Nate Cohn Explains How Bad Biden’s Latest Polls Are

Isaac Chotiner / The New Yorker
Nate Cohn Explains How Bad Biden’s Latest Polls Are President Joe Biden. (photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

The Times’ chief political analyst reflects on the unique challenges facing the President, whether it’s still possible for him to launch a comeback, and what the polls can tell us, if anything, about the electability of other Democratic Presidential candidates.

On Wednesday, the New York Times and Siena College released a national poll, conducted after last week’s Presidential debate, that showed former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden by nine percentage points among registered voters, and by six percentage points among likely voters. This is not only Trump’s widest lead over Biden in any NYT/Siena poll this election cycle, but in fact is his biggest lead over any Democrat since his first Presidential campaign, in 2016. Nearly three out of four people surveyed described Biden as too old to handle the job of President; indeed, doubts about his age, exacerbated by his halting debate performance, are currently roiling the Democratic Party, with many Democrats hoping that Biden declines to run for reëlection.

To talk about the data and Biden’s future, I spoke by phone with Nate Cohn, the Times’ chief political analyst, who also oversees its polling, and who agreed to talk despite being on paternity leave. (Full disclosure: Cohn and I previously worked together at The New Republic, and are friends.) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Democrats should think about potential Biden replacements, what makes Biden’s political problems so unique, and whether any Presidential candidate has ever recovered from a deficit like the one Biden is currently facing.

What’s your major takeaway from this poll?

Joe Biden is a badly wounded candidate whom voters dislike, and who voters think isn’t capable of handling the Presidency. And while Donald Trump isn’t a political juggernaut by any stretch, and is maybe every bit as weak as he was four years ago, at least at the moment, Joe Biden does not have the broad appeal necessary to take advantage of it.

There have been a number of things that I’ve heard from Biden’s surrogates, or people in the media, when your poll and others like it have come out, and one of them is that Biden’s polls have gotten worse since the debate, but he hasn’t hit bottom, or the floor hasn’t fallen out. But the lead for Donald Trump in your poll, given his unpopularity, seems stunning, and I wonder if this is the floor.

I’ll divide the question into two halves. One is the floor among Democrats and another is the floor in the general election. When it comes to the general election, I think it’s entirely possible that this is the floor, or near the floor, for Joe Biden. No Republican has had a six-point lead in national polling since George W. Bush in September of 2004. Perhaps Donald Trump can lead by even more than that, but we haven’t seen it so far in his campaigns. Biden’s favorability ratings are every bit as low as Hillary Clinton’s were in 2016 at this point. This makes him one of the least popular major-party nominees on record. I suppose anything could happen. Maybe he could be charged with a crime. It can always be worse, right?

On the second part, in terms of the question of whether he should be the Party’s nominee—regarding Democratic voters, I think that there is room for him to keep falling.

What you say about Hillary Clinton is really striking, because even if Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings were comparable, Hillary was ahead of Trump in polling for basically all of 2016. Even if that polling turned out to overstate her support, she still ended up winning the popular vote over Trump by more than two points.

That’s right. Donald Trump was much less popular in 2016 than he was today. In 2016, Trump’s favorability ratings were usually in the low thirties, but since mid-2019 they’ve been in the mid-forties.

The other thing I have heard from Biden defenders is that he’s only fallen two to three points in post-debate polls, similar to Obama after his first 2012 debate. Do you think we should look at those situations the same way?

Well, one thing that’s very different about this is that this debate is happening before the conventions and there is an opportunity for that Democratic floor I was talking about to fall through, and for Democratic officials to say Biden shouldn’t run and pull the plug on his campaign in some way. That’s not something that is easy to do in September and October, which is when these Presidential debates have happened in the past.

The other thing that’s distinct in this case is that the debate tended to confirm many of the things that polls have suggested are the electorate’s biggest concerns about Joe Biden. Voters in 2012 had no real doubts about Barack Obama’s mental acuity before he had a bad performance against Mitt Romney. So it was trivial enough for him to pick the flag back up and ultimately recover. I think you could say the same thing for George W. Bush in 2004 or whatever example you want to come up with. Given Biden’s age, and given that these concerns already existed, I think it’s pretty easy to see how much more lasting damage could be done to Biden.

My understanding from conversations with you, and from reading about politics, is that you often see an incumbent President’s favorability rise during an election year. Usually you see a President consolidating support. The opposite has happened with Joe Biden. I’m curious how unprecedented this is.

Well, in recent memory there are two successful playbooks. There are two Presidents who have successfully run for reëlection while being somewhat unpopular in the polls at some point in their first terms. There’s Barack Obama. There’s George W. Bush. They both ran polarizing campaigns that remobilized the support that brought them to the Presidency in the first place, and they were able to do that by making it a choice between themselves and their opponents. Looking back even further, you can think of examples like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who were weak at various points in their first term, but had the health of a growing economy and relatively weak opposition as well.

There are no precedents in recent memory for Presidents to have approval ratings like Biden’s who then go on to win reëlection. Donald Trump in 2020 is the closest example and even his approval ratings were usually in the forties. George H.W. Bush lost. Jimmy Carter lost. You can go back maybe to Harry Truman if you’re looking for the best point of comparison, and if we want to go into that, we can talk about all the similarities and differences. Generally speaking, you would expect that if a President is going to win reëlection, that you would start to see them begin by persuading their own typical supporters to say they’re doing a good job. You would expect that that process might begin by motivating and reënergizing their core base of support before they got around to winning over those pivotal voters in the middle, and so far Joe Biden hasn’t been doing that.

What about in terms of recoverability? Do we have any historical precedent for incumbents being down to the degree which Biden is down right now?

I don’t think that there are any analogies that feel particularly comparable. You can think of examples, though, of candidates who came really close to mounting a comeback. One example that might be a relatively good analogy for Joe Biden is Donald Trump at this point in 2020. This was a low point for him. He was trailing in the polls by ten percentage points in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. He ultimately narrowed the gap a bit down the stretch and then the polls also proved to underestimate him by about four percentage points on average, and together, that was enough for him to nearly win reëlection. [The popular-vote margin was still more than four points.] That’s a strategy that depends more on the polls being wrong than on an actual comeback though. I do think that there’s a case that that’s an important part of Joe Biden’s path to winning at this point.

Other than that, maybe you’re looking at Gerald Ford coming back from a deep deficit in 1976. He was the president, but he was not running for reelection. So it’s not obvious to me that that’s a great analogy. Then again, there’s Harry Truman, who again is another example of someone who did not win a previous election but ultimately overcame a polling deficit. That’s also an example of someone who needs the polling to be wrong for them to ultimately prevail.

Biden’s situation does feel unique, and maybe this just highlights the degree—which, again, we have to speculate on—to which age is the distinguishing factor here. Biden’s approval rating has dropped over the first six months of the year in an election year, where as you say, incumbents often see a rise, and the country seems to be improving economically.

Yeah, I think the trend line is really telling here. It’s one thing for Biden to have a low approval rating. It’s another thing for his approval rating to be in secular decline. His approval rating is a net ten points worse than it was in November, 2022 when inflation was much much higher and when he didn’t have the benefit of running against Donald Trump, who since then has been indicted on many charges, and has also been convicted of crimes in New York.

In theory, there ought to be a lot of wind at Joe Biden’s back. The economy’s better. It’s not great, but it’s better. He’s an incumbent President and he’s running against an unpopular opponent, but he’s not gaining. He’s sagging. It’s like there’s a hole in his sail if there is so much wind at his back. Age is the likeliest explanation, I think. It’s something that distinguishes him from previous candidates. We can all see different versions of how it undermines his ability to campaign effectively or debate effectively.

I can come up with other arguments. Maybe we don’t give enough credit to the idea that voters are still deeply resentful about the rise in prices even though inflation has subsided. Maybe we’re really on the cusp of a change election, and voters have grown to resent liberalism. And they want change in the U.S. after the pandemic, and they think Joe Biden, who’s a relatively status-quo candidate, and the Democrats, the relatively status-quo party, aren’t going to be able to provide it. Perhaps that would explain why other Democrats would lose as well. Frankly, as long as Biden can’t convince people that he’s up to the job, we’re not going to be able to put those alternative theories to the test.

Democrats in the Senate and House do not seem to be doing terribly though. We’re not seeing from the congressional polls the sense that the country has a “throw them out” mentality. That was seen in an election like 2008, when Republicans lost the Presidency and did badly in Congress.

Yeah, there’s some precedent for incumbent Presidents to do badly without their party suffering catastrophically down ballot in November. There’s also a precedent for these so-called wave elections like 2008 to not immediately manifest itself down-ballot in early polling. So at least at the moment I would hold open the idea that the gap between Senate Democrats and President Biden could shrink as the campaign went on, but it is worth noting that it’s not the only indicator.

The generic congressional ballot has persistently been pretty close and the recent midterm election was also a relatively strong one for the Democrats, but maybe that shouldn’t be decisive in our thinking. Oddly enough, both 1978 and 1990, which preceded the defeats of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, respectively, were pretty good midterms for the President’s party, but I don’t necessarily disagree with you. It’s hard to see signs of Democratic weakness outside of the polling on Joe Biden. Whether it’s special election results, the midterms, or the polling of other Democrats, the problem appears to be somewhat contained to Biden.

There have been some polls with Kamala Harris leading the ticket and then with some other Democrats leading the ticket. They seem to show broadly similar results to one another—with Trump leading by a couple points, even against Pete Buttigieg or Gretchen Whitmer. But Buttigieg and Whitmer don’t have nearly the unfavorability ratings that Harris has, nor the name recognition. So what can polling tell us about the viability of alternate candidates?

If I were trying to evaluate the “electability” of Democrats who might potentially replace Joe Biden on the ticket, I would not be looking at the current polling, period. I just don’t think that these polls offer any real indication of how they would fare once they have a chance to make their case to the public, once they get attacked by the Republicans, and once the country gets to know them better. Even in Republican primary politics, think about Ron DeSantis. By all the early polls, he looked like a perfectly viable candidate against Donald Trump, but he was ultimately torn apart and couldn’t seriously compete in a single state.

Looking back historically, in general-election settings, the early polls for candidates before they’ve gone through the primary process offer essentially zero predictive value. It may only be four months until the election today, but from the standpoint of how much campaigning someone like Pete Buttigieg has done in this election, it may as well be one or two years out.

Do you feel that way about Kamala Harris or do you think that there’s more we can know based on the fact that she’s been Vice-President for almost four years?

I think Kamala Harris is in a middle ground. She is the Vice-President. She’s been out there more than Buttigieg, the Transportation Secretary, but she hasn’t had an opportunity to make her own case independent of Joe Biden. We don’t know how she would fare against Donald Trump. We don’t know whether she would run the strange campaign she did in 2020 where she tried to run to the left, despite in many ways being more positioned to run as a mainstream or centrist, establishment-backed Democrat, or if she’s going to distance herself from Joe Biden on something like the border. We just don’t know what that campaign will look like. Consequently, I wouldn’t be terribly confident that what we see in the numbers today will bear out in November, and that could work in either direction by the way. She could prove to be a stronger candidate than we think or she could be torn apart. No one knows.

She has become viewed slightly more favorably than Joe Biden. She still does not have good ratings, but Biden’s ratings have managed to fall even below hers.

That doesn’t surprise me. Joe Biden’s ratings are in perilous political territory. When we were doing polling of the battleground states last November, we did find that a critical sliver of voters supported Kamala Harris but not Joe Biden. It’s a disproportionately young and non-white group. Harris did better in those November polls in the swing states than Joe Biden did. So it is true that given just how far Biden has fallen and given that Harris does have strengths relative to Biden, it’s not surprising that her ratings would be inching ahead of his. But given Biden’s position, I don’t see how that would necessarily be a sign of any great strength of her own.

Finally, I want to congratulate you on being the parent of a newborn. But if we polled people, I think they would pretty much uniformly say to not have kid No. 2 in an election year.

We’ll do our best next time.

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