The silver lining in a very bad poll for Biden

The silver lining in a very bad poll for Biden

President Joe Biden arrives to speak at the SK Siltron CSS facility in Bay City, Michigan, on November 29, 2022. | Nic Antaya/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Sun Belt is a disaster, but the Great Lakes states offer some hope of beating Trump.

If the 2024 presidential election were held today, it seems likely that Donald Trump would win the presidency. The latest New York Times/Siena College poll suggests as much, finding Trump leading President Joe Biden in five of six battleground states that will likely decide the Electoral College vote.

And yet, there’s still some hope for the Biden camp — thanks to a regional division in the poll’s results.

Biden’s deficits appear insurmountable in the Sun Belt battlegrounds of Arizona (Trump plus 6 among likely voters), Georgia (Trump plus 9), and Nevada (Trump plus 13).

But in the Great Lakes swing states of Michigan (Biden plus 1 among likely voters), Pennsylvania (Trump plus 3), and Wisconsin (Trump plus 1), Biden is doing much better. And if he won all three of those states, plus the non-swing states he’s expected to win comfortably, he could reach the 270 Electoral College votes he needs for a second term in the White House.

Why and how this is happening may provide some insights into what the Trump and Biden campaigns will have to do to win the election. But more generally, pollsters and polling analysts told me that the divide also reveals a lot about the state of the nation, of polling, and of how the electorate is changing.

Younger and nonwhite voters — two bedrocks of the Democratic coalition — are especially unhappy with Biden, largely because of the state of the economy. Those voters are a more influential segment of the electorate in these Sun Belt states. They are a key part of the Democratic coalition, and they have not necessarily made peace with supporting Biden’s reelection. The opposite is largely true in the original Blue Wall states.

“The interesting thing for me is to see, in the Midwest states, that Republicans are acting like Republicans, and Democrats are acting like Democrats. But if I’m looking at the [Sun Belt] states, what it boils down to is Republicans are coalesced, but Democrats aren’t yet,” the Republican pollster Amanda Iovino told me. “Biden is still having a problem with his base in these states.”

In all six states, Trump receives the support of about 90 percent or more of self-identified Republicans. But the same is true for Biden only in those Great Lakes states: He gets the backing of 94 percent of Democrats in Michigan, 90 percent of Democrats in Pennsylvania, and 93 percent of Democrats in Wisconsin.

In the Sun Belt, Democrats are much more divided — or defecting to Trump: 84 percent of Democrats back Biden in all three states.

Here, it’s helpful to understand how differently the electorates look in the north and south: White voters make up about 84 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin, 79 percent of the electorate in Pennsylvania, and 74 percent of the electorate in Michigan. They make up just about half of the electorate in Georgia and Nevada, and about 60 percent of the electorate in Arizona.

“Biden’s struggles primarily come from nonwhite voters right now. There’s a lot of those in the Sun Belt states,” Lakshya Jain, an analyst at the election modeling website Split Ticket, told me. “Add on to that the fact that in the Sun Belt, white voters are generally a little bit more conservative. Democratic strength in the Sun Belt comes from good minority margins, and if in polls, Biden is holding up well with white voters, but not necessarily super well with nonwhites, then you would expect that to be magnified in the Sun Belt, because that’s where whites are already pretty conservative and you have a very high share of minority voters.”

He pointed to Georgia as a prime example: Black voters make up about 30 percent of the electorate. If Biden is struggling with Black voters, that would have a significant effect on his overall levels of support in the state, since Democrats routinely lose white voters by huge margins.

Of course, this poll provides a snapshot in time. And Jain, Iovino, and other data experts I spoke to told me they’re not entirely convinced with the specific numbers in the crosstabs: Trump, for example, is supposedly leading Biden among young voters nationally and winning women in Nevada. The Times itself notes:

Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are essentially tied among 18-to-29-year-olds and Hispanic voters, even though each group gave Mr. Biden more than 60 percent of their vote in 2020. Mr. Trump also wins more than 20 percent of Black voters — a tally that would be the highest level of Black support for any Republican presidential candidate since the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But the data still provides signs about the direction the electorate is leaning, as well the reasons for that lean: discontent with the economy above everything else (though abortion and immigration come in as the other top issues). About 90 percent of young voters and 85 percent of Latino voters think the economy is fair or poor, and Trump is trusted better on the economy by both those groups. Those signs suggest Biden has huge room to make improvements and craft a better message if he wants to make a dent in that Trump advantage.

And despite the prevalence of the IsraelPalestine conflict, the issue does not seem to be the driver of Biden’s base or electorate troubles.

“Defections over Gaza make up a little over 1 percent of Biden’s 2020 vote share. That’s not nothing, but also that’s such a small share. If you want to look at why Biden is sliding, the bigger reason is obviously the economy,” Jain told me. “If you look at people defecting over Gaza, 17 percent of them think that it’s because he’s been too favorable to Palestine.”

Finally, there are some additional kernels of information to watch: Democratic Senate candidates are performing better than Biden and receiving higher support from Democratic voters themselves. That suggests that 2024 could either be a banner year for split-ticket voting, or a year where these Democrats “come home” and bring themselves to vote for Biden after all.

Of course, this is still not the best news for Democrats. Trump’s leads in those Sun Belt states have only increased since the last time they were polled in this Times/Siena survey. A look under the hood shows an upset and disengaged electorate — but one with many persuadable voters and Americans who may soon tune back into the political cycle.

“Biden probably has a fair bit of room to grow,” Jain told me. “Right now, what it is, is the election is exceptionally low salience for a presidential election, and that’s because it’s six months out.”

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