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For Biden, being tied in national polls isn’t good enough

It is still all about a handful of states and their Electoral College votes

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic analyst Simon Rosenberg observed on March 21 that a variety of polls show incumbent President Joe Biden holding a narrow lead over former President Donald J. Trump. As Rosenberg wrote on X, once known as Twitter, “It’s a close election/Trump no longer leads.” 

Rosenberg found that Biden was leading Trump by a point or two in at least nine recent surveys, ranging from the Economist/YouGov and Ipsos/Reuters to Emerson College.

Two of the nine surveys found Biden at or about 50 percent on the ballot test, while four of the surveys found him at 45 percent or less. The Economist average of polls showed Biden up by a point over his predecessor. A late March NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll also found Biden up narrowly over Trump.

Other polls, including Wall Street Journal surveys in seven swing states, are not so encouraging for Biden.

Those state surveys found Biden trailing Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania and a handful of other key states.

But even if Biden and Trump are running even in national polls, there are plenty of reasons for Democratic concern.   

The Electoral College math

Trump won the presidency in 2016 and almost won reelection in 2020 because of his strength in the Electoral College. He lost the popular vote both times — by almost 3 million votes in 2016 and by about 7 million votes in 2020 — so it’s possible that he could do so again.

Biden won California by more than 5 million votes and carried New York by nearly 2 million in 2020, so his popular vote margin is not indicative of how close the race was in swing states.

If Trump and Biden are now running even in the popular vote, it suggests that Biden is underperforming what he did in 2020. 

The margins were very close in the swing states then. Four years ago, Biden won three of them (Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin) narrowly, by a total of fewer than 45,000 votes but a combined 37 electoral votes en route to his Electoral College victory of 306 electoral votes.

If Trump, who got 232 electoral votes in 2020, holds the states that he won in 2020 and adds Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, the two major party nominees would tie at 269 electoral votes, short of the 270 necessary to win. And Trump in all likelihood would have an advantage in the House, which would pick the next president. (The Senate picks the vice president in such an event.)

If Trump were to carry any other state — Pennsylvania, Nevada or Michigan, for example — he would go beyond the 270 electoral college votes he needs for a second term (barring a Biden surprise in North Carolina, Texas or Florida).

State of the states in the race

I’m not certain exactly where the 2024 presidential race now stands, but it’s difficult to see Biden as the front-runner in the contest — or even statistically tied with Trump.

I don’t see much point in looking at national polls other than to compare how various demographic groups are performing over time. State polls present a clearer picture of the overall race.

Democratic optimists like Rosenberg correctly note that voters handed their party victories on abortion rights, in judicial races, and in special elections over the past couple of years. And high-profile defections from the GOP certainly raise questions about Republican strength going into the November elections.

Trump surely has lost support from mainstream conservatives and Republicans who find him extreme, vulgar and dangerous. Many of them voted for former presidential hopeful Nikki Haley.

But all those developments are offset by the lack of enthusiasm toward Biden and his party among core Democratic constituencies, including Arab Americans, younger voters, progressives and voters of color.

And the presence of left of center third-party hopefuls, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., on many state ballots would seem to improve the former president’s prospects in November.

Until there is strong evidence that key demographic groups are returning to the Democratic Party — and to Biden — it’s difficult to believe that Biden leads Trump at this point. Of course, it’s only early April, so there is plenty of time for the election’s trajectory to change.  

As November approaches, core Democratic constituencies that now are unenthusiastic about Biden will come under greater pressure to return to their party. That often happens in presidential campaigns, especially when both nominees have serious flaws.

The problem for both Biden and Trump is that they are so well known. It is difficult to change people’s opinions when they already have strong views about a candidate.

Unexpected developments can get voters to reassess their opinions, but that’s relatively rare when the two presidential nominees have spent decades in the limelight, as Biden and Trump have.

The presidential contest is still about a relative handful of core Democratic constituencies that are not enthusiastic about their party’s nominee and a small but decisive group of swing voters who don’t like either nominee but will choose the lesser of two evils in November.

Biden may indeed win in November, but there is no reason for unbridled optimism among Democratic observers at this point.

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