Polls are not a crystal ball that show us the future. Democrats learned this the hard way in 2016, when an underperformance by Hillary Clinton and the anachronisms of the Electoral College helped to deliver a surprise victory for former President Donald Trump.
However, the number crunchers at FiveThirtyEight combine data from dozens of polls to create a solid indicator of political trends, and the numbers aren’t looking so good for President Joe Biden as we close out 2023. Biden’s aggregate approval rating has slumped for much of the year and now hovers just below 40 percent, a few points lower than Trump’s approval rating at this point in his presidency. Individual polls put Biden’s approval rating as low as 34 percent, causing panic among Democrats and Never Trumpers alike as the 2024 elections approach.
Biden’s aggregate disapproval rating grew by about four points over the course of 2023 to 55 percent, but individual polls can be much more dire. Last week, a non-partisan Monmouth University poll found that an alarming 61 percent of likely voters disapprove of Biden’s performance. If accurate, then nearly two-thirds of the nation is unhappy with the president.
Meanwhile, Trump has once again effectively leveraged his presence in the media, turning a pile of criminal indictments against him and his allies into jet fuel for a reelection campaign that is so far smashing the competition in the GOP primaries. Anything could happen after voting begins in Iowa next month, but all indicators point to a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. Recent polls suggest voters are unhappy with both options, but Trump is currently leading Biden in multiple swing states.
The past year saw a widening gap between Biden’s legislative and policy achievements — at least on paper — and how voters view him. For Biden and his team, 2024 will be all about closing that gap — or potentially facing defeat at the hands of an authoritarian reality TV star accused of a long list of crimes, including an alleged conspiracy to overthrow Biden’s victory in 2020.
For many of the “step aside” commentators, it doesn’t matter whether ageism is weaponized against Biden (who is only a few years older than Trump), or that people who talk to pollsters appear unaware of the president’s many legislative accomplishments. Biden is simply unpopular, their thinking goes, and the risk Trump poses to the country is just too great for such a gamble: Why not bow out gracefully and become a hero for younger voters by passing the torch, rather than dig in for another mudslinging fight with Trump?
There are zero indications that Biden will step aside, but he appears to be baffled by the poll numbers, as are his centrist supporters within the Democratic Party and the Never Trump camp. How could a president who passed historic pandemic relief and infrastructure legislation, despite a bitterly divided Congress, be trailing in the polls to the likes of Trump?
For much of 2023, the conventional answer to this question was, it’s the economy, stupid! According to this theory, Biden can point to macroeconomic improvements such as lower unemployment rates, but voters still remember a time when prices for everything from groceries to a new home were lower. So, the theory goes, voters are punishing Biden as Republicans smear the president with misinformation any chance they get.
Inflation exists within the context of other economic problems — such as extreme wealth inequality and a widespread affordable housing crisis — that Biden can’t do much about without sweeping legislation from Congress. Still, about 60 percent of the U.S. population reports living paycheck to paycheck, and pollsters say the “Bidenomics” messaging from the president’s campaign is not clicking with the public.
“The Biden administration keeps touting their infrastructure investments and a host of positive economic indicators,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, in a statement. “Those data points may be factual, but most Americans are still smarting from higher prices caused by post-pandemic inflation. This seems to be what’s driving public opinion.”
However, as my colleague Sharon Zhang has pointed out, Monmouth reported that Biden’s approval rating ticked up to 44 percent in July, only to plummet by 10 points over the next few months as inflation remained steady. What could explain this sudden drop? On issues ranging from fossil fuels to Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, Biden appears to be abandoning young Democrats and voters to his left in hopes they will return in 2024 when the only other option is Trump.
In the months since Biden’s approval rating hit 44 percent, the president embraced the Israeli government’s retaliatory war on Gaza even as it devolved into the current humanitarian catastrophe that is horrifying much of the world and leaving the U.S. increasingly isolated on the international stage.
While Biden has called for Israel to respect Palestinian rights and supports a two-state solution, he has shown unwavering support for the Israeli government despite the mass protests against its right-wing leaders in 2023 and the well-documented and violent system of apartheid that preceded the current war.
Biden regularly urges Israeli leaders to show restraint and protect civilians, but that simply has not happened in Gaza and broader Palestine. Most of Gaza is in ruins, and thanks to Israeli blockades, much of the now-unhoused population faces starvation, thirst and disease as the Israel Defense Forces lay siege to hospitals and reduce entire neighborhoods to rubble.
While U.S. ally Israel suffered a bloody terror attack on October 7 that claimed 1,200 lives, Biden has put his name on a war that is devastating civilians like no other conflict in modern times. Reports of alleged war crimes by Israeli forces continue to pile up, and hundreds of civilians reportedly die in the conflict each day.
Actions speak louder than words. Even as he criticized Israeli leaders for “indiscriminate” airstrikes that kill civilians, Biden has gone around Congress to deliver weapons to the Israeli military. Muslim Democrats are threatening to withhold votes from Biden for failing to support a sustainable ceasefire, as are countless voters who see the youth of Gaza pleading for help in TikTok videos.
This could explain Trump’s bump in recent head-to-head polls with Biden, with younger and Muslim voters registering their protest against the war on Gaza as the death toll surpasses 20,000. Indeed, opposition to the war on Gaza brought thousands of people out to marches and direct actions across the U.S. and the world.
The president has also championed the war in Ukraine and secured billions of dollars in U.S. aid for the war against Russian invaders in the country’s eastern regions. That conflict is entering its third year as a bloody virtual stalemate, with Russian President Vladimir Putin betting he’ll get a better deal in negotiations if Trump replaces Biden in the White House.
With 70 percent of likely voters telling pollsters that Biden is not focused enough on issues that affect their daily lives, it’s likely they associate the president with these bloody conflicts that dominate the headlines, rather than the greener infrastructure promised by the Inflation Reduction Act and championed by Biden, or the historic federal relief bills that aided the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.
Biden has 10 months to convince voters otherwise — or, at the very least, that four more years of Trump would be much worse.
Unfortunately, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will not have abated by the time U.S. voters head to the polls in November. Even after the fighting stops, the death toll will continue to climb as displacement and disease claim the lives of civilians, and bodies are slowly recovered from under the rubble of apartment buildings. Such images of Palestinian suffering will haunt Biden whether or not he secures a second term in November.