Voices: Why Democrats should (and shouldn’t) worry about Biden’s low poll numbers

Washington is 364 days away from the next presidential election. Which means naturally, Democrats are engaging in their favourite pastime: fretting about national polls or calming each other down that the polls are not nearly as bad.

This usually ignores one fact about polling everyone seems to forget: they are not meant to predict what will happen but rather serve as a snapshot of where public opinion is at the moment.

The latest case came on Sunday when The New York Times and Siena College released its survey showing that former president Donald Trump leads President Joe Biden in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada, the five major swing states.

Naturally, this set off alarm bells given that Mr Biden is running essentially unopposed, save for a quixotic run by Rep Dean Phillips (D-MN) and author Marianne Williamson. Running against an incumbent president would likely kill the career of any Democrat with some semblance of promise. So for now, it looks like Democrats are stuck with the president.

Mr Biden’s polling numbers have been stubbornly low almost since August 2021, when many Americans disapproved of the way the United States exited the war in Afghanistan. This has compounded with an economy where inflation remains stubbornly high (albeit the Federal Reserve announced last week that it would keep interest rates where they are).

The president’s age has also been a persistent issue for many voters, who fear that the toll of the job could be too much for the man who will turn 81 this month. Of course, Mr Biden’s age cannot be discussed without acknowledging the fact that his would-be-opponent is 77 and would be 78 on 20 January 2025 were he to take the oath of office a second time.

Almost immediately, some pundits began to diminish concerns. Larry Sabato, the director at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the election year is “a full year away,” Mr Trump faces 91 indictments and the “Economy is clearly improving, but it takes many months for voters to perceive and believe it.”

Mr Sabato, one of the all-around wise men of political projections, is correct that the election won’t happen until a year from now and many world events could happen in ways that few could predict. By this time in the 2020 presidential election cycle, few could have predicted a pandemic that sent many home and cost thousands of lives.

At the same time, while the economy has indeed improved greatly, it has generally been improving for more than a year. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy added 150,000 jobs, a sign that the labour market continues to grow but is not overheated, which could trigger rising inflation.

There are also some reasons to be wary of the results from the survey. The poll showed that Mr Biden has only a one-point lead against Mr Trump among voters between the ages of 18 and 29. Similarly, 22 per cent of Black voters in those swing states said that they would support Mr Trump. The former president indeed did grow his support among Black voters, particularly Black men, in 2020, but earning a fifth of the the Black vote would be surprising.

Furthermore, many of the same respondents who said that they would prefer Mr Trump also said that he “went so far that he threatened American democracy” when he tried to conest the election results. Indeed, at least a plurality in all five states and a majority in four of them said that Mr Trump crossed the line.

At the same time, this is the second time in as many months that Mr Biden’s supporters have collectively panicked about Mr Trump winning. In September, ABC News and The Washington Post released a national survey showing that Mr Biden trailed Mr Trump by a staggering 10 points, as many voters disapproved of his actions on the economy and immigration.

Democrats like to note that many polls predicted a red wave last year that ultimately did not happen while also simultaneously missing the backlash to the Dobbs v Jackson decision from the Supreme Court. At the same time, many polls missed the underlying support Mr Trump had both in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

These surveys might be missing the larger national sentiment, or they could ultimately prove to be indicators of growing dissatisfaction with the Biden administration that could lead to Mr Trump back into the White House. The Biden team likely takes these surveys more seriously than its defenders online do.