Advertisement

Why it will be tough for Biden to defeat Trump

The 2024 presidential general election is here, for all intents and purposes. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are set to face off in the first presidential rematch since 1956. It’s also the first rematch between a current and a former president since 1892.

But unlike in 2020 when he was favored over Trump for the entirety of the campaign, Biden faces a rougher road this time around. Indeed, he has no better than a 50-50 shot for reelection, and fans of the current president should be aware that Trump has a real chance at retaking the White House.

Just look at the polls that were released in the past week. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College, CBS News/YouGov, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal all gave Trump a higher percentage of the vote than Biden by margins ranging from 2 to 4 points. (KFF had Biden scoring 3 points higher than Trump.)

All those results were officially within the margin of error, but put together they paint a picture of a troubled incumbent.

It’s not just that Biden is in worse shape against his general election opponent than almost any incumbent in the past 75 years (save Trump in 2020). It’s that a lead of any margin for Trump was unheard of during the 2020 campaign – not a single poll that met CNN’s standards for publication showed Trump leading Biden nationally.

And in that 2020 race, the states that put Biden over the top in the Electoral College (Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin) were each decided by less than a point. He had very little margin for error.

The state of polling today looks worse for Biden. I’ve previously pointed out that the president looks to be in a considerably worse position in Sun Belt battleground states today than four years ago.

He’s trailing by 5 points or more in the most recent polling from Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. No Democratic presidential candidate has lost Nevada since 2004.

If Biden loses all of those states, he can still win if he carries every other contest he did in 2020 — that would help him finish 270-268 in electoral votes.

The problem for Biden is that he’s behind in Michigan. The average of polls over the past six months that meet CNN’s standards for publication has him down 4 points.

In other words, the polls show Trump ahead, however narrowly, in enough states right now to win the Electoral College and the presidency.

The election, though, isn’t being held today or tomorrow. It’s being held in about eight months.

But if I were Biden, it’s not so much the “horse race” polling that would bother me. It’s what lies underneath the hood.

Americans say the top problems facing the country are either related to the economy or immigration. Trump is considerably more trusted than Biden on both issues. It’s possible that if consumer sentiment continues to improve or border crossings decline, Biden could pick up steam against Trump.

Then again, I’m not so sure. Biden is the least popular elected incumbent at this point in his reelection bid since World War II. His approval rating is hovering at or just below 40%. The two most recent incumbents with similarly low approval ratings around this point in their presidencies (Trump and George H.W. Bush in 1992) both lost in November.

A lot of Democrats like to argue that you can’t just look at Biden’s approval ratings. His opponent is unpopular too, with unfavorable ratings above his favorable ratings.

It’s a fair point, but numerous polls (including the most recent ones from Fox News, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) have Trump’s favorable ratings a few points higher than Biden’s. Again, this is very different from what we were seeing in 2020.

This means that it isn’t enough for Biden merely to win voters who dislike both men. He has to win them by a substantial margin to make up for his popularity deficit.

With eight months to go, Biden could certainly make up the gap. But unlike in most campaigns, both major-party candidates are already well defined. Less than 5% of voters aren’t able to register an opinion on Biden or Trump.

For more people to turn against Trump, Biden’s best hope may lie with the four criminal indictments against the former president. Putting aside the fact that the start dates for most of those trials are iffy, except for the New York hush money case, it’s not clear how much of a difference it would make were Trump to be found guilty in any of those cases.

A majority of likely voters (53%) said they already thought Trump had committed a serious federal crime, according to the New York Times polling. The same poll showed Trump up 4 points among likely voters.

Trump was ahead in this survey because 18% of his supporters said he had committed a serious federal crime and were still backing him. Such a statistic should be worrying to Biden supporters because if some voters think Trump committed a serious federal crime but are still willing to vote for him, what could possibly get them to change their minds?

By the same token, the Times polling found that 72% of likely voters said Biden’s age made him too old to be an effective president (compared with the comparatively smaller 53% who said Trump had committed a serious federal crime). This gap could be one of the biggest reasons Biden is having issues against Trump.

Perhaps the big question over the next eight months is whether Trump’s weaknesses will start to outweigh Biden’s. If they do, it’s probably the president’s best chance at earning another term.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com