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How Democrats are handling Biden’s bad poll numbers

A Washington Post-ABC News poll has Biden trailing both Trump and DeSantis — but does that mean the White House should worry?

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on protecting consumers when there are flight delays or cancellations,  on May 8.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on protecting consumers when there are flight delays or cancellations, on May 8. (Chris Kleponis/CNP/Pool via Shutterstock)

As far as public opinion goes, it doesn’t get much worse than the new Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted between April 28 and May 3, which shows President Biden to be historically unpopular.

It isn’t exactly how the president wanted to start his reelection campaign, but his allies are shrugging off the bad numbers — and the bad press they have generated.

Here are five ways to interpret the poll and what it means for 2024.

1. The poll is really bad

That is the most obvious takeaway.

“This poll is just brutal for President Biden,” said George Stephanapolous, the former Bill Clinton adviser who now hosts ABC’s “This Week” political talk show.

The survey found that Biden’s approval rating has fallen to a lackluster 36%, with 56% of respondents disapproving of his performance. And in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with the leading Republican presidential candidates — former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — Biden loses to both, although he performs slightly better against DeSantis.

According to polling news site FiveThirtyEight, there is only one recent president who has polled this poorly this late into his term, and it’s one that Biden does not aspire to emulate: Donald Trump.

2. The poll is bad, but that’s good

Sometimes, a jarring poll like this one can provide a valuable warning to the White House. Either it is failing to solve the problems most Americans care about, or it is doing a poor job of telling Americans how it is solving their problems.

“This poll, even if it proves an outlier, makes clear that Biden faces an uphill climb,” Jon Cowan, co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way, told Yahoo News.

Though it’s far from a consensus view, Cowan believes that Biden does best when he shies from the lure of polarizing progressive policies and allows the contrast with an increasingly immoderate GOP to materialize on its own.

“If he sticks to the center, he will be able to credibly turn this election into a choice between mainstream versus extreme, the key contrast to win the suburbs,” Cowan told Yahoo News.

3. The poll is bad because the polling is bad

FiveThirtyEight, which rates pollsters for accuracy, gives the ABC News/Washington Post poll an “A” grade. But some of the president’s allies have faulted the survey for sampling what they say is a small and unrepresentative group of Americans.

“Flawed poll. Sample adults not likely voters. Undecided too high. Sample too Republican,” wrote top Biden pollster Celinda Lake.

Chris Wilson, a pollster affiliated with a political group supporting DeSantis, a presumptive Republican candidate, also argued that the poll has what he called “serious problems.”

4. It doesn’t matter that the poll is bad

In the summer of 2011, a Washington Post poll found that 40% of Americans said they would not vote for President Obama again. Across the spectrum, there was a “[l]ack of enthusiasm about awarding Obama a second term,” the Washington Post reported.

Obama won, of course. Eight years later, as his former Vice President Joe Biden sought the Democratic presidential nomination, polls suggested vanishing excitement for his candidacy, too.

For the most part, Biden listens to a small group of trusted aides — such as former chief of staff Ron Klain and senior adviser Anita Dunn — who are rarely rattled by bad poll numbers. They also take a skeptical view of the news media, which they regard as always in search of a narrative.

“Americans voted for Joe Biden’s America in 2020 and 2022,” Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz told Yahoo News. “And regardless of what today’s Beltway insiders say, they will again in 2024.”

5. It’s good to poll badly, actually

Trump tends to be at his best when he is attacked. Biden, on the other hand, is at his best when he is underestimated. Time and again, he has delighted in surpassing the skepticism of columnists and pundits.

“In some ways, he loves being the underdog and being able to prove people wrong at the end of the day,” an associate of the president told The Hill.

Every bad poll, the thinking goes, lowers expectations. The president’s allies point to a similar dynamic ahead of the 2022 midterms, which many predicted would turn out to be a landslide Republican victory.

Instead, the GOP narrowly won the House of Representatives, while Democrats maintained their hold on the Senate while also winning key gubernatorial races across the country.

For a president used to being dismissed as a has-been, it was another unlikely victory.

“We’re going to defy the odds,” a Biden campaign staffer said. “We feel good.”