Biden's case for re-election is improving, but his polling against Trump is still shaky

WASHINGTON — The economy is improving, inflation is falling, joblessness is down, and the stock market is hitting record highs. Crime is dropping. U.S. crude oil production is at an all-time high. A special counsel declined to bring charges against President Joe Biden for mishandling classified information, and the Republican impeachment inquiry is flailing.

Biden’s case for re-election is strengthening, but he still enters the general election in a weaker position than he did in 2020, when he consistently led Donald Trump in national and swing state surveys, often by wide margins. His struggles come despite Trump’s mounting legal bills and four criminal cases, with one trial set to begin next month.

Democrats offer a variety of theories as to why.

“Because we haven’t made our argument yet,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in an interview.

“Democrats’ record on the economy, on crime, on making prescription drugs less expensive, on climate action, on civil rights, on human rights, on gun safety — our record is strong, and [Trump’s] record was catastrophically bad,” he said. But we haven’t spent any money and any time making that argument because we’ve been too busy doing the work. As we move into a different season, we’re going to be making that argument. Once people hear it, the votes move.”

‘We’ve got quite a bit of time’

The president has just over seven months — and a lot of votes to move, according to surveys as he and Trump clinched their party’s nominations this month. Nationally, most polls show a statistical tie or a Trump lead. By contrast, at this time in 2020, Biden was leading Trump by about 6 points in the FiveThirtyEight average.

In the battleground states that gave Biden the White House — like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona — surveys in recent weeks largely show dead heats or Trump leading outside the margins of error. A clear Biden lead was common in swing state polls around this time in 2020, but it’s all but absent today.

A new Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll Tuesday found signs of hope for Biden as he ticked upward against Trump in six of seven swing states over the last month. Still, there was little to celebrate: He was either trailing Trump or statistically tied in all seven states. The poll showed voter perceptions of the economy improving, as did a CNBC national survey that found a dead heat.

Biden’s campaign notes that Democrats have consistently overperformed the polls since 2022. But in 2016 and 2020, when Trump was on the ballot, Democrats underperformed the polls both times. And the Electoral College has built-in advantages for Trump: In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by 7 million and squeaked out an Electoral College win by 45,000 votes in three states.

Biden campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt declined to comment on the polls but credited him for the improving economy.

“Joe Biden wakes up every day fighting to make life better for the American people,” she said. “The President is committed to earning not demanding Americans’ votes, unlike Donald Trump who is running a campaign of revenge and retribution for himself and his wealthy friends.”

The Trump campaign said its arguments remain strong.

“Inflation is still wildly out of control, prices of goods are astronomical, the border is an unmitigated disaster with illegals causing bloodbaths in communities across the country, and [special counsel Robert] Hur called low IQ Crooked Joe an elderly man with a terrible memory unfit to actually stand trial,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in an email. “Democrats and the media should stop gaslighting the American people from all the hurt Crooked Joe has caused in just four years.”

‘Some of Biden’s coalition is still wandering’

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he doesn’t believe the improving conditions will save Biden, because the benefits of lower unemployment and wage growth have been uneven.

“The economy is not uniform,” he said in an interview. “In a lot of respects, the elites in our country aren’t having the same daily experience that a lot of working families are. So I think there’s a big disconnect — some of it is economic, and I think some of it is cultural. That’s my gut instinct.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Biden’s struggles are due to the fact that voters “are still reeling from the higher prices” even though inflation is down. He said Biden must speak to ongoing concerns like fentanyl poisoning, mental health and education.

“The cost of buying a home or renting a home and the cost of pharmaceuticals are high,” he said, calling for initiatives to “take on the hedge funds that are buying up the housing market” and negotiate “every drug for every American” to lower medicine costs. “In all those areas, team Biden does have policies that will make things better. And Trump, quite frankly, doesn’t,” he said. “We’ve got quite a bit of time before the election for this discussion to take place.”

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who is bullish on Biden’s prospects, said “large numbers of voters haven’t checked in” and “some of Biden’s coalition is still wandering,” so surveys show him struggling with young and nonwhite voters. He predicted the polls will improve for Biden by “late spring,” around April or May.

“Our view is — and I sort of share the view of the campaign on this — that the likely scenario is that a chunk of the coalition will come home in the next few months as it becomes clear that it’s Biden-Trump and as the Biden campaign turns on,” Rosenberg said, “and then my expectation is we’ll be up a few points.”

Has GOP ‘fumbled’ its case against Biden?

Rosenberg said his optimism is partly due to the thinning GOP case.

“Their basic argument against Biden — much of it has evaporated in the last few months. The economy is strong; it’s not weak. Inflation is down; it’s not up. Violent crime and murder rates are plummeting, not rising. We’re producing more domestic energy of all kinds than ever before — there’s no war on energy,” he said. “And if you take those away … what they were left with was the ‘Biden crime family’ narrative,” which “has been exposed as a farce in recent weeks,” and Biden’s age.

“They had clear advantages on the border. And I think they’ve fumbled that now,” he said, citing the GOP’s rejection of a Biden-backed bipartisan bill to impose stricter border and asylum laws. “I think they’ve given us a chance to get back into a competitive position on the border or even go on offense about that.

“What that leaves the Republicans with is not a lot. They don’t really have obvious places to go after Biden,” Rosenberg said. “And the likelihood of this becoming a referendum on Trump has increased dramatically in my view in the last few weeks.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who also faces re-election this year, said the presidential race will be a fight to the end.

“The population is closely divided in a lot of our states. I’m very proud of the president’s record, and I’m proud of having been part of it. But I don’t see the next months as being smooth. I think we’re going to have to really work. We got to just battle every day to be successful. The nation needs for us to be successful,” he said. “It’s going to be a race unlike any other in the history of the country.”

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