Glutton for Punishment: Let’s Look at Some Poll Numbers

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Let me share some numbers with you. And let me preface this by saying that I am also very concerned about how perceptions of Joe Biden’s age and mental acuity are going to affect the outcome of this election. Emerson just released a new presidential poll which has Donald Trump up by 1 point over Joe Biden. It’s 45% to 44%. That’s in line with polls over the last month or so which show a very slight move back in Biden’s direction. (All margin of error but across numerous polls means a touch more.) It’s also a “registered voters” screen. And there’s decent evidence that those polls are understating Biden’s strength. They also polled Harris, Whitmer and Newsom. They were down, respectively, 3 points, 12 points and 10 points. Trump’s support was basically identical in every case. 45% with Biden and Whitmer, 46% with Harris and Newsom.

Importantly, this poll is generally in line with other polls going back many months. Most others I’ve seen don’t show Whitmer and Newsom quite that far back. But they’re consistent in showing the other top tier contenders to be no stronger than Biden and usually weaker.

Now, the best counter to this is that especially Newsom and Whitmer don’t have nearly the name recognition of Biden. Indeed, Harris being close to Biden would tend to back up that assumption. But let’s consider what that assumption actually tells us. The general premise is that this is or should be Democrats’ race to win. The problem is that Democrats are running a candidate with a big liability, i.e. Biden and his age, which makes it at best a 50-50 proposition. Slot in another qualified Democrat and that all changes. If that were really the case it shouldn’t matter that much that a Newsom or a Whitmer doesn’t have super high name recognition. They’re a generic Democrat — someone who’s won a big office, shares Biden’s policy positions but isn’t crazy old. Maybe you can say it doesn’t work with Harris because she’s just not that popular. Maybe it’s because she’s a Black woman. But all three are doing worse than Biden. One of them should at least be at a comparable position.

My point here is emphatically not to say that only Biden can beat Trump. It’s entirely possible that if Biden refused the nomination tomorrow one of these others would start further behind but sell themselves effectively and not be limited by old age during the stretch of the campaign. For what it’s worth, coalition politics, tradition and power all heavily favor Harris becoming the nominee. Indeed, I think if Biden stepped aside and then Harris was passed over that would be like lighting a stick of dynamite at the center of the Democratic coalition. But let’s set that issue aside because it’s a distinct one, although also very important. Let’s assume whoever makes the decision can pick any of them. They definitely might do better than Biden. My point is that most people are having this discussion on the assumption that Biden is a weak candidate relative to the other possibilities. Maybe there’s no way to get Biden to step aside, the argument goes. But if there were, suddenly Democrats would go from being a bit behind to clearly ahead. The best available evidence does not remotely back that up.

You might say, well maybe that’s just Biden’s incumbency talking. But that just makes the argument for him. Incumbents tend to get reelected. That’s why under normal circumstances even considering surrendering that advantage is all but unthinkable.

This certainly does not end the argument. The stakes are insanely high. And the age issue is a real one, if only at the level of perception. My biggest beef about this debate is that I know a lot of people are having it on the basis of what they think is an incontestable assumption when in fact that assumption is speculative at best and quite possibly (and pretty clearly on the basis of the admittedly limited evidence) wrong.

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