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Poll Hole

The Democrats Have a Joe Biden Problem

A disastrous new poll shows the president trailing in swing states where Democratic candidates lead their Republican opponents. It might be time for a drastic change.

Joe Biden grits his teeth while giving a speech.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Biden speaking in April

If you squint, there is a silver lining in the otherwise dreadful New York Times/Siena poll that dropped on Monday.

Yes, that poll has Donald Trump leading in five of the six swing states that will decide the 2024 election—two by double digits, and another two by seven points each. It also found that President Biden is seriously underperforming with young people and people of color, key voting blocs that he will need to win in November; that a sizable majority have deep reservations about Biden’s ability to lead the economy; and that many voters have forgotten, or no longer object to, some of the most disastrous aspects of Trump’s presidency. With crank independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the ballot, Biden’s support dips as low as 30 percent. 

The poll is rightly causing panic among Democrats, but it also shows that the election is not a lost cause for the party. While the numbers for Biden specifically are terrible, other Democrats are performing quite well. In Nevada, where Biden is trailing Trump by 12 points, Democratic Senate nominee Jackie Rosen is narrowly leading her Republican opponent. In Pennsylvania, where Biden trails Trump by three points, Democrat Bob Casey has a five-point lead. In Arizona, Biden lags Trump by seven points, while Democrat Ruben Gallego leads by five. 

The Democratic brand, in other words, is doing OK—especially when contrasted with extreme Republican nominees down the ballot from Trump. Why these voters, who are open to voting for a Democrat, are not also rejecting the GOP’s extremist leader is perhaps puzzling to many on the left. But there’s one unmistakable conclusion: They really don’t like Biden. And that, in turn, ought to make the party think very seriously about whether he ought to remain atop the 2024 ticket.

The Biden campaign will undoubtedly point to the disparity between the president’s poll numbers and those of Democratic Senate candidates as proof that they can and will do better. It is only mid-May, after all. The general election campaign has not really begun in earnest; the effect of Trump’s ongoing hush-money criminal trial is still unknown, though many voters have suggested that a criminal conviction would make them abandon the former president. The overall economic picture is a little blurry but suggests a clear path forward: Unemployment is historically low, and if inflation can be reined in between now and Election Day, Biden’s reelection chances should rise considerably. 

I would argue the numbers tell a different story, however. Voters know Joe Biden—and they’ve decided that they don’t think he’s capable of doing the job of president for a second term. There are legitimate reasons to gripe with some of the arguments for why Biden is so unpopular. He has not been given credit for a strong economy and has taken unfair blame for post-Covid inflation that he and his administration have handled relatively well. It is arguably unfair that voters view his age (81) as a major electoral concern while Trump’s age (77) is largely shrugged off. He has passed arguably the most progressive legislation since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency despite slim (and now nonexistent) congressional majorities—but few voters seems to care.  

It’s hard to see how Biden can turn around this perception of him, however. He will not be any younger on Election Day, and there’s not a lot he can do to combat concerns about his age. He won’t get credit for not, say, mixing up words or stuttering. Inflation may cool, but with the election only six months away, voter perception of the economy is unlikely to change markedly. Biden has belatedly recognized that he has little ability to influence Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s destructive war in Gaza—and has begun to take steps to distance himself from it. But even if that war were to end in the next two weeks, it’s not clear yet how Biden will win back young people and people of color who are disturbed by his support for a bombing campaign that has killed tens of thousands of civilians. Many of Biden’s electoral weaknesses, in other words, seem to be baked in. 

But the Times poll suggests they may be open to another Democrat who holds similar positions: Gretchen Whitmer perhaps, or Gavin Newsom. A movement to replace Biden with one of them would be undeniably risky. It would, at this late stage, necessitate a costly floor fight at what would be a volcanic convention in August. It could lead to Vice President Kamala Harris—who is much younger but similarly unpopularbecoming the nominee. And yet, not seriously considering this option would be a huge mistake for Democratic officials. The polling has been telling the same story about Biden for months now. Voters do not like him. They do not trust him. They think he is not fit to be president. These concerns have quieted in recent months, particularly as Trump’s trial in Manhattan began in April. But they have not gone away—and they won’t. So it’s time the party did something about it.