Joe Biden Isn’t Popular. That Might Not Matter in 2024.

“They hate the other guy.”

Picture of Joe Biden over a blurred background.
Samuel Corum / Getty

By almost any historic yardstick, President Joe Biden is beginning the reelection campaign he formally announced today in a vulnerable position.

His job-approval rating has consistently come in at 45 percent or less; in several recent high-quality national polls, it has dipped closer to 40 percent. In surveys, three-fourths or more of Americans routinely express dissatisfaction with the economy. And a majority of adults have repeatedly said that they do not want him to seek a second term; that figure rose to 70 percent (including just more than half of Democrats) in a national NBC poll released last weekend.

Those are the sort of numbers that have spelled doom for many an incumbent president. “Compared to other presidents, Biden’s approval is pretty low [about] a year and a half from Election Day,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. “It’s not where you want to be, for sure.”

And yet despite Biden’s persistently subpar public reviews, there’s no sense of panic in the Democratic Party about his prospects. No serious candidate has emerged to challenge him for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination. No elected leaders have called on him to step aside. And though some top Democratic operatives have privately expressed concern about Biden’s weak standing in polls, almost every party strategist I spoke with leading up to his announcement said they consider him the favorite for reelection.

There are many reasons for this gap between the dominant views about Biden’s immediate position and his eventual prospects in the 2024 race. But the most important reason is encapsulated in the saying from Biden’s father that he often quotes in speeches: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.” Most Democrats remain cautiously optimistic that whatever concerns Americans might hold about the state of the economy and Biden’s performance or his age, a majority of voters will refuse to entrust the White House to Donald Trump or another Republican nominee in his image, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

“I think there’s no question that neither Trump nor Biden are where they want to be, but … if you project forward, it’s just easier to see a path for victory for Biden than for Trump or DeSantis,” says the Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who was one of the few analysts in either party to question the projections of a sweeping red wave last November.

Rosenberg is quick to caution that in a country as closely split as the U.S. is now, any advantage for Biden is hardly insurmountable. Not many states qualify as true swing states within reach for both sides next year. And those states themselves are so closely balanced that minuscule shifts in preferences or turnout among almost any constituency could determine the outcome.

The result is that control over the direction for a nation of 330 million people could literally come down to a handful of neighborhoods in a tiny number of states—white-collar suburbs of Detroit, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Atlanta; faded factory towns in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; working-class Latino neighborhoods in Las Vegas; and small-town communities across Georgia’s Black Belt. Never have so few people had such a big impact in deciding the future of American politics,” Doug Sosnik, the chief White House political adviser for Bill Clinton, told me.

On an evenly matched battlefield, neither side can rest too comfortably about its prospects in the 2024 election. But after Trump’s upset victory in 2016, Republicans have mostly faced disappointing results in the elections of 2018, 2020, and 2022. Across those campaigns, a powerful coalition of voters—particularly young people, college-educated white voters, those who don’t identify with any organized religion, and people of color, mostly located in large metropolitan centers—have poured out in huge numbers to oppose the conservative cultural and social vision animating the Trump-era Republican Party. Many of those voters may be unenthusiastic about Biden, but they have demonstrated that they are passionate about keeping Trump and other Republicans from controlling the White House and potentially imposing their restrictive agenda nationwide. Biden previewed how he will try to stir those passions in his announcement video Tuesday: Far more than most of his speeches, which typically emphasize kitchen-table economics, the video centers on portraying “MAGA extremists” as a threat to democracy and “bedrock freedoms” through restrictions on abortion, book bans, and rollbacks of LGBTQ rights.

“The fear of MAGA has been the most powerful force in American politics since 2018, and it remains the most powerful force,” Rosenberg told me. “It’s why Democrats did so much better than the fundamentals [of public attitudes about Biden and the economy] in 2022, and that will be the case again this time.”

After the Democrats’ unexpectedly competitive showing in the midterm election, Biden’s approval rating ticked up. But in national polls it has sagged again. Recent surveys by The Wall Street Journal, NBC, and CNBC each put Biden’s approval rating at 42 percent or less.

Sosnik said the pivotal period for Biden is coming this fall. Historically, he told me, voter assessments of an incumbent president’s performance have hardened between the fall of their third year in office and the late spring of their fourth. The key, he said, is not a president’s absolute level of approval in that period but its trajectory: Approval ratings for Ronald Reagan, Clinton, and Barack Obama, each of whom won reelection, were all clearly rising by early in their fourth year. By contrast, the approval ratings over that period fell for George H. W. Bush and remained stagnant for Trump. Each lost his reelection bid. Economists and pollsters say voters tend to finalize their views about the economy over roughly the same period and once again tend to put less weight on the absolute level of conditions such as inflation and unemployment than on whether those conditions are improving or deteriorating.

With that crucial window approaching, Biden will benefit if inflation continues to moderate as it has over the past several months. He also could profit from more time for voters to feel the effects of the massive wave of public and private investment triggered by his trio of major legislative accomplishments: the bipartisan infrastructure and semiconductor bills, and the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.

But Biden also faces the risk that the economy could tip into recession later this year, which some forecasters, such as Larry Summers, the former Clinton Treasury Secretary who predicted the inflationary surge, still consider likely.

If a recession does come, the best scenario for Biden is that it’s short and shallow and further tamps down inflation before giving way to an economic recovery early in 2024. But even that relatively benign outcome would make it difficult for him to attract more supporters in the period through next spring when voters traditionally have solidified their verdicts on a president’s performance.

That means that, to win reelection, Biden likely will need to win an unusually large share of voters who are at least somewhat unhappy over conditions in the country and ambivalent or worse about giving him another term. Historically that hasn’t been easy for presidents.

For those who think Biden can break that pattern, last November’s midterm election offers the proof of concept. Exit polls at the time showed that a solid 55 percent majority of voters nationwide disapproved of Biden’s job performance and that three-fourths of voters considered the economy in only fair or poor shape. Traditionally such attitudes have meant disaster for the party holding the White House. And yet, Democrats minimized the GOP gains in the House, maintained control of the Senate, and won governorships in most of the key swing states on the ballot.

In 2022, the exit polls showed that Democrats, as the party holding the White House, were routed among voters with intensely negative views about conditions. That was typical for midterm elections. But Democrats defused the expected “red wave” by winning a large number of voters who were more mildly disappointed in Biden’s performance and/or the economy.

For instance, with Trump in the White House during the 2018 midterms, Republicans won only about one in six voters in House elections who described the economy as “not so good,” according to exit polls; in 2020, Trump, as the incumbent president, carried only a little more than one-fifth of them. But in 2022, Democrats won more than three-fifths of voters who expressed that mildly negative view of the economy.

Similarly, in the 2010 midterm elections, according to exit polls, two-thirds of voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Obama’s performance as president voted against Democrats running for the House; almost two-thirds of the voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Trump likewise voted against Republicans in 2018. But in 2022, the exit polls found that Democrats surprisingly carried almost half of the voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden.

The same pattern persisted across many of the key swing states likely to decide the 2024 presidential race: Democrats won the governors’ contests in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and Senate races in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, even though the exit polls found a majority of voters in each state said they disapproved of Biden’s performance. Winning Democratic gubernatorial candidates such as Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, and Katie Hobbs in Arizona each carried at least 70 percent of voters who described the economy as “not so good.”

Why did Democrats so exceed the usual performance among voters dissatisfied with the country’s direction? The answer is that many of those voters rejected the Republican Party that Trump has reshaped in his image. The exit polls found that Trump was viewed even more unfavorably than Biden in several of the swing states, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And nationally, more than two-fifths of voters who expressed negative views about the economy also said they considered the GOP “too extreme.” Particularly on social issues such as abortion rights and gun control, the 2022 results demonstrated that “Trump and these other Republicans have painted themselves into a corner in order to appeal to their base,” Abramowitz told me.

Biden may expand his support by next year, especially in the battleground states, if economic conditions improve or simply because he may soon start spending heavily on television advertising touting his achievements, such as new plant openings. But more important than changing minds may be his ability to replicate the Democrats’ success in 2022 at winning voters who aren’t wild about him but dislike Trump and the GOP even more. “While there are not an overwhelming number of people who are tremendously favorable to Biden, I just don’t think there is an overwhelming number of persuadable people who hate him,” says Tad Devine, a long-time Democratic strategist. “They hate the other guy.” A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released today offered one concrete measure of that dynamic: In an echo of the 2022 pattern, three-fourths of the adults who said they mildly disapproved of Biden's performance in office nonetheless said they did not want a second term for Trump.

Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, told me that dynamic would likely prove powerful for many voters. Even Democratic-leaning voters who say they don’t want Biden to run again, she predicted, are highly likely to line up behind him once the alternative is a Republican nominee whose values clash with their own. “The bottom line is that on Election Day, that Democratic nominee, even the one they didn’t want to run again, is going to be closer to most people’s vision of the world they want to live in than the Republican alternative,” she said.

In both parties, many analysts agree that in a Biden-Trump rematch, the election would probably revolve less around assessments of Biden’s performance than the stark question of whether voters are willing to return Trump to power after the January 6 insurrection and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. “President Biden by every conventional standard is a remarkably weak candidate for reelection,” the longtime Republican pollster Bill McInturff told me in an email. But “Biden’s greatest strength,” McInturff continued, may be the chance to run again against Trump, who “is so terrific at sucking up all the political oxygen, he becomes the issue on which the election gets framed, not the terrible economy or the level of Americans’ dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.”

On both sides, there’s greater uncertainty about whether DeSantis could more effectively exploit voters’ hesitation about Biden. Many Democrats and even some Republicans believe that DeSantis has leaned so hard into emulating, and even exceeding, Trump’s culture-war agenda that the Florida governor has left himself little chance of recapturing the white-collar suburban voters who have keyed the Democratic recovery since 2018. But others believe that DeSantis could get a second look from those voters if he wins the nomination, because he would be introduced to them largely by beating Trump. Although Devine told me, “I do not see a path to the presidency in the general election for Donald Trump,” he said that “if DeSantis were to be able to get rid of Trump and get the credit for getting rid of Trump…I think it’s fundamentally different.”

One thing unlikely to change, whomever Republicans nominate, is how few states, or voters, will effectively decide the outcome. Twenty-five states voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020, and the strategists planning the Biden campaign see a realistic chance to contest only North Carolina among them. Republicans hope to contest more of the 25 states that voted for Biden, but after the decisive Democratic victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2022, it’s unclear whether either is within reach for the GOP next year. The states entirely up for grabs might be limited to just four that Biden carried last time: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin. And as the decisive liberal win in the recent state-supreme-court election in Wisconsin showed, winning even that state, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, may be an uphill battle for any Republican presidential nominee viewed as a threat to abortion rights.

In their recent book, The Bitter End, Vavreck and her co-authors, John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch, describe hardening loyalties and a shrinking battlefield as a form of electoral “calcification.” That process has left the country divided almost in half between two durable but divergent coalitions with antithetical visions of America’s future. “We are fighting at the margins again,” Vavreck told me. “The 2020 election was nearly a replica of 2016, and I think that largely this 2024 election is going to be a repeat of 2020 and 2016.” Whatever judgment voters ultimately reach about Biden’s effectiveness, or his capacity to handle the job in his 80s, this sorting process virtually guarantees another polarized and precarious election next year that turns on a small number of voters in a small number of states.