Friday, July 12, 2024

BTRTN: The Polling Verdict on Biden

Tom assesses the post-debate polling environment for Biden.

A few days after the June 27 debate, as many rushed to judgment on whether or not Biden should stay in the race, I offered this suggestion:

Before making any decisions, the Biden team and anyone in a position to influence its thinking must first look at the impact of the debate on Biden’s approval rating and the national election polls (both the so-called “two way” polls which pit Biden just against Trump and the “five-way” polls which include the minor candidates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein and Cornel West).  If Biden has taken a substantial blow – say, a five-point or more drop in his approval rating, from the pre-debate level of roughly 40% to 35% or lower, and the gap with Trump widens to five points or more, our view is that Biden should step down.  If the effect is more marginal, a point or two, he can continue his quest to write off the debate as a bad night, akin to those suffered by Reagan and Obama in their first reelection debates and move on.

Much has happened that has further shaped the view of Biden's fitness for office since the debate, and not much of it has been helpful to Biden's case.  Journalists have run stories that generally indicate that, within the White House, Biden has been widely viewed as in decline.  Biden appeared vigorous in various post-debate rallies but was barely adequate in an unscripted 18-minute interview (surprisingly short in and of itself) with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.  Biden said in another interview that he was “proud to be, as I said the first vice president, the first Black woman served with a Black president.”  Another clip showed him apparently “frozen” at a Juneteenth celebration.  George Clooney wrote in an editorial that he believed that Biden had slipped dramatically, and that the Biden he watched at the debate was the same Biden he had seen at a major fundraiser just a month before, far from his 2010 and even 2020 self.  All of these revelations have confirmed the swirling narrative that Biden is not up to the campaign and certainly not for four more years. 

As for the polls, they have been, in our view, bad for Biden, though perhaps not completely disastrous.  And, of course, individual polls have varied enough to give everyone a particular poll to hang onto to support their perspective, although some of those defending Biden have taken the tack of dismissing the polls entirely.  And maybe we should.  While the polls are bad, the real issue is whether Biden is capable of winning given his obvious communication difficulties.

Let’s summarize the polling results.

·        In the two-way national polls, Trump was ahead in pre-debate June polls by a single point, 46/45.  Now Trump leads by roughly three points, 46/43.  Note that Trump has not advanced in these polls, but rather Biden has lost two points to the unspecified category.  A three-point gap is substantial, especially given that Biden actually has to lead in the national polls by 2-3 points for the race to be considered “even” because of the inherent GOP bias in the Electoral College..

·        In “five-way” national polls, Trump’s pre-debate lead was again a single point, 42/41, with the other candidates receiving 9% of the vote.  Trump’s post-debate lead is 4-5 points, 44/39, with the other candidates receiving 13% of the vote.  Clearly, having real choices matters, and that will certainly be the case come November.  Behind 4-5 points behind is an enormous gap to overcome.

·        Biden’s approval rating has dropped only a point or two, to 38%.  However, it is at a low for his presidency.

The debate has clearly been the most consequential “catalyst” to date in a race characterized by its static nature, with neither candidate able to forge a convincing lead.  Nothing has moved the needle as dramatically as the debate.  Based on the post-debate gap, Trump is now in a commanding position, particularly given the state of the all-important swing state polls.

There have been three pollsters who have done polling across multiple swing states.  Emerson and Remington showed similar results, more unfavorable to Biden than pre-debate polls, while Bloomberg was a mixed bag, showing, incongruously, Biden doing better in Wisconsin and Michigan than in pre-debate polls, but far worse in Pennsylvania, and about the same in the other four swing states (Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina).  The Bloomberg poll is odd in two ways:  first, it strains credulity to think that Biden would actually improve his standing in any state post-debate, and second, it is also it is very odd that Pennsylvania would move in a different direction than in Michigan and Wisconsin.  Bloomberg looks to be the outlier among the three, with highly suspect results.

The chart below summarizes the polls, with the last two columns contrasting the averages with and without the Bloomberg numbers.  In comparing either column to the first "pre-debate" polling, clearly the race has taken a turn for the worse, with Biden weakening significantly in Pennsylvania (in all three polls), and also materially in Wisconsin, and, if one excludes Bloomberg, also in Michigan (and a bit in Arizona and Nevada). 









This is perilous for Biden.  Pre-debate he was already in difficult shape, with only one likely path to the 270 electoral votes he needs to win reelection:  winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  If he won all three, as well as all the other “solid” or “likely” blue states, he would garner exactly 270 electoral votes, no more, no less, and squeak out a victory.  Before the debate he was arguably even in all three; but he now is facing the same kind of gap in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that he faces in the four southern and western states.  Those roughly five-point leads have proven quite difficult to dent over the last six months.

Accordingly, we have lowered the BTRTN odds of Biden winning reelection from about 50/50 (47%) to 31%.

Keep in mind that this is just a snapshot, not a prediction.  (There will be no predictions at BTRTN until the night before the election.)  But that 31% is indicative of where the race stands right now.  If the election were held tomorrow, Biden would very likely lose.

Part of that calculus is that while Biden’s path to 270, already narrow, is being squeezed, it is likely that his debate performance will bring more states into play, thereby expanding Trump’s own pathways to 270.  Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Maine and Virginia, all reliably blue states, could all achieve swing state status soon enough.

In addition, of course, a poor Biden showing in November will hurt the Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate or taking control of the House.  If Biden loses, then all the GOP has to do to take the Senate is  win West Virginia, which is a near certainty.  Even if Biden wins, the Democrats would still have to win all seven battleground Senate races to get to 50 seats and control; all seven are current Democratic seats.  The GOP has zero vulnerable Senate seats, unless you count Texas or Florida (as of now, I don’t).  We have the odds of the Democrats holding the Senate at a mere 12%.

The problem with the Biden campaign is that even before the debate, he was running out of “catalysts” to propel him ahead of Trump.  Gaza shows no sign of peace; with inflation sticky at 3%, the Fed may, at most, do one rate cut in 2024; and one can hardly anticipate a Biden-led convention to provide a sizable bump.  Indeed, it was that thinking that probably led the Biden campaign team to seek an early debate, to try to shake up the race before it ossified even further.  Sure, four months is a long time, but in a race that has shown little change -- even in the face of seismic events like the Trump “hush money” conviction and a remarkable string of conservative Supreme Court rulings -- at some point you begin to wonder how it changes.  Hence the thought to call for a debate, which Trump eagerly accepted.

This “debate now” strategy, of course, rather spectacularly backfired.  It shook up the race all right, and the entire planet with it, raising questions not only about the viability of Biden’s candidacy, but his fitness for office right now.  It is hard to dimensionalize exactly how bad it was, or even find an appropriate analogy.  Imagine a baseball pitcher known for choking in big performances being handed the ball for the seventh game of the World Series and allowing home runs to the first five batters he faces.  One can imagine the pitcher’s family saying “but he improved from there”, as did Biden’s spin team at first.  Perhaps, but the damage was done.  The new phrase is that you can’t convince 50 million people to “unsee” what they have seen.

Biden took his biggest weakness, attempted to turn it on its head, and instead managed to do exactly the opposite.  It was so bad that those who were defending him (like me) quickly concluded that we were wrong, and that he must withdraw from the race.

But not everyone thinks so, including Biden himself, his family (apparently), AOC and the Congressional Black Caucus (somewhat suprisingly) and…well, who?  Often, I look at Republicans who favor Trump and ask myself how in the hell can they possibly defend him?  There are no arguments that make any sense at all.  No economic argument, no foreign policy argument, and of course no ethical argument.  But now I find myself listening to previously clear-headed Democrats espousing Biden-defense arguments that also make no sense, such as:

·        “Biden has been a good president so far.”  Well, yes, he has, but that does not mean he will continue to be one, especially if he is cognitively impaired or declining!  

·        “We owe it to Joe.”  Really?  Isn’t it the other way around?  Doesn’t he owe us an honest assessment of his capabilities?  And isn’t our goal to elect a Democrat (not to elect Biden per se), and beat Trump?

·        “The polls are wrong, remember Hillary?”  Hmm, OK, but ignore intelligence at your peril.  But if you going to critique polls, then don't, in the same breath, cite the Bloomberg and Yahoo News polls, the two that are relatively positive for Biden, and challenge the rest.  (And as for Hillary, well I don’t see Jim Comey anywhere, making 11th hour announcements that reintroduced her weakest issue.)

·        “He did well at the North Carolina and other campaign events.”  Yes, but we have four more months in which we can expect a more or less continuous flow of diminishment-indicative slips, stumbles and incoherent statements, mixed in liberally with reasonably strong performances.  Which do you think will get more attention?

·        “He won all those primaries…we should not ignore the wishes of all those voters.”  Perhaps with the debate, um, things have changed?  And that every poll since September has shown that over half the party thinks Biden is too old to run and wishes they had another choice?  Not to mention that the primaries were essentially uncontested.

·        “Joe beat Trump once; he can do it again.”  But that was 2020 Joe!  That guy could articulate a case against Trump.  The 2024 version of Joe simply can’t.  And Kamala was a prosecutor...of course she can prosecute the case against Trump.

·        “He’s got our back.”  And Kamala doesn’t?  And she’ll be able to work before 10 AM and after 4 PM on our behalf, right, and not become incoherent when struck with a common cold or the travel demands that come with the office?

·        “Kamala can’t win.”  She can’t?  Have you seen the polls that show her doing at least as well as Biden versus Trump, some slightly better?

The last two weeks have unfolded in slow-motion.  Biden was slow to defend himself; waiting an entire week (and a day) to get in front of Stephanopoulos.  He tried to set that interview up as some kind of one-off litmus test – a false standard, since it is the ongoing nature of his mental state that is at issue.  This is not the Olympics, a one-shot chance of a lifetime, rather this is a four-month slog.  Then, to quell the rising storm, Biden tried to declare it was “over” because he was staying in the race unless the “Lord Almighty comes down and tells me {to get out}.”  None of it has worked to quell the storm.

The politicians have been very careful in making their moves.  Only a handful (17 House Democrats and one Senator, as of now) have called outright for Biden to go, but clearly there are many more doubters who have yet to opine publicly.  Representative Adam Smith, one of the 17, estimated that 90 percent of his colleagues felt the same way.

Now the formidable Nancy Pelosi has spoken.  Biden may be awaiting word from the Lord Almighty, but politically Pelosi may be an even higher power.  Pelosi cleverly suggested that Biden “make up his mind” about whether to run, which sounded incongruous given that he had declared over and over his "final" decision.  What she was really saying was “not so fast, buddy,” but saying it in a way that opened a face-saving door for Biden, and giving some space for (and permission to) Democrats to continue to raise their objectives.

Biden’s performance at the post-NATO press conference was more or less typical “pre-debate Biden”: wordy, soft-spoken, with the obligatory gaffe (referring to Harris as “Vice President Trump”) -- but also quite conversant, if far from eloquent, on a wide range of foreign policy matters including Ukraine, China and Israel, and also on his views on Vice President Harris.  Essentially, the man knows his stuff, he just isn’t very good at articulating it, and that style is simply never going to improve.  It has worsened over time and will likely get even worse.  His performance was certainly far better than the debate, and better than the Stephanopoulos interview.  But it will not be sufficient to stop the bleeding.  Indeed, minutes after the press conference ended, Jim Himes became the fifteenth congressperson to call for Biden to step down (and two more have since followed Himes).

Perhaps Biden will survive.  Is it possible that he has grasped the new reality better than others in his party, and is taking a play from the Trump “no apologies” playbook?  Might this be “Access Hollywood” all over again, an apparently obvious knock-out blow that is simply not packing the wallop it once might have?  I have my doubts, but Biden hold the cards here (the delegates).  We’ll see if he is immune to the rising pressure.

The weekend will be critical.  With NATO in the rear-view mirror, the time for the reckoning has come.

Stay tuned.

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Monday, July 1, 2024

BTRTN: What Next? Should Joe Go?

 Tom with the BTRTN June 2024 Month in Review.

The 2024 presidential election to date has been characterized by its static nature.  World and domestic events erupt with regularity, in Gaza and Ukraine, at the Supreme Court and courts in New York, Georgia and Florida, in the halls of Congress, at the border, on Wall Street, in our climate and, well, seemingly everywhere.  And yet, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been locked in a very close election, for months on end, separated at most by mere percentage points.  Even those momentous events, with their massive impacts on the state of the world and the country, have been unable to catalyze any meaningful change. 

That might still be true after the epic meltdown of Joe Biden, the furious lying and dark spiritedness of Donald Trump, and the illumination of their vast differences in worldview and policy at the already-historic June 27 CNN debate.  We do not know as yet.  But what we'll learn over the next week will make all the difference in how the aftermath takes shape – and answer the enormous question of whether Biden should stay in the race or withdraw.

Biden surely put on the worst performance of the televised debate era, which has been around since 1960.  He was tentative, hoarse and, at many junctures, incoherent, weak on defense and no better in articulating his most popular policies.  There were many lowlights, including an early-on interminable, stumble-and-then-silence sequence (actually, it was 8 seconds) that finally ended with a nonsensical non sequitur on Medicare.  Perhaps most egregious was his performance on abortion, his best issue, in which he failed to note that the vast majority of Americans supported Roe v. Wade (instead he referenced its support by constitutional lawyers); failed to dimensionalize the pain that has resulted in the Dobbs era; inexplicably pivoted from abortion, his best issue, to immigration, his worst; and failed to mention abortion (or January 6) at all in his closing statement.  And, of course, he rather consistently reinforced his biggest negative, which is that he is old and perceived by many, even in his own party, to not being up to the job.

Trump, for his part, did nothing to reassure voters that he has evolved in any way.  While he did not interrupt Biden (the “mics off” rule doubtlessly helping him to avoid his worst instincts), he was still the raging victim, defending the January 6 rioters and insisting the 2020 election was rigged, spouting utter nonsense, including repeated suggestions that America under Biden is violent, disrespected, in decline and a joke.  He was indeed vigorous, but also semi-crazed, and those looking for some semblance of presidential temperament and aptitude walked away empty-handed.  And the lies!  Biden got it right in his remarks after the debate; it was not clear if Trump said a single thing that was accurate.

In the few days since, the various constituencies have coalesced into competing camps.  From virtually the outset, the national media and the pundits, led by The New York Times, David Axelrod and James Carville, echoed by many others, have called for Biden to step down.  Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have laid low, conceding that Biden had a bad night but sticking by their man.  In this they are simply following Biden himself, who quickly made energetic campaign appearances in New York and North Carolina, full of vigor, self-deprecation and earnest defense of his governing abilities, if not his physical condition and debating skills.  Donors have been alternately moaning, weighing in, and waiting to see how it all plays out.

The debate impact is actually a three-part drama.  There is the debate itself, which was watched, at least in part, by 51 million viewers on TV (and more live on the Internet).  The second part is the impact of the clips of the debate, where the worst bits (“…we finally beat Medicare!”) have already been seen millions of times on social media, a number still growing.  Part three is the media coverage, which has been universally and relentlessly negative to Biden and weighted to evaluations of his performance rather than Trump’s.  In obvious ways, parts two and three are even worse than the debate itself.  Biden’s good moments – and he did get better as it went along, albeit from a disastrous start – are long lost, and Trump’s general awfulness has been  overshadowed.

The net effect is that it will take days for the debate impressions to harden, and thus the various “snap” polls may not capture the full extent of the impact.  I would not pay too much attention to polls that were fielded on June 28/29/30; we need to wait until it has all sunk in.

What next?

What everyone should be waiting for are the views (and verdict) of the most important segment of all:  the voters.  And that will come in the next week, both in public polls that we will all see, and in private polls that the Biden team almost certainly already had in place, to measure pre/post-debate impacts.

Before making any decisions, the Biden team and anyone in a position to influence its thinking must first look at the impact of the debate on Biden’s approval rating and the national election polls (both the “two way” polls which pit Biden against Trump and the “five-way” which include the minor candidates Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jill Stein and Cornel West).  If Biden has taken a substantial blow – say, a five-point or more drop in his approval rating, from the pre-debate level of roughly 40% to 35% or lower, and the gap with Trump widens to five points or more, our view is that Biden should step down.  If the effect is more marginal, a point or two, he can continue his quest to write off the debate as a bad night, akin to those suffered by Reagan and Obama in their first reelection debates, and move on.  (The race is currently more or less a dead heat.  Obviously, if swing state polling is available or commissioned, that would be important, too.  Public swing state polling has been sporadic at best.)

Many think that Biden is intractable, and under no circumstances will he withdraw.  That might very well be true.  But the worse the polls are, the more intense the pressure he will feel, and the cumulative effect of donors, wise old hands (say, Obama, the Clintons, Al Gore, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Hakeem Jeffries, etc.) and esteemed (by Joe Biden) members of the media (say, Thomas Friedman and Joe Scarborough) could be consequential.  Such a decision will be made by Biden in consultation with his inner circle of family (foremost Jill Biden and Biden's sister Valerie) and the most trusted of his long-time advisors (Kauffman, Klain, Richetti, Donilon, Dunn and Bauer).  But if the numbers are indeed dire, he has a grave responsibility to the party and to the American people, to confront directly the question, is he still the best hope to defeat Donald Trump -- and conclude the answer is no.

What then?

Keep in mind, an alternate candidate will only arise with Biden’s cooperation.  There will be no challenges to him if he chooses to continue.  It would be political suicide to any aspiring candidate to buck him publicly, and political homicide on Biden’s prospects versus Trump.  While the convention rules do contain language that would allow pledged delegates to go elsewhere, this avenue is unthinkable.

If Biden stepped down voluntarily, the presidential selection process might resemble political life in the decades and centuries before 1972.  In that year the parties basically turned over the nominating process to the public via a full set of state-by-state primaries in which candidates could accumulate delegates and perhaps march into the convention with enough in hand to be the presumptive first-ballot nominee.  Before 1972, primaries were few and more seen as testing grounds.  Once John F. Kennedy won the Wisconsin primary (after winning in neighboring New Hampshire), thereby proving that a Catholic could win in a Protestant stronghold, the remaining half-dozen primaries were largely irrelevant (and at times won by favorite sons and the "non-committed" line on the ballot, to maximize convention leverage).  Old style political conventions were the hotbed of deal-making, tickets created through the clouds of the legendary smoke-filled rooms, while the nation waited breathlessly to see who emerged in the balloting, which at times went on for multiple rounds and even days.

I suspect if Biden stepped down he would recall his talk of a “transition presidency,” mouth words about “accomplishing what I set out to do" and "the need for a new generation of leadership."  There would be  sentences about "focusing my attention on the issues at hand" such as Gaza and immigration.  

He would also say glowing things about Vice President Kamala Harris.  But he would also surely release all of his delegates and say that the party deserves a chance, at the convention, to choose its standard bearer.  This would leave the door open for new candidates.

Many fear that unleashing such a process might lead to chaos, or unintended consequences.  There are risks, to be sure.  But there are significant upsides to this approach.  The focus of the election would suddenly not be on Biden’s frailties and vexing, troubling issues (for him) such as Gaza and immigration, or Trump’s trials and dark madness, but instead on a fresh slate of candidates, who would generally be supportive, of course, of Democratic policies (and more articulate about them), but could also part with Biden on those troubling issues.  The sheer excitement and novelty of this free-for-all, the breaking of a tired tradition, and the opportunity, finally, for choice, would surely ignite the Democrats.  Remembering that over half the party wanted Biden to not run even before the debates, it is hard to argue the sudden offering of a choice could be a misstep.  It is plainly what the people want, now more than ever.

The usual suspects are being rolled out, including, perhaps at the top, popular Governor Gretchen Whitmer of swing state Michigan.  She resides in the heart of the northern industrial belt of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that were critical both to Trump’s win in 2016 (when he flipped them and punctured the myth of the “Blue Wall”) and Biden’s in 2020 (when he won by flipping them back).  Gavin Newsom is also a high profile potential entrant.  With Whitmer (age 52), Newsom (56) and Harris (59), suddenly age would become a weapon to use against Trump, and the future would have abruptly arrived, personified by the candidate.

Other names that will come to the fore are Governors Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, both succeeding in red and nearly-red states, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, all succeeding in red or swing states.  Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who outperformed Harris in the 2020 race, could throw their hats in.

Fears that Democrats would continue to lose Black voters (if Harris lost) ignores the very real possibility that their numbers would be easily overtaken by the return of young voters, the transformation of “double haters” into “single haters” (of Trump), and tip the scales of the persuadable middle, who finally might have someone to get excited about.

All of the contenders would have six weeks to barnstorm America and introduce themselves to the electorate (and to donors).  Some will do well; others will bomb (see: Ron DeSantis).  The convention would be epic, one for the ages, a reality show that Donald Trump could not possibly match.  The ratings would be through the roof, as America would be riveted by the contenders' impassioned speeches, the real-time uncertainty, various unscripted happenings and even scripted ones such as Joe Biden’s valedictory appearance and the wisdom of the Obamas and the Clintons, which would take on new significance.  Then would come the balloting process, a Super Bowl-esque night with ratings to match, and then, a Vice Presidential choice worthy of a century ago, with the promise of a VP slot dangled to those with delegates to offer to seal the deal.

Then the nation could watch the same old Donald Show at the GOP convention, and not help but notice the incredible contrast between a vigorous party teeming with young leaders looking to the future, and a dark, diabolical grievance- and retribution-ridden charlatan rooted in the past.  The Democratic candidate would head into the fall with momentum, perhaps even a lead in the polls, which would force Trump to agree to a debate.  And we would be back, staring at two podiums again, waiting to see how the combatants fare.

Now all of that is certainly a “best case scenario” for the Democrats – things could certainly go off the rails.  The principal problem with all of those potential candidates is that they are not truly battle-tested on a national stage, although some had a level of experience in 2020. 

And again, this scenario should only be explored if the debate dramatically changes Biden’s electorate prospects.  If that cannot be demonstrated, there is little reason to change horses.  If the voting public can absorb the very worst of Biden and shrug it off – as the GOP shrugged off Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – then the debate will rightly fade into history, and Biden’s “back on the saddle” approach will be the correct choice.

Stay tuned.


KEY METRICS

Joe Biden’s approval rating in June remained at 39%, and his net negative further expanded to -18 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The generic ballot is once again a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" increased slightly to +35, driven by a drop in gas prices and a rise in the stock market.   The +35 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below).


















BIDENOMETER

The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +35 for June 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 35% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +35, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is much higher, the GDP is MUCH higher.  Only the price of gas is in a negative direction (higher), which is a proxy for general inflation.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +35 under Biden.

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