The Polling is Wrong

Recent polling shows bad news for Democrats in 2024, but raw election results and other fundamental events show something different. It appears the latter is right.

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President Joe Biden has been underwater in approval polling since September 2021, coming off of the tail of what many Americans perceived as a flawed withdrawal from Afghanistan. His average net disapproval rating has stabilized around 15 points since a year and a half ago. Biden also trails his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, in polling in several battleground states. Clearly, this would indicate doom for the Democratic Party and Biden in elections since then, but that has not been the case. Ever since the issue of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, Republicans have consistently underperformed in election after election, even as Biden’s polling has reached lows. As the 2024 elections approach, this discrepancy remains, and now Biden himself will be on the ballot once more.

There is widespread consensus that the Republican Party has botched winnable races by having candidates run on fringe positions outside the political mainstream, causing them to lose independent-leaning voters and even centrist Republican voters to Democratic candidates, even as turnout has favored Republicans. Notably, in 2022, battleground state gubernatorial candidates such as Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, Tudor Dixon of Michigan, and Kari Lake of Arizona lost, either unexpectedly or by larger margins than expected, while running on extreme stances of a total abortion ban and engaging in denial of the 2020 election results. Republicans also won the House of Representatives by a far smaller margin than expected in 2022 and failed to win the Senate. Less notably, this pattern has continued in off-year and special elections. In 2023, Republicans lost the legislature in Virginia and lost the gubernatorial race in Kentucky. In contrast, Democrats have noted overperformances in several special elections for legislative seats across the country, as they ran on broadly acceptable platforms on social and economic issues that resonate with Americans such as abortion and healthcare and continue to do so. The Republican Party has not learned from these mistakes and continues to run on a fringe platform of social issues including abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and economic issues—such as Social Security and taxation—while attacking democratic institutions. Many battleground states’ Republican parties are now on the brink of bankruptcy while their Democratic counterparts outraise them, and the Republican National Committee may even be on the hook for Trump’s legal fees and civil judgments of upwards of $500 million as a result of the numerous lawsuits Trump has fought unsuccessfully.

This pattern is even visible from Trump’s weakness with some Republicans and many independents. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2019, Nikki Haley, unsuccessfully attempted to challenge Trump from an angle of tempered conservatism. Though Haley failed to resonate with the Republican base, she attracted considerable support from more tempered Republicans and moderate-leaning independents, leading Trump to weaker than expected victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Utah, winning Vermont and the District of Columbia, and still capturing a considerable portion of the vote in many primaries and caucuses after her withdrawal from the contest for the nomination. It seems somewhat unlikely that these voters are now enthusiastic voters for their party’s nominee, Trump according to entrance and exit polling—polls conducted when voters leave polling places, or in the case of caucus elections, when entering a caucus site—of Haley voters, which is exacerbated by Haley’s refusal to endorse Trump. The lack of enthusiasm for Trump among these voters boils down to his ideology, his extremist rhetoric—a theme since 2015, but has reached levels unseen even in his first campaign such as suggesting undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of America”, which has drawn comparisons to similar antisemitic comments made by Adolf Hitler—and the 91 indictments he received for his crimes of falsifying business records, mishandling sensitive documents, and attempting to overturn the 2020 election. These issues present a far greater weakness for Trump than the lack of enthusiasm among Democrats for Biden, making voters far more prone to defection from Trump and potentially voting for Biden, given that many see Trump’s shortfallings as far more serious than Biden’s with respect to the role of commander-in-chief.

The primary reason for the lack of enthusiasm among Democrats and Independents for Biden seems to be his age. Though Biden is only about four years older than Trump, and Trump has noticeably begun to be affected by his advanced age, Biden’s role as president grants him far more visibility than Trump and thus attracts far more scrutiny. Other reasons for Biden’s disapproval, such as his handling of the economy—which were also problems inherited from his predecessor, such as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—seem to not be as much about his handling but rather an appearance of ineptitude due to his age. The issue of age and capacity to handle the role of the president is quite serious, but it is not necessarily seen as a disqualification by the American electorate. Trump’s far more serious actions are, however, seen as disqualifying and would be more likely to cause damage. This lack of enthusiasm translates into polling, likely granting Trump the lead. As Trump’s visibility has increased after clinching the nomination, he has begun to see his polling lead shrink, and Biden’s net approval has seen a noticeable increase.

This “shyness” to vote for the party that a voter supports was first documented in the United Kingdom in 1992, known there as the “shy Tory factor”. In the 1992 general election, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister (PM) John Major, was trailing Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party in election polling, with many dissatisfied with former Conservative PM Thatcher’s policies. Major led the party to an upset victory over Labour, and pollsters concluded that “shy Tory voters” did not indicate a vote for the Tories in election polling. Similar phenomena have been noted in upset election victories across the globe, including in the United States. Many of the “shy voters” that Biden struggles with seem to be more liberal young voters and moderate swing voters who are weary about Biden’s age and the perceptions of competence that result.

There is also historical precedent for a nominally unpopular presidential administration to win reelection unexpectedly. President Harry Truman consistently trailed his challenger, Republican Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey, in election polling by large margins, and the media declared the race to be over. Headlines such as “Our Next President Rides by Ferryboat over San Francisco Bay” in Life magazine were printed about Dewey before the election. The media’s behavior during the election came to bite them, most notably, the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, which printed a “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” headline the night of the election. Truman ultimately won the election and his party retook Congress. The media’s stunning inability to foresee Truman’s gains in polling translating to a victory was utterly humiliating, especially when Truman was captured in a photograph holding the erroneous Tribune headline with a grin. Truman’s victory was ultimately chalked up to his energetic campaign attacking the Republican Congress as a “Do Nothing Congress,” most famously by calling Congress for a special session to dare them to pass their own party platform where they failed again.

Similar parallels persist in the 2024 election. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has made the 118th Congress the least productive session of Congress since the Great Depression, even worse than the “Do Nothing Congress” of 1947-1949, worsened by the Republican infighting that even makes routine party-line procedural votes fail. It appears that as a result, many more establishment congressional Republicans are retiring, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump is disconnected from the American public, especially with his far greater embrace of radical ideas at the edge of the Overton window—the window of ideas within the mainstream of public opinion—his indictments on charges, and his denial of the results of the 2020 election. Yet the media repeatedly emphasizes Biden’s age and de-emphasizes positive news such as sustained economic growth, slowing inflation, or low unemployment rates, leading to far different voter perceptions than what is reality.

Ultimately, polling for the 2024 election with respect to Biden and the Democratic Party must be contextual to other developments since many of these developments contradict polling. Biden could absolutely lose reelection, and Democrats could absolutely fumble the bag in downballot races, but the fundamentals in other data do not reflect this reality. There are many things that the Democratic Party and Biden can do to counteract this flawed perception. Attacking Trump’s policies and reminding the American electorate of his failures, while emphasizing the beneficial changes Biden has made, will be essential. Abortion, democracy, and LGBTQ+ rights are especially critical in this election, and many voters will be disincentivized to vote for Trump and Republicans if extreme stances become salient enough. Republicans’ unpopular proposals for the budget such as cutting Social Security can also be used to attack them like Obama successfully did in 2012 after Paul Ryan, the architect of one of these proposals, became the Republican vice presidential nominee. Such as in 1948, the right thing for the Democratic Party to do is to go on an energetic attack on the policies of the other side. Doing so continuously until Election Day will confirm that the current streak of polling is a mirage. The pollsters will be forced to reevaluate their methodologies and the media will be forced to reevaluate how they decide to focus on information to correct this mirage. For the sake of the country, the polling must be a mirage.