Why less engaged voters are Biden’s biggest problem | ET REALITY


If one seeks to reconcile the Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in the midterm elections with President Biden’s weakness in today’s pollsconsider the political attitudes of two groups of New York Times/Siena College respondents over the past year.

First, consider the 2,775 respondents from Group A:

  • It is relatively old: 31 percent are 65 or older; 9 percent are under 30 years old.

  • It is divided politically, with 33 percent identifying as Republican compared to 31 percent who consider themselves Democrats.

  • About 72 percent are white. Black and Hispanic respondents make up 9 percent each.

  • They are relatively well educated: 41 percent have a university degree.

Next, let’s take a look at the 1,534 respondents from B Group:

  • It is relatively young: 26 percent are between 18 and 29 years old; 17 percent are 65 years or older.

  • It is relatively Democratic: 26 percent identify as Democrats, compared to 19 percent who identify as Republicans.

  • Only 54 percent are white; 13 percent are black and 19 percent are Hispanic.

  • Only 28 percent have a college degree.

Biden likely won Group B by a comfortable margin in the 2020 presidential election, whether based on sophisticated statistical models or what respondents themselves told us.

But it’s actually Group B that backs Donald J. Trump in Times/Siena polls over the past year. Trump leads Biden, 41-39, among Group B respondents, while Group A backs Biden, 47-43.

Okay, now the reveal:

“Group A” are the people who voted in the 2022 midterm elections.

“Group B” are people who do not vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

Is this a surprising finding? Yes. But it also makes sense of a lot of what is happening in the polls today.

Biden may be weak today among young, black and Hispanic voters, but that weakness is almost entirely concentrated among voters who stayed home last November. As a result, Democrats paid little to no price for it in the midterm elections, even as polls of all registered voters or adults show Biden fighting mightily among these same groups against Trump.

These less engaged voters could be the biggest problem Biden faces in his quest for re-election, the Times/Siena data suggests. If there is any good news for Biden, it is that his challenge is concentrated among voters who still consider themselves Democrats, a group that, in theory, should be open to returning to the president’s side.

Overall, self-identified Democrats who stayed home in the midterms backed Biden by just 67-15, compared to Biden’s 93-3 advantage among those who went to the polls last November. Similarly, Biden has just a 79-to-6 lead among Biden ’20 voters who didn’t vote in the midterms, compared to a 91-to-3 lead among those who did turn out.

The Times/Siena data doesn’t offer many clues about whether Biden will improve his standing among these seemingly favorable groups. One possibility is that these voters are not particularly attuned to politics, but will be there for Biden once he begins campaigning. The other possibility is that these voters are disengaged precisely because they are unhappy with Biden. If so, you will have a hard time winning them back or getting them to vote.

Whatever the explanation, his challenge among low-turnout voters is broad, spanning virtually every demographic. As noted in a previous newsletter, Black and Hispanic voters who skipped the midterm elections are unusually likely to back Trump (although not with majority support). Similarly, Biden has a 51-33 lead among young voters who turned out in the midterms, but only a 43-36 lead among those who didn’t.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pattern extends even to college graduates. Biden leads by just 11 points among college graduates who did not attend the midterms, compared to a 19-point lead among those who did attend. College-educated Democrats who skipped the midterms backed Biden by just 70-9, while college-educated Democrats who went to the midterms backed him 98-0.

Meanwhile, Trump faces no challenge among Republicans who stayed home last November. He has a 90-3 lead among Trump ’20 supporters who stayed home in 2022, about the same as his 90-2 lead among those who attended. Similarly, self-identified Republicans who did not vote in the midterms back Trump, 88-7.

It is worth stopping to dwell on the curious implications of all these findings. According to Times/Siena data, the overall 2020 electorate was likely further Democrat and more supportive of Biden in 2020 than the 2022 midterm electorate, as a slightly larger share of Democrats and Biden ’20 voters skipped the midterm elections than Republican or Trump ’20 voters ( we write more about that here).

On that basis, one would typically assume that a higher turnout election in 2024 would help Biden and Democrats by enticing voters who dropped out to return to the polls. However, according to the same data (the same respondents), a higher turnout election would not help Biden today, although it would bring more Biden ’20 voters and more Democratic voters to the polls. That’s because many of the Biden ’20 and Democratic-leaning voters who dropped out have defected from the president, and fewer Trump supporters have defected.

I know this is all somewhat disconcerting. It goes against the way things usually work in American politics. But if you step back and consider our recent newsletters (on the Electoral College, nonwhite voters, and turnout), there’s actually one clear conclusion. Biden’s pronounced weakness among less engaged voters is disrupting, at least momentarily, usual patterns. At least temporarily, he has weakened or even reversed the typical Democratic advantage derived from higher turnout. It has hurt Biden in national surveys of registered voters and all adults, as young and non-white voters with low turnout make up a much larger share of eligible voters than the actual electorate. And it has overshadowed Trump’s relative lead in the Electoral College, as Biden is suffering fewer losses in relatively white battlegrounds.

It is entirely possible or even likely that these patterns will become the norm again over the next year. If so, Biden’s numbers among young and non-white voters would gradually increase. Her standing in national polls would also gradually improve, although it would be more difficult to make gains in the relatively white battleground states.

But if not, today’s polls would predict relatively weak turnout among young, black and Hispanic Democrats. It would cost Biden much or all of the usual Democratic lead in the national vote. And it could cost him crucial battleground states and therefore re-election as well.

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