It was the poll that set off a bonfire in the Democratic Party, aptly released last Sunday. It came from the most accurate pollster of the 2022 election cycle (New York Times/Siena), and it carried a stark finding: Donald Trump leads Joe Biden in five of the six swing states that will decide the 2024 election. Has it really come to this?
The poll was unusual in that it surveyed just six states rather than the whole country. But that was appropriate. These are the six states you are going to read about for the next year. They include the three “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all of which Hillary Clinton lost to Trump and Biden won back, plus Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, the three other states Biden won by less than five percentage points in 2020.
Part of the problem for Biden is that Trump needs to win fewer of these states than Biden does, if we assume all the other states vote as they did in 2020. If Trump wins Pennsylvania and Georgia, for instance, he’d beat Biden 270-268, even if Biden retains the other four swing states that NYT/Siena polled. In their results, Trump leads by four percentage points in Pennsylvania and six in Georgia – and he is also ahead in Arizona by five; in Nevada, which hasn’t voted Republican since 2004, by ten; and in Michigan by five. He trails Biden by two in Wisconsin.
Three things are driving this result. First, voters think Biden is simply too old. The number saying so has jumped from 34 per cent in 2020 to an extraordinary 71 per cent today (the comparable figures for Trump are 18 and 39). In 2020 Biden had a tiny edge over Trump in who had the “mental sharpness” to be president. Now three in five voters think he does not (a slim majority think Trump does). Biden has also lost the major advantage he had over Trump in 2020 over who had the “temperament” fit for office.
Second, Trump leads Biden by 22 (…22!) points on the economy, which, as usual, is the biggest issue driving voters. In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats rode fears over how elected Republicans might outlaw abortion to stave off a “red wave” and retain the Senate. It does currently seem as if Biden will be able to do the same next year, but that may change. How, you might well ask, is Trump – who is currently on trial for fraud – considered so great an economic steward? I would suggest the answer is dumb luck.
Trump inherited a strong economy from Barack Obama in 2017, one which he then artificially and temporarily inflated by passing tax cuts for the rich. Americans were then sent cash directly from the government during the pandemic. The consequences of all this fell on Biden: the party ended as he entered office in 2021 with inflation spiking around the world. He is not getting any credit for the economic boom ushered in by the green energy-funding Inflation Reduction Act or the bipartisan infrastructure package he signed into law. Voters are simply blaming him for higher prices, and remembering a richer era under Trump.
But what about, you know, the four criminal cases Trump is facing? Didn’t the man try and steal the 2020 election? (“All I want to do is this… I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” he told Georgia’s secretary of state in a phone call shortly after the election.) This is where the poll’s results are both disheartening and promising. Disheartening because they suggest Trump will not face any material headwind from these trials if he is not convicted of a crime. But promising because they also show something stunning: if he is convicted in any of them, voters in these states say they will abandon him en masse. Biden wins all six states by between four and 12 points. Democratic hopes may rest in the courts.
[See also: Why hasn’t Labour’s poll lead fallen?]