Democrats see conflicting messages as Biden polls lag, party wins big

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Democrats are dealing with conflicting messages ahead of next year’s presidential race, as recent polls prompt worries about President Biden’s reelection bid — and his party notches key election wins across the country.

For some, the Democratic wins are a reason not to pay too much attention to polls one year out from Election Day 2024. As voters cast their ballots in a smattering of off-year races Tuesday, the Biden reelection campaign released a memo to news outlets downplaying poll results that showed Biden trailing former President Trump, the front-runner of the GOP primary field, in several battleground states.

But others worry Biden’s bad numbers are a more ominous sign for the party heading into the presidential election, despite Tuesday’s victories in states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio.

“The stakes of miscalculation here are too dramatic to ignore,” said David Axelrod, former President Obama’s senior political strategist, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, highlighting the polling and suggesting Biden drop out of the race.

“If he continues to run, he will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. What he needs to decide is whether that is wise; whether it’s in HIS best interest or the country’s?”

A CNN poll released Tuesday showed Trump 4 points ahead of Biden among registered voters in a hypothetical 2024 match-up. A CBS News poll released Sunday found Trump up 3 points. 

New York Times/Siena College poll released over the weekend showed Trump leading Biden by between 3 and 10 points in hypothetical match-ups in five critical battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania.  

“I was concerned before these polls, and I’m concerned now,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Sunday. He praised the president’s record but said “we have our work cut out for us.” Others in the Senate have also suggested they’d prefer to see better figures at this point. 

Dave Wasserman, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Biden’s numbers “range from mediocre to (in this case) catastrophic,” highlighting the NYT/Siena College results. 

But amid the close 2024 polling, lackluster approval numbers and persistent concerns about the incumbent president’s age, the Democratic Party saw a winning night in Tuesday’s off-year elections. 

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear secured a second term in red-state Kentucky, fending off a challenge from Trump-backed Republican state Attorney General Daniel Cameron. The state voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but Beshear has held on to strong approval among Kentuckians. 

In Ohio, voters passed a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. The move comes after the state made headlines last year when a 10-year-old girl was denied the procedure. Ohioans also approved an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana. 

And in Virginia, Democrats held on to their majority in the state Senate and flipped the state House of Delegates, dealing a blow to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.  

A Democrat won the vacant seat on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, restoring the court’s blue majority. In New Jersey, Democrats flipped a state General Assembly seat in a deep-red district. 

The Biden team is touting the wins and looking toward 2024.

“Across the country tonight, democracy won and MAGA lost. Voters vote. Polls don’t. Now let’s go win next year,” the campaign said on X.

Biden’s reelection campaign and the White House have sought to shrug off the poor polling and quell worries within the party, stressing that it’s too early to use the figures to predict what could happen in 2024. 

“Over the last few days, we have seen the pundit class breathlessly making prediction after prediction about November 2024 based on polling. Take a step outside the beltway, though, and you’ll see that the best measure of how voters feel is how they are actually voting,” Biden-Harris communications director Michael Tyler said in a memo.

Still, others say even though it’s early in the election cycle, the insights from the polls shouldn’t be dismissed.

“They shouldn’t shrug it off,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said.

“If anything, what this election tells us is voters are much less doctrinaire and more issue-directed … particular issues are pushing parties along,” Sheinkopf told The Hill, contending it’s not necessarily the case that just because the party performed well, any given candidate from that party will also do well. 

He and other strategists pointed to the success of the Ohio measure on abortion, which has been noted as a motivating issue for voters, and Beshear’s win in Kentucky as indicators that voters are energized more so by the issues. 

The Bluegrass State governor said after his Tuesday win that voters made “a choice to reject ‘Team R’ or ‘Team D’ and to state clearly that we are one Team Kentucky.”

“So what we’re seeing probably is a breakdown of party and more of an emphasis on individual candidates,” Sheinkopf said. 

CNN’s political director David Chalian said as results came in Tuesday that the party’s wins show “the Democratic brand is not in trouble here. Joe Biden is in trouble.” 

But Jim Messina, a former Obama adviser, has dismissed the polling and responded on X to shrug off Chalian’s take. 

“What if – and just hear me out for a second – the Democratic brand *and* Joe Biden have policies people actually like? And the way people voted last night is a reflection of both those things?” Messina replied

Democratic strategist Rodell Mollineau said “any poll is a snapshot in time” and shrugged off the picture at this point in the race. 

“I know there’s been a lot of bed-wetting regarding some of the recent polls with our president, and instead of hand-wringing, we should look at the lessons from this election and use them to come up with innovative ways to support our president and help lead us to victory in 2024,” Mollineau told The Hill.  

Biden’s Gallup approval rating is notably about where former President Obama’s was at this point in 2011, before he won reelection in 2012. The White House has previously pointed to predictions that the midterms would be problematic for Democrats, who then went on to see big wins in key races. 

“The political experience of the Biden era for Democrats is: extended periods of intense anxiety about terrible polling, occasionally punctuated by strangely positive election nights. And then the cycle repeats,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said on X

Meanwhile, Trump tops the field of Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination, even as he faces a slew of ongoing legal troubles. His presidential rivals are scrambling to narrow his lead with nearly two months to go before voting begins in January.  

Biden is also the leading Democratic name, facing only long-shot challenger Marianne Williamson. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West are running as independents. 

But polls have shown voters are apprehensive about a likely Biden-Trump rematch next year, with 65 percent saying they do not want Biden to be president and 60 percent saying the same about Trump in an October NPR-Marist poll.

Regardless of whether the recent polls spell trouble for Biden in 2024, strategists tend to agree it signals next November will come down to a close race. 

“People reading the national polls and panicking are just panicking for no reason because it’s a year from the election,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale. 

“Now, I don’t think people should take away the opposite conclusion, that because we had a great night last night, everything is hunky dory, and we can just sort of sit on our laurels and relax. In a country that’s polarized, a presidential election is going to be close. So there is a ton of work to be done over the next year,” Vale said. 

Analysts for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics noted the disconnect between Biden’s poll numbers and Democrats’ Tuesday wins, but limited their predictions about next year to the expectation that the presidential race will be “close and competitive.” 

A poll a year out from the contest doesn’t definitely predict how the presidential race will shake out, said Democratic strategist David Thomas, but it does serve to underscore the stakes as Biden gears up to face whoever becomes the Republican nominee. 

“The president has a year to get his message out on why he deserves to be rehired for another four years,” Thomas said. “These guys know they have a lot of work to do, and I suspect that’s what they will do.”

He pointed to Democratic anxiety cropping up in polling ahead of other elections. The party has seen two presidential races since 2000 in which the Democratic candidate won the popular vote and lost the electoral college, leaving voters to “rightfully get very worried before every election that we could have a repeat.” 

Sheinkopf attributed the anxieties about Biden to lingering concerns about his age and potential struggles with young people and Black voters over issues key to those groups. 

“Democrats and Republicans alike, are concerned about their future and express it in the polling,” said Basil Smikle, another Democratic strategist. “But when forced to make a choice, more and more voters seem influenced by all the hot-button issues that have dominated the news like reproductive rights, and stable governance.”

“It’s a positive sign for 2024 that despite questions about Biden as a candidate, voters still are still interested in what he and the ticket bring to the table,” Smikle said.

Hanna Trudo contributed.