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A Biden-Trump rematch would be mostly about Trump

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President Joe Biden may be the incumbent in the White House, but rather than a referendum on Biden and his policies, the coming general election is shaping up to be yet another referendum on former President Donald Trump.

But what may be more interesting than those horse-race figures in a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS is voters’ motivation, which is dominated by Trump on both sides of the political divide. Most Biden supporters (68%) said they would be casting their vote against Trump as opposed to just 32% who said it would be a vote to support Biden.

It’s the opposite for registered voters supporting Trump; 60% said it would be a vote for Trump compared with 40% who would be casting a vote against Biden. And that’s before Trump’s four separate criminal trials get underway.

A second straight Biden-Trump matchup could be a very close race. For now, Trump has an edge; he gets the support of 49% of registered voters in CNN’s poll compared with 45% who back Biden. The figures are identical to CNN’s poll in the fall.

A divisive, upsetting rematch

The Republican primary is not yet over. But considering Trump’s lead in the Republican delegate race and his growing support among Republican primary voters – more on that below – it is entirely appropriate to consider what the general election holds.

“The poll finds that a victory by either candidate would leave most of the nation dissatisfied and a substantial share upset,” write CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta and Ariel Edwards-Levy in an ominous note about the future. Read their full report on the CNN poll.

Biden’s favorability dropped last year. Trump’s rose

More Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Biden than have an unfavorable view of Trump in CNN’s poll.

Trump’s unfavorable rating has dropped over the past year from January 2023, when 63% said they had an unfavorable view of the former president. It’s now at 55%. Biden’s unfavorable rating during that same period has increased, from 54% a year ago to 59% this year.

This is one poll

A polling pro tip, which I’ll channel from Agiesta, CNN’s polling director: It’s not smart to put too much stock in the head-to-head figure in any one poll, particularly a poll in January for an election that won’t take place until November. Another poll out this week, conducted by Quinnipiac, shows Biden with a slim lead.

Concerns about Biden’s age stick

The most-cited concern about Trump among Republicans and Republican-leaning registered voters is his demeanor. Fifteen percent worry about his tactlessness, his abrasiveness and his mouth. Compare that with the most-cited concern about Biden among Democrats and Democratic-leaning registered voters: 46% worry about his age.

Biden is weaker against Haley

Republicans are barreling toward a third straight Trump nomination, but former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley makes a compelling case that she could be a stronger candidate against Biden.

In CNN’s poll, she would beat Biden 52% to 39% among registered voters if the election was held today. The Quinnipiac poll also suggests Haley would be in a stronger position against Biden in a general election.

Trump’s command of the GOP is complete

In case there is any lingering doubt about Trump’s position atop the Republican Party, consider that in CNN’s poll he now gets the support of 70% of Republican or Republican-leaning registered voters compared with Haley’s 19%.

Those are the strongest figures for either Trump or Haley in CNN’s polling during the primary campaigns, but with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire behind him, it’s clear the party is coalescing around Trump for the third straight time.

Why is Haley still in this race?

If she is trailing Trump so badly in polls and he won the first primary contests, why is Haley still in the race? She continues to make the argument that she’s better suited to lead the country for two terms.

“The fact that we would have two 80-year-old candidates running for president is absurd,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday.

Why stay in the race when she’s so far behind in the polls?

“We’ve had two states that have voted,” Haley told Tapper. “You need 1,215 delegates. Donald Trump has 32. I have 17. We still have 48 states and more territories to go before we get there. I’m not going anywhere.”

The campaign portion of this election is only beginning

Such a potentially close election could be won on the margins with turnout among key groups in key states. Keep an eye on the electoral votes that Trump won in 2016 and Biden won in 2020 – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and one electoral vote from Nebraska, which awards some of its electoral votes by congressional district.

That’s why Trump was meeting with Teamsters union leaders and members in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. He’ll try hard to peel union support away from Biden and hope his populist nationalism with its focus on White, working-class voters again resonates in Rust Belt states.

Biden was traveling to Michigan to meet with United Auto Workers union members Thursday, following his endorsement by UAW last week. But it will only be with a coalition of voters – union members and beyond – that either candidate wins the presidency.

Biden’s youth problem

For Biden, he’ll have to convince younger progressives souring on his presidency to turn out in droves.

Younger voters in particular have turned on Biden, although it’s not clear they have turned toward Trump.

There is a growing rift among Democrats over Biden’s strong support for Israel as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza grows. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have routinely been interrupted by loud protesters trying to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians. Michigan, one of those key states, has a particularly strong Arab American population.

What does the Middle East have to do with Michigan?

Voters might be more focused on voting for or against Trump, but Biden’s policy clearly does matter.

Rep. Hillary Scholten, a Michigan Democrat, told CNN’s Manu Raju that Biden needs to do more to win the state and that a negotiated peace agreement in the Middle East would help.

“There is a lot of pain in our state right now,” Scholten told Raju. “We have a large Arab American population, a large Jewish population, the lack of peace in the Middle East, we are entering the fourth month of the Israel-Hamas war. It is felt in a deeply personal way in places like Michigan that it isn’t in other parts of the country.”

These mini-battles for blocks of voters could be the story of the election, and the main question could be if Biden can muster enough opposition to stop Trump again, as opposed to motivating Democrats to reelect him.

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