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Trump vs. Biden II: The rematch voters don’t want

For a majority of voters, the question isn’t who to choose. It’s how.

Former President Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden playing during a political rally in November in Florida.
Former President Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden playing during a political rally in November in Florida. (Getty Images)

With a Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump rematch being the current conventional wisdom, the 2024 election — mired in personality — is quickly becoming the election that voters don’t want. In fact, a solid majority of voters have an unfavorable view of each of the leading candidates, as people wonder whether either man can manage the increasing turmoil coming from all sides.

What is clear in most polls is the sorry fact that voters don’t want either candidate to run. An Economist/YouGov poll conducted June 10-13 found 59 percent of voters don’t want Biden to seek reelection, with only 26 percent favoring a run for a second term.

In the same poll, Trump got similar results — with 56 percent against him running again compared to 33 percent in favor. Independents were against either candidate running again, with 64 percent against Biden and 59 percent against Trump.

And yet, both parties and the media have set the stage for a sequel of the 2020 campaign — just what unhappy voters don’t want. They don’t want the presidential election conversation to be all about Trump’s legal battles or whether Biden is able to lead or even serve — but that’s what they’re hearing now.

If a rematch does happen, some context from recent elections adds some perspective to the speculation. The outcome of the 2016 election, when Trump came out of nowhere to win the nomination and later the presidency, was a shock to most politicos. But there was a unique phenomenon at work as both candidates had unusually high negatives. In that sense, it’s reflective of the current Biden-Trump favorability deficit.

In the 2016 exit polls, Hillary Clinton’s brand image was 43 percent-55 percent favorable-unfavorable, with Trump’s at 38 percent-60 percent favorable-unfavorable. It was a particularly volatile election with a significant number of voters still deciding late.

Typically, in a presidential election, the candidate with the more positive brand image gets across the finish line first. But in the 2016 cycle, the desire for change overcame Clinton’s slightly less bad brand image. That year, 18 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of both candidates — but among this group, Trump won by 17 points.

Unlike 2016, Biden’s brand image in 2020 wasn’t great — 52 percent-46 percent favorable-unfavorable — but far less problematic than Clinton’s. But there were some big differences.

In 2016, candidate Trump was an unknown quantity for most voters with no political record, a celebrity past and a blunt style not seen in recent memory. By 2020, Trump and his negatives had become more defined and less abstract to voters. Despite the controversies marking his presidency, his favorables did improve during that election cycle, to a 46 percent-52 percent favorable-unfavorable — that’s minus 6 and not overly negative.

Biden, however, unlike Clinton, was a more appealing option for voters who didn’t like Trump. One difference in the outcome was the result of a smaller number, 3 percent, who had an unfavorable view of both candidates. This was an important change in the electorate because while Trump’s margin with these voters remained roughly the same, they represented a major group in 2016 but a minor one four years later.

Biden’s softer image made it more difficult for Trump to put together a majority coalition and easier for anti-Trump voters to choose his opponent, unlike in 2016.

However, by the 2022 midterm elections, Edison exit polls showed Biden’s image had dropped to 41 percent-56 percent favorable-unfavorable, a 15-point negative compared to the positive 6-point advantage he had with voters just two years before. This was a major shift.

But Trump’s relationship with voters by then had also regressed to 39 percent-58 percent favorable-unfavorable, putting him closer to his standing in 2016 than in 2020. Among independents, the unfavorables of both Biden and Trump were at or above 60 percent, bringing back memories of 2016 when both Clinton and Trump had greater than 60 percent unfavorables with them.

Today, Biden and Trump’s favorable-unfavorable, according to the June 18 RealClearPolitics average, are remarkably similar, with Biden at 40 percent-55 percent favorable-unfavorable and Trump at 39 percent-55 percent favorable-unfavorable. Neither has improved their standing with independents.

If the rematch that voters don’t want is the end result, we may see some similarities with 2016, given both Biden and Trump’s unfavorables, especially with independents.

While the similarities between 2016 and 2024 are evident, the two elections are not perfectly analogous, with several factors likely to come into play that we didn’t see four years ago.

With prices having increased by 16.3 percent, according to the Winston Group’s “Presidential Inflation Rate,” since Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 and two-thirds of the electorate saying the country is on the wrong track, Biden’s claims, whether in the Oval Office or on the opinion pages, of remarkable progress on the economy, especially inflation, simply don’t ring true with voters. Additionally, Biden’s age and his ability to serve another full term has become an increasing focus not just of Republicans but Democrats and the media, as well. This puts what I’ll call the “Kamala Harris factor” into play. But the vice president’s viability is an unknown at this point.

For Trump, his refusal to accept his 2020 election loss, coupled with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, have contributed to his high negatives, particularly with independents. What looks like a series of indictments and trials between now and the election has turned both the primaries and the general into a tough slog for the former president. The question is whether base Republicans may reach a point where winning overcomes anger.

If this does end up being the choice for president in 2024, then for the 26 percent of the electorate who are conservative Republicans — based on the 2020 exit polls — this is an easy decision, as it will be for the 17 percent who are liberal Democrats. For the remaining 57 percent, the question is not necessarily who to choose, but how?

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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