Friday, July 19, 2024

Analysis | Is a hazy 2-point shift enough to warrant dumping Biden?

Analysis | Is a hazy 2-point shift enough to warrant dumping Biden?

The states that decided the 2020 presidential election went for Joe Biden by one percentage point or less: Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Four years before, Donald Trump was elected president thanks to similar narrow margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In both elections, the Democratic candidate won more votes nationally — millions more votes. But that doesn’t matter. Those razor-thin margins in the electoral college do.

The implication then is that this election may — or really, will — come down to similarly narrow margins in many of the same states. A candidate with an edge in those places, even a small one, is a better candidate for his or her party. If, for example, there were a Democrat who the party was confident could beat Donald Trump by one point in swing states instead of losing to Trump by one point, that candidate would be a better bet for winning the White House, even if he or she got 2 million fewer votes in California or New York.

This is the fundamental challenge the party faces at the moment. It is trying to decide whether another candidate would fare better than President Biden against Trump this November, but polling continues to suggest that other candidates — particularly Vice President Harris — would have only incremental advantages.

There are reasons for that we will get into in a second. But there’s an important point to make first: Those advantages could mean a narrow swing-state defeat turns into a narrow swing-state victory — but they are also narrow enough that they invariably fall into a given poll’s margin of sampling error. In other words, the party is trying to figure out where it might have a narrow advantage, but polls are incapable of precisely measuring advantages that narrow.

An undeniable logic undergirds the party’s reconsideration of its nominee. As a Washington Post-ABC News-Ipsos poll out Thursday demonstrates, most Americans think Biden should abandon his candidacy. He is faring worse against Trump than he did four years ago and worse than any recent Democratic candidate at this point in the cycle. The debate held at the end of June preceded a slight widening of Trump’s lead in polling averages.

But that same Post-ABC-Ipsos poll found that Biden and Trump are tied nationally, as they have been for some time. Americans (and most Democrats) think Biden should leave the race, but if he doesn’t, a lot of them plan to vote for him anyway. The debate reinforced concerns about Biden’s age, but most of his voters are supporting him mostly because he’s the guy running against Trump. To some extent, Biden’s age is baked into his candidacy — just as Trump’s criminal indictments and conviction are baked into his support. (In The Post-ABC-Ipsos poll, three-quarters of those who said they planned to vote for Trump indicated that they would keep supporting him even if he were sent to prison.)

Polls are necessarily approximations of how people view political decisions. For example, asked whether they watched the debate, six in 10 respondents in our poll said they’d watched or listened to all or most of it. Those who said they paid attention to the whole thing also indicated they backed Trump over Biden by a 17-point margin. Those who said they’d paid no attention to it backed Biden by 16 points.

Perhaps this indicates a lack of familiarity with Biden’s performance in the debate, which backstops his support. It’s probably more likely, though, that Trump supporters were eager to reinforce the importance of the debate and Biden supporters to downplay it. In other words, it’s not clear which direction the causal arrow points here.

The Post-ABC-Ipsos poll asked registered voters both how they’d vote in a Biden-Trump contest and in a Harris-Trump one, should Biden decide to stand down or should the party replace him at the convention. There are other possible candidates who could end up on the ticket, though Harris is the most likely. Polling about those candidates, though, means asking voters how they feel about, say, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), someone who half the country has never heard of.

How did Harris fare against Trump? Slightly better than Biden. Two points overall, and slightly better with younger, non-White and college-educated voters. All of them, though, are within the margins of error for those subgroups.

Maybe that two-point edge is enough to convince Democrats that Harris would necessarily fare better than Biden. Maybe, though, it’s a function of the sample used in the poll, as the margin of error suggests is a possibility. Maybe Whitmer would be better — but you’d have to run an actual campaign in which she’s introduced to voters to find out.

Democrats always want to win presidential elections, of course, but this year that desire is particularly acute. Trump is deeply unpopular within the party and has shown clear disregard for American democracy. If there were a candidate who would demonstrably fare better than Biden in November, the party would be justified in throwing its support behind that candidate.

Objective data, though, can’t demonstrate such a shift. And, in part because he’s running against Trump, Biden didn’t see a huge dip in support after the debate that would accentuate how much better other candidates would fare.

The party is left operating on instinct: Biden seems like he would be worse than other candidates and unquestionably poses a risk of further exacerbating concerns about his age. But no one can say with certainty that other candidates would do significantly better.

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