4 Reasons Biden’s 2024 Odds May Be Better Than You Think

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Conventional wisdom holds that a president seeking reelection needs a job-approval rating at or very near 50 percent. Among recent presidents, according to Gallup, Ronald Reagan was at 58 percent, Bill Clinton was at 54 percent, and Barack Obama was at 52 percent right before their successful reelections. Conversely, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating was 37 percent immediately before he lost the presidency, and George H.W. Bush’s was even worse, at 34 percent, as voters went to the polls to eject him from the White House. H.W.’s son, George W. Bush, offers the most marginal case: he narrowly won reelection with a Gallup job-approval rating of 48 percent. Donald Trump, on the other hand, lost with a rating of 45 percent.

Right now Joe Biden’s job-approval rating per Gallup is 41 percent; he’s lower, at 40 percent, in the RealClearPolitics polling averages, and still lower, at 38.9 percent in the FiveThirtyEight averages. Gallup notes that his average job-approval rating during the third year of his presidency was 39.8 percent, worse than losers Trump and George H.W. Bush and better only than Carter (37.4 percent).

It’s unclear how far Biden needs to go in improving his popularity to earn a second term. But there are several reasons for guarded optimism in the Biden camp, ranging from the actual choice voters will make in November to objective conditions in the country. The president’s situation is a lot better than it looks at first glance.

It matters a great deal that Biden’s opponent will almost certainly be Donald Trump, creating an exceedingly rare contest between two presidents, neither of them very popular. Trump’s own favorability rating (per RCP) is at 41.6 percent, not significantly higher than Biden’s job approval. And everything about the near-presumptive Republican nominee suggests Biden will be able to make this a comparative election rather than simply a referendum on his own administration. In an ideal world for Biden, his threshold for victory is like Trump’s in 2016, when the very unpopular mogul managed to defeat the almost equally unpopular Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College.

Biden’s job-approval numbers may slightly exaggerate his unpopularity among the Americans who will actually vote in November. Most of his worst recent approval polls (e.g., Pew’s 33 percent assessment, another 33 percent showing in an ABC/Ipsos survey, and a 36 percent rating from TIPP) involve wide-net samples of “adults,” not registered voters, much less likely voters. There’s a lot of evidence that in 2024 Biden could do especially poorly among low-propensity voters. Yes, they are more likely to turn out in presidential than in midterm elections, but the unusually sour mood among Americans entering 2024 suggests a level of turnout that doesn’t match this election’s huge consequences. If so, as pollsters begin to focus more narrowly on likely voters, Biden’s numbers may automatically improve a bit.

There are some tentative signs that voters may finally be noticing that the economy is not as bad as they thought it was during 2023, as the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell observed last week:

Since November … the University of Michigan’s long-running consumer sentiment index has risen a cumulative 29 percent. That’s the largest two-month increase since 1991, leaving sentiment at its highest level since mid-2021.

A similar consumer confidence measure from the Conference Board, a corporate think tank, also ticked up. And surveys from YouGov and the Economist find that the share of Americans who believe the economy is in recession has been shrinking.

These are all terrific developments for Biden’s reelection campaign. Though it seems unlikely that the economy will suddenly transition into a winning issue for the incumbent, it might stop being an albatross around his neck.

Rampell suggests that the current trajectory of the economy resembles what occurred in 2012, when Obama slowly turned his reelection prospects around after the disaster of the 2010 Republican midterm landslide. The economy has not been the only voter concern holding down Biden’s popularity (the situation at the border now rivals it), but it’s always among the most important issues.

Finally, no winning or losing presidential incumbent has ever faced an opponent saddled with multiple criminal indictments and embarrassing civil judgments. Actual Trump convictions before November remain entirely possible. While the 45th president’s legal travails may have helped him navigate the GOP nomination contest by boosting his popularity in the core MAGA base of the Republican-primary electorate, they are much more likely to hurt him than help him among general-election swing voters, as the New York Times explained last month:

[W]e have seen the effect in several national surveys, like a recent Wall Street Journal poll. In a hypothetical matchup between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump leads by four percentage points. But if Mr. Trump is convicted, there is a five-point swing, putting Mr. Biden ahead, 47 percent to 46 percent …

In recent CNN polls from Michigan and Georgia, Mr. Trump holds solid leads. The polls don’t report head-to-head numbers if Mr. Trump is convicted, but if he is, 46 percent of voters in Michigan and 47 percent in Georgia agree that he should be disqualified from the presidency.

Most recently, significant minorities of participants in the Republican Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have expressed reluctance to vote for Trump if he is a convicted criminal. Maybe most of them will put on the party harness by November, but their ambiguity is another reason it would be foolish to place too much emphasis on Biden’s level of popularity.

Last spring, my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti summarized Team Biden’s answer to concerns that the president’s age might doom him in 2024 as “Old beats crazy.” I’d say “Old beats crazy criminal” is an even stronger argument.

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