to understanding how the electorate may have shifted over the last two years and where it might be headed. 

Even if we had a national election, it’s hard to believe that Trump is poised for his best national showing ever. He received 46.1 percent in 2016 and 46.8 percent in 2020, so 48 percent feels like a reach, even if Biden is struggling. And voter frustration is not a guarantee for voter backlash. In 2022, 75 percent of voters said the country was headed in the wrong direction, and yet Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate and overperformed in House races. 

In addition, some historical context for Biden’s recent numbers reveals the wide range of uncertainty at this point in the 2024 election cycle. 

According to the ABC News analysis, Biden’s overall job approval rating (42 percent approve/53 percent disapprove) after two years in office is well below average compared with the previous 13 presidents and about the same as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan at this point. That means Biden might face a competitive primary (Ford), lose in the general election (Carter) or win reelection (Reagan). 

Last cycle is a good reminder that candidates matter. Even though independent voters disapproved of Biden’s job performance and were primed for change, they supported Democratic candidates in every competitive Senate election except for Wisconsin and preferred Democratic candidates in House races, according to the national exit poll by Edison Research.  

It should go without saying, but there’s a long way to go in the presidential race, and it’s far from clear that both Biden and Trump will win their parties’ nomination. 

National polling about Biden’s job performance can help define the political mood and put news events into context. It’s been nearly a month since classified documents were found in Biden’s possession. The president endured weeks of skeptical and negative attention, and yet his job rating hasn’t changed dramatically. It will be at least another few weeks before we know whether the Chinese surveillance balloon or the State of the Union speech had any lasting effect on voters’ view of the president. 

For now, the most prudent path is to take a deep breath before assuming how breaking news will shape the political landscape and to try not to overreact to individual surveys 21 months from the election.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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