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Seven Theories for Why Biden Is Losing (and What He Should Do About It)

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It’s not Joe Biden’s poll numbers that worry me, exactly. It’s the denial of what’s behind them.

Among likely voters, Biden is trailing Donald Trump by one point in Wisconsin and three points in Pennsylvania. He’s ahead by a point in Michigan. Sweeping those three states is one route to re-election, and they’re within reach.

Still, Biden is losing to Trump. His path is narrowing. In 2020, Biden didn’t just win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He also won Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. Now he’s behind in those states by six points, nine points and 13 points in the latest Times/Siena/Philadelphia Inquirer poll. Have those states turned red? No. That same poll finds Democrats leading in the Arizona and Nevada Senate races. The Democrats are also leading in the Senate races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

National polls find Democrats slightly ahead of Republicans for control of congress. The “Never Biden” vote now looks larger than the “Never Trump” vote. The electorate hasn’t turned on Democrats; a crucial group of voters has turned on Biden.

This week, the Biden team appeared to shake up the race by challenging Trump to two debates. One will take place early, on June 27. The other will be in September. Biden’s video was full of bluster. “Donald Trump lost two debates to me in 2020,” he said. “Since then, he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he’s acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice.”

Biden, it seemed, was calling Trump’s bluff. He wanted the fight. But Biden wants fewer debates, not more. On the same day, he pulled out of the three debates scheduled by the Commission on Presidential Debates for September and October. He rebuffed the Trump campaign’s call for four debates. “I’ll even do it twice” is misdirection. He’ll only do it twice.

This is bad precedent and questionable politics. Debates do more to focus and inform the public than anything else during the campaign. Biden is cutting the number of debates by a third and he’s making it easier for future candidates to abandon debates altogether.

Strategically, it’s easy to see why a candidate in the lead wouldn’t want to blow his margin on a bad debate. That’s why Trump skipped the Republican primary debates. But Biden is behind. He needs opportunities to prove to voters that they are wrong about him. He needs opportunities to persuade them to ditch their nostalgia for Trump. He could have had three chances, or four, maybe more. Now he has two and only one will come after Labor Day, when it matters most.

Biden, in other words, is continuing to run like a candidate who is winning rather than one who is losing. He and the Democrats need a theory of why he’s trailing in the polls and what to do about it. Here are the most obvious:

The polls are wrong. This appears to be Biden’s view. “The polling data has been wrong all along,” he told CNN last week. Axios reports that polling denial is pervasive in Biden’s campaign.

There are two things to say about this. The first is that it’s false. Even as pundits predicted a red wave in 2022, the polls showed Republicans falling short, and they were right. “The polls were more accurate in 2022 than in any cycle since at least 1998,” FiveThirtyEight reported.

The second is that, to the extent polls have been wrong in recent presidential elections, they’ve been wrong because they’ve been biased toward Democrats. Trump ran stronger in 2016 and 2020 than polls predicted.

Sure, the polls could be wrong. But that could mean Trump is stronger, not weaker, than he looks.

It’s the media’s fault. As a member of the media, I’ve been hearing this one more often. Biden made the case himself at the White House Correspondents Dinner. “I’m sincerely not asking of you to take sides but asking you to rise up to the seriousness of the moment; move past the horse-race numbers and the gotcha moments and the distractions, the sideshows that have come to dominate and sensationalize our politics; and focus on what’s actually at stake,” Biden said.

It’s always the case that the media could be doing a better job. But as an explanation for Biden’s poll numbers, this doesn’t hold up. In April, NBC News released a national poll breaking the race down by where respondents got their news. Biden led by 49 points among voters who relied on newspapers. He led by 20 points among voters relying on national network news. In the slightly archaic-sounding category of “digital websites,” Biden led by 10 points. If the election were limited to voters relying on the kinds of outlets Biden was scolding, he would win in a landslide.

But Biden is behind, and here’s why: Among voters who rely on social media, Trump led by four points. Among voters who rely on cable news, Trump led by eight. Voters who get their news from YouTube and Google favor Trump by 16 points. And voters who don’t follow political news at all favor Trump by 26 points.

It’s a bad time to be an incumbent. As my colleague Paul Krugman notes, Biden is more popular than the leaders of peer countries like Canada and Britain. This may just be a bad time to be an incumbent.

But is that true in the United States? The midterm elections of 2022 were widely expected to be a disaster for the incumbent Democrats and yet they survived just fine. Democrats are polling well in Senate elections. Morning Consult, a polling firm, tracks approval ratings for all 50 governors, and they find no evidence of a broad anti-incumbent mood. In January, every governor save Mississippi’s Tate Reeves was viewed more favorably than unfavorably by his or her state’s voters.

Nor was there obvious anti-incumbent fury in the Times-Siena poll. Fifty-seven percent of Pennsylvania voters approve of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s performance, while 25 percent disapprove — a net approval of 32 points. Bob Casey, the state’s senior senator, had a net approval of 18 points. Biden’s net approval was negative 22 points.

Polls are not showing an anti-incumbent mood. They’re showing an anti-Biden mood.

Voters are angry about rising prices and high interest rates. In the Times-Siena poll, 21 percent of voters say the economy will drive their vote, while 7 percent say inflation is their top issue. By contrast, immigration is the top issue for 12 percent of voters, abortion is the top issue for 11 percent, the war between Israelis and Palestinians is the top issue for 2 percent and crime is the top issue for fewer than 1 percent.

Prices are the most common explanation for Biden’s troubles. But Democrats performed — and polled! — well in 2022 when the economy was in far worse shape than it is now. And Biden’s numbers aren’t following the pattern we’ve seen with other recent presidents.

Voters turned on Ronald Reagan during the 1981 recession but rewarded him for economic recovery in 1984. High unemployment decimated Democrats’ congressional majorities in 2010, but even a sluggish recovery was enough for Barack Obama to poll ahead of Mitt Romney in May 2012.

Biden’s recovery is stronger than what either Reagan or Obama saw. In 1984, inflation was higher than it is now, unemployment was higher than it is now and the interest rate on a 30-year mortgage was above 13 percent — almost double what it is now. In May of 2012, unemployment was over 8 percent; it’s 3.9 percent now. Yet Biden is polling worse than Reagan and Obama were at this point in their re-election bids.

Voters think Biden is too liberal. The Biden administration has worried about shoring up its left flank, particularly since the war in Gaza. But the Times-Siena poll found that while Biden is losing only 2 percent of his “very liberal” voters from 2020 to Trump, he is losing 16 percent of his supporters who described themselves as moderate and conservative.

Tacking to the center is an old move in politics and it’s long been core to Biden’s identity as a politician. You can find video on C-SPAN of Biden, in 1995, coming out in support of a constitutional amendment to keep the federal budget balanced. That’s a horrible idea fiscally, but it reflects instincts Biden used to have about how to win over more conservative voters.

In 2020, Biden ran as the moderate alternative in a Democratic primary in which Bernie Sanders led many of the polls. He vocally opposed ideas like defunding the police. But after the primary, Biden welcomed the left into his coalition and his government. On the substance, I prefer the Biden of 2024 to the Biden of 1995, but the shift may have cost him a political identity that was once central to his success.

I found myself, this week, watching Trump’s May 1 rally in Waukesha, Wis. Most of it features Trump’s constant stream of overstatement, false nostalgia, wild braggadocio and barely veiled threat. But the tenor changed when Trump turned to abortion. Here, Trump swung suddenly to the left of his own base. The goal, he said, was “to get abortion out of the federal government. Everybody wanted that. That was uniform. Then about 10 years ago, people lost their way. They started talking about — how many months?”

This is Trump’s pivot on abortion. Unlike other Republicans, he’s saying the goal wasn’t, and isn’t, a nationwide abortion ban. The goal was letting states decide for themselves, and now they are.

“There are some very conservative states that voted a very much more liberal policy than anybody would’ve thought,” Trump said. “Very liberal policy, a couple of states. I won’t mention, but a couple of states really surprise people. But, basically the states decide on abortion. And people are absolutely thrilled with the way that’s going on.”

Thrilled? The one time you can hear the crowd boo Trump is during his abortion spiel. But he doesn’t back down. I don’t know if Trump’s effort to run to the center on abortion will work, but he’s definitely going to try, even if it offends his base. Is there any issue on which Biden is doing the same?

Voters think Biden is too old. This is the one that worries me most. Polls routinely find that majorities of as much as 70 percent to 80 percent think Biden is too old to be president. Fears about Biden’s age crested after the special counsel’s report questioned his memory. I argued then that Democrats should consider nominating another candidate at an open convention. But Biden gave a zesty State of the Union in which he seemed livelier and frankly younger than he had in years. That quieted his doubters, at least for a time.

But Biden has good days and bad days on the campaign. His State of the Union was strong. His recent interview on CNN was weaker. A lot of voters see Biden only through the occasional clip, and particularly if they’re getting their news through social media or YouTube or TikTok, they’re seeing a lot of clips from Biden’s worst moments.

Biden’s age also shows up in the absence of great moments ricocheting across social media. If you compare his interviews and speeches with those of Obama or Bill Clinton before him — or especially with the Biden of the 2012 vice-presidential debate or the 2016 convention — his slippage as a campaigner is clear. Communication skills aren’t everything, but they aren’t nothing, either.

The optimistic take is that the bar for Biden is low and a strong debate performance or two will win him an unusual amount of support. The pessimistic take is that a lot of voters have concluded that Biden isn’t up to the job. Democrats have been telling them they’re wrong, but telling voters they’re wrong is a good way to lose an election.

Biden has some months yet to prove otherwise. The June debate will be his best opportunity. Doubts about age are really doubts about capability, and all Biden needs to do is persuade enough voters that he is more capable than the erratic criminal defendant across the stage, who turns 78 next month. But if the debate goes poorly, or if Biden’s numbers deteriorate further, Democrats will need to decide between a Biden-Harris ticket that is very likely to lose or an open convention.

Democrats need to redefine Trump. “Biden is not running against God,” as Bernie Sanders put it. “He is running against Donald Trump.” A year ago, Democrats were pretty confident than as the possibility of a Trump presidency came closer, voters would realize what they were risking and come home to Biden. That looks less likely with each passing day.

The mistake Democrats keep making about Trump again and again is to assume that the rest of the country will see Trump as they see Trump. But Trump won in 2016 and he came scarily close in 2020; absent the pandemic, he may well have been re-elected.

What Democrats want to do in 2024 is run against the threat Trump poses to American democracy. “Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about,” Biden said on Jan. 5, in the speech that kicked off his re-election campaign. But it’s not working. Or, at least, it’s not working well enough.

There are other ways to run against Trump: He cut taxes for rich people and tried to cut Medicaid for poor people. He cut funding for the police before a crime wave and got rid of the National Security Council’s pandemic preparedness group before the coronavirus hit. He told the oil companies to give him a billion dollars because they’d get preferential treatment if he’s re-elected. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, took $2 billion from Saudi Arabia to fund his private equity firm. Trump’s flagrant violations of democratic norms and basic decency often overshadow the banal ways in which he governed, or let others govern, in cruel, stupid and corrupt ways. Right now, the Biden campaign has much more money than the Trump campaign; it should be using it to redefine Trump in the ways that matter to the voters they need.

Biden is right about what he said on Jan. 5: Preserving democracy is the most urgent question of our time. But that means doing what’s necessary to beat Trump, even if it’s not what Democrats want to do to beat Trump.

What I fear Biden’s allies will do is deny the polls until Democrats wake up, as they have before, to the shocking news that Trump has won. That would be a sin against the cause they claim as sacred. The first step toward winning is changing course when you’re losing.