In politics, they say you can’t beat somebody with nobody. Monday’s New York Times-Siena College poll may have proved otherwise. The Times’ survey of six battleground states featured head-to-head ballot tests, pitting a generic Republican candidate against President Joe Biden and a generic Democratic candidate against Donald Trump.
What the poll found was that the Republican and Democratic generic candidates significantly outperformed the two parties’ likely nominees when put to the same test. The Republican generic candidate won all six battleground states with double-digit margins ranging from plus-14 percentage points to plus-18 percentage points. The generic Democrat also won all six state matchups, but by smaller margins ranging from plus-3 points to plus-12 points.
When the poll tested the two leading candidates for their party’s presidential nominations against one another, overall Trump won the cumulative six states by 4 percentage points, only losing Wisconsin to Biden but by only 2 percentage points, within the poll’s margin of error. The generic Republican, however, won the cumulative states by 16 points against Biden, a number that should concern the Trump team.
Biden lost the cumulative six states by 4 percentage points, while the generic Democrat beat Trump by 8 points. Not good news for the Biden camp.
The Trump versus Biden results shouldn’t surprise anyone given the cumulative six-state unfavorables of both candidates. Biden’s overall unfavorable was at 57 percent, with Trump right behind at 56 percent. Among independents, Biden’s unfavorable is at 60 percent and Trump’s is at 63 percent, and it’s clear they are likely to be volatile.
Driving some of the negative numbers are the two candidates’ personal problems. According to the poll, half of voters in the six states believe Biden personally profited from his son’s business dealings in Ukraine and China, and a majority also think Trump has committed serious federal crimes.
Along with Trump, the poll also did ballot tests with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Trump won five of the six states, including Nevada, which he lost in both 2016 and 2020. DeSantis won four and tied two, Georgia and Michigan.
It was Haley, however, who proved to be the strongest candidate in the field against Biden. The former governor won all six states, three of them by double digits: Michigan by 10, Pennsylvania by 10 and Wisconsin by 13 — significant margins.
Overall, she had the strongest performance, winning the cumulative states by eight points, topping Trump’s four-point win and DeSantis’ at plus one point. It was her continuing strength with independents that put her in the lead, winning this key voter group by 15 points. Trump won them by one point, DeSantis by two.
For Biden, however, there’s no sugarcoating this survey.
While the media has focused on Biden’s “actuarial” problem, as former Barack Obama political adviser David Axelrod put it — and the poll did find that 71 percent said he was “just too old to be an effective president” — Biden’s policies are even more likely to trip up his reelection bid. When the survey asked voters whether Biden’s policies have helped them personally or hurt them personally, 35 percent said helped while a remarkable 53 percent said his policies had hurt them personally.
In the suburbs, Biden’s policies were upside down at 36 percent to 50 percent, with independents at 32 percent to 53 percent. Despite Biden’s attempt to curry favor with younger voters (18 to 29 years old), by 38 percent to 50 percent they said his policies had hurt them.
In contrast, 51 percent of voters cumulatively said Trump’s policies had helped them, with only 34 percent saying they hurt them personally.
The poll also surfaced a second possible misstep by the Biden team: Their strategic framing has missed the mark. In his announcement video, Biden focused on the importance of protecting democracy — alluding, not too subtly, to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol and the risks of a Republican-Trump victory in 2024. What he didn’t mention, to the astonishment of many, was voters’ number one concern: the economy.
Months later, in a messaging do-over, the White House rolled out the term “Bidenomics,” which if the numbers in this survey are correct, has cost Biden points with the public, not gained him points. Nor has the Biden team’s focus on a range of base issues.
In this survey, voters were asked to choose what types of issues were more important in deciding who to vote for in 2024: “Societal issues such as abortion, guns or democracy” or “Economic issues such as jobs, taxes or the cost of living.” The voters in these six states sent a strong message to the White House, choosing economic issues by a 28-point margin, 57 percent to 29 percent. Among independents, the margin increased to a remarkable 36 points, 62 percent to 26 percent.
Voters were also asked to rate the economy. Nineteen percent gave the Biden economy an excellent or good rating, while a staggering 81 percent said the economy was only fair or poor. Hispanics were at 14-86 percent, and young voters were at 7-93 percent, making them competitive in this survey. Even Democrats weren’t happy with Bidenomics by a 40-59 percent margin.
No surprise that when voters in the cumulative six states were asked who was best able to handle the economy, Biden lost by 22 percentage points to Trump, 37 percent to 59 percent. Even on the issue of democracy that Biden has focused on extensively, he was only able to eke out a 3-point margin over Trump, 48 percent to 45 percent.
All in all, this was a good poll for Trump, but there are a couple of red flags. When voters were asked how they would vote if Trump were to be convicted, the ballot went from favoring Trump by 4 points over Biden to trailing the president by 10 points (39 percent to 49 percent). The survey found that the key shift was among independents, as they went from plus-1 percentage point for Trump (45 percent to 44 percent) to minus-21 (32 percent to 53 percent), an enormous and ominous shift.
While the poll showed Trump with leads in all but one of the battleground states, most are slim leads. That means it’s still an unsettled situation, complicated by the likely volatility of independents.
Finally, Trump has to worry about the fact that he’s being outperformed against Biden by another Republican.
Still, overall, this is a pretty optimistic set of key state surveys for Republicans, with voters continuing to give the GOP the nod on economic issue handling and the Republican presidential field showing strength against a sitting president.
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.