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The GOP quest to beat Biden just got more interesting

Can Nikki Haley convince voters she has the best shot to beat Biden?

Republican candidates appear at a debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee.
Republican candidates appear at a debate on Aug. 23 in Milwaukee. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Corrected 2:40 p.m. | The Washington Post and ABC News released a new survey this week that showed Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden by 10 percentage points among registered voters, 52 percent to 42 percent. Needless to say, this news hit Washington with the impact of a small asteroid. No doubt the Trump campaign was delighted to get this gift, especially from their nemesis, The Washington Post.

The postings on “X,” formerly known as Twitter, were fast and furious as people on all sides tried to figure this one out, me included. In the 94 surveys on over the last year, the next largest margin for Trump had been 7 percentage points. That happened twice back in the spring, and there have been altogether only five other surveys over the last year in which Trump’s advantage was greater than 5 percentage points. So, this was a “Wait, what?” kind of moment for most of Washington, which guzzles polls like morning coffee.

Here’s where it gets interesting — or at a minimum, confusing. On the same day, NBC News also released a survey that showed Biden and Trump tied at 46 percent each. Obviously, one of these surveys is off the mark. But the two surveys were not in sync beyond the ballot test. Although NBC does not release detailed crosstabs on their website, they identified their findings for a number of key demographic groups.

The NBC poll had Biden leading with voters ages 18 to 34, by 23 points, 57 percent to 34 percent; with independents by 7 percentage points, 42 percent to 35 percent. Biden lost men in this poll by 11 percentage points, 40 percent to 51 percent.

In contrast, the Post-ABC poll had Trump leading among younger voters (ages 18 to 39) by 19 percentage points, 55 percent to 36 percent; independents by 13 percentage points, 52 percent to 39 percent; and men by 30 percentage points, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Another way to judge conflicting poll numbers is to look at how these same groups voted in the 2020 election using exit poll data. To believe the Post-ABC survey, you have to believe there has been a 34-point swing in the margin of younger voters (ages 18 to 39) toward Trump, as Biden won them in 2020 by a margin of 15 percentage points, 56 percent to 41 percent. Additionally, their survey had a 26-point swing of the all-important independent voters to Trump as well. As noted in my prior columns, Biden won independents in 2020, 54 percent to 41 percent, the largest margin against a major party Presidential candidate since Reagan’s landslide in 1984.

The Post-ABC results also showed a 22-point swing of male voters to Trump, as his 2020 margin was 8 percentage points, 53 percent to 45 percent. For some perspective, in 1984, Reagan crushed Mondale with an overall margin of 18 percentage points, 58.8 percent to 40.6 percent. His margin with men, according to exit polls, was plus-25, 62 percent to 37 percent, 5 percentage points less than the Post-ABC poll’s margin for Trump.

Even the Post has said their poll is a likely “outlier.” I agree.

While different polls will always produce different results, in large part based on their methodology, we do see some consensus in most polls, excluding the Post-ABC poll, that virtually any Republican candidate who will be on stage for Wednesday night’s debate is very competitive with Biden. That is clearly a function of Biden’s terrible overall job approval (41 percent to 55 percent) and economic job approval (37 percent to 60 percent), and even worse on inflation (33-65 percent), according to a RCP average.

Biden’s current job approval is 4 percent lower than where Trump was at the same point in his presidency. So, all but one in the field, including Trump, can say that in a race with Biden, it is possible for them to win as recent surveys show the race is roughly even, within the margin of error.

In my Roll Call column two weeks ago, I noted that in the recent CNN ballot test against Biden, one person was outside the margin of error leading Biden by 6 percentage points, 49 percent to 43 percent. I also said “upcoming surveys will either verify or not.” The NBC survey confirmed former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s lead outside the margin of error, this time by 5 percentage points, 46 percent to 41 percent.

There are some underlying numbers in both surveys that show a potential pattern to her lead over Biden and her potential strength in a general election. In each of the surveys, the difference between Haley and Trump was among independent voters who will decide next year’s election. In the CNN survey, Trump trailed Biden with independents by 9 points, 38 percent to 47 percent. Haley, on the other hand, led Biden by 5 points with independents, 45 percent to 40 percent, a 14-point swing in her favor in contrast to Trump.

NBC, announcing its survey, said, “Haley overperforms Trump and DeSantis among independents.” In this poll, Trump trailed among independents by 7 points, 35 percent to 42 percent. It’s important to note that in the NBC survey, Haley gets the same percentage as Trump, but Biden increases his vote by 5 percent against Trump to pull even. This may mean that there are some voters out there who would be undecided with Trump out of the race but would move into the Biden column if Trump tops the Republican ticket.

The CNN poll showed a slightly different dynamic. In it, Haley got a higher vote percentage than Trump, against Biden, 49 percent versus 47 percent. But similar to the NBC poll, in the CNN survey, Biden increased his vote by 3 percent when facing Trump (43 percent to 46 percent).

I want to emphasize that two surveys with a similar pattern gives an idea some standing, but more data is needed to determine whether her numbers with independents represent a moment in time or a trend?

Overall, this means, for the moment, Haley can say she is the only candidate who has an outright lead and is not a coin-toss for beating Biden. The underlying question Republican voters have to answer is: Do I want a 50-50 shot at beating Biden or do I want better odds?

For all the candidates, that means changing the dynamics of the race from a presidential candidate who can win the primary to one who can win the general. Tonight’s debate will be interesting to watch as the candidates joust with each other.

But it is not so much who lands a successful attack against Trump, but can one of them, namely Haley, introduce into GOP voters’ minds that she has the best shot to beat Biden?

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.

This column was corrected to accurately note the age range of younger voters in a NBC News poll.

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