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Biden and Trump: We can’t possibly lose to this guy

A large chunk of independent voters have an unfavorable view of both candidates, and the election may come down to them

Joe Biden has lost sight of how he won in 2020, Winston writes. Above,  the president is seen on May 3 at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony.
Joe Biden has lost sight of how he won in 2020, Winston writes. Above, the president is seen on May 3 at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In political terms, the Biden campaign and the Trump campaign seem to suffer from a very similar malady. Six months out from the election, both are operating under the misplaced assumption that “we can’t possibly lose to this guy.” It’s a narrative that has spawned a presidential contest with a particularly personal tone, and it’s turning off voters, especially independent voters. 

It’s also producing a significant segment of the electorate with a negative view of both candidates. The key question is how this important voter group will decide given that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have unfavorables of almost 60 percent. Among independents, it is almost 70 percent, according to the latest Winning the Issues survey (April 27–29). 

Twenty-two percent of the electorate has an unfavorable view of both, higher than the 2016 election exit polls, when 18 percent had an unfavorable view of both Hillary Clinton and Trump. Among independents, 41 percent are unfavorable to both candidates, up from 27 percent in 2016 exit polls. 

At 41 percent, given that independents made up 26 percent of voters at the presidential level in 2020, it could represent around 11 percent of the electorate in 2024. This means the election could be decided by voters who are unfavorable to both candidates. 

Clearly, both candidates have a serious problem with unfavorable voters, and how they address that unfavorability will be a determinant. 

To start, what Biden doesn’t understand is that his biggest challenge isn’t Donald Trump. It’s the actions of his presidency. Add to that the fact that the Biden team has lost sight of how they won in 2020 so they can’t understand now why they are in trouble. For three years, the Biden White House has been all about the base. The Joe Biden of the 2020 campaign, the centrist moderate who would bring the country together, has all but disappeared. 

Instead, Biden has governed from the left, which has resulted in a job approval of 38 percent and a 55 percent disapproval, according to the latest Winning the Issues survey. Among independents, it stands at 27 percent/62 percent. 

Worse, when it comes to the president personally, only 39 percent of voters now see him favorably; 59 percent view him unfavorably. Among independents, it’s a lopsided 29 percent/67 percent. 

Whether or not Biden wants to believe the polls, people are clearly unhappy with his presidency. 

Only 25 percent of voters say the country is headed in the right direction, while 66 percent say the country is seriously on the wrong track. With the economy/inflation being the top issue for 38 percent of voters, it’s equally problematic that 60 percent think inflation is getting worse while only 16 percent believe it is getting better. 

Independents have become a tougher challenge for Biden, who won them by 13 points in 2020, according to the exit polls. This was the largest margin against a major-party presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale in 1984. Simply put, independents are the reason Biden won the election. Yet his focus on his base has caused a significant shift among this key voter group, according to two recent surveys. 

At the national level, the most recent Morning Consult survey (May 10-12) had Trump in the lead among independents by 4 points, which would be a shift of 17 points in the margin (Biden +13 to Biden -4). Looking at key battleground states, the recent NYT/Siena polls of swing states saw striking movement with independents as well. In those states, the shift in the margin toward Trump with independents was significant (Arizona +14, Georgia +21 and Nevada +26). In the Rust Belt states, it found Michigan at +13, Wisconsin +16 and Pennsylvania +17. 

Even more challenging for Biden, the Winning the Issues survey found 16 percent of independents saying the country is headed in the right direction, while 75 percent said wrong track. They disapprove of how he is handling the job of being president by a margin of 27 percent approve to 62 percent disapprove. 

Independents say the economy/inflation is their top issue at 40 percent, and 61 percent of them think inflation is getting worse. Biden is trying to make the election about anything but the economy, but it is hard to tell voters they’re focused on the wrong issues, particularly kitchen table issues. 

When Biden tries to manage voter perceptions of the economy by telling them that “today, we [the United States] have the strongest economy in the world,” he only adds to his credibility problems. The problem with this statement is only 30 percent of voters believe it, while 58 percent don’t. His credibility is not helped when he claims that he inherited an inflation rate of 9 percent. 

Given their views on the current economy, voters say they have more confidence in Republicans over Democrats to handle the economy by a 51 percent/37 percent margin, and for inflation by a 52 percent/34 percent margin. 

But before the Trump campaign starts popping the champagne corks, they should be asking themselves a couple of tough questions. With Biden doing so badly in the polls on voters’ top issues, why is this race still so close? Why is Trump only leading at the national level by about 1 point? 

Looking at Real Clear Politics averages, Biden’s job approval at this point in his presidency (39.5 percent) is worse than Trump (45.6), Obama (48.3), and George W. Bush (45.6). One explanation is Trump’s poor brand image, which has dogged him since 2015 and now has translated to a 39 percent/58 percent favorable/unfavorable, according to the Winning the Issues survey. Among independents, it drops to 28 percent/69 percent. 

Ultimately, for both candidates the name of the game is winning the economic argument. Trump has one advantage in that voters have a positive view of the economy during his pre-pandemic presidency, a stark contrast to the unsettling economic impact of Biden’s inflation. But to combat his brand image problem and win the argument, Trump must avoid Biden’s mistake and reach beyond the Republican base by defining a center-right, broad-based vision for the future.

Winning this election may well come down to the 41 percent of independents who have an unfavorable view of both candidates. The candidate who can up his favorables ups his chances for a second term.

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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