Social Navigation

Elections lay bare the party blind spots the rest of us see


 Of course, that would mean shifting positions on an issue that many voters on the right believe is not one where they can compromise. The GOP is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Some of the most crucial primary constituencies inside the GOP do believe abortion is murder, and they just can’t accept this is something that should be left up for debate. There are quite a few elected Republicans who are not nearly as strident on the abortion issue as they claim to be publicly, simply so they don’t offend crucial activist primary voters. Those that want to ban abortion are among the most fervent primary voters in the GOP. 

But increasingly, it does look like the abortion position that swing voters prefer is simply a non-starter for these crucial GOP primary voters. And yet, here they are.

The bottom line is this: A huge swath of voters are pro-access, and that’s the better way to describe the abortion debate these days, because for the voters, it’s about access. As long as the GOP is seen as the party trying to limit access, many swing voters, it appears, are going to consistently vote against their candidates or positions.

This is a fairly clear-cut example of voters deeming a political party out of touch.

This is what the 2024 campaign could ultimately be about: a referendum on which party the voters think is more out of touch with their lives.

With a rematch between two unpopular presidents as the most likely scenario for the fall, it’s hard to picture this campaign being about anything other than a race to scare voters into believing the other choice is worse.

And that brings me to those shock battleground state polls I was referring to at the top of this column.

The pressure builds 

Sometimes, where a poll gets published is as important as what the numbers themselves are. That’s the key takeaway from the battleground state polling The New York Times released this week, showing a potentially disastrous result for Democrats if the 2024 election were held this week. Biden was losing in 5 of the 6 closest states from 2020, and, more alarmingly for the Democratic incumbent, he trailed by 5 points or more in four of the states. In the lone state where he led in the poll, Wisconsin, Biden’s lead was a mere 2 points.  

Of course, the poll really didn’t say anything that plenty of other polls haven’t shown for six months or more. Biden has been stuck in a rut with voters for just about this entire calendar year; in fact, one could argue he still hasn’t recovered from his initial polling drop following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021.   

But because so many Democratic donors and elected officials read the Times, these polls are having a bigger impact on the psyche of the donors, elected officials and activists who comprise the Democratic Party’s elite.  

The deeper you dig into these polls, the worse news you discover for Biden. The coalition of voters he needs to win re-election is fracturing. There’s a growing multi-ethnic working-class coalition forming — but not for Biden. It’s forming for former President Donald Trump, as his support among Black and Latino voters appears to nearing or exceeding all-time highs for Trump. Toss in the fact that Biden continues to struggle with younger voters who believe he’s too old to serve a second term, and it’s hard to find any good news in these numbers for the sitting president. 

The only good news for the blue team from the poll is that a generic Democrat would lead Trump by 8 points. Translation: Democrats have a Biden problem, more than an economy or inflation problem. 

So was the Democratic performance in this year’s election enough to calm the Democratic Party handwringing on Biden? Perhaps, but barely. There’s no doubt that abortion continues to be the issue that breaks the tie these days, and that’s benefitting Democrats, no matter how unenthusiastic they are about Biden. Maybe by the fall of 2024, Democrats can once again use the abortion issue to motivate Biden-skeptical voters to show up. 

But just because abortion is so salient doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t worry that they look as out of touch on Biden, and the question of his age, as Republicans do on abortion.  

Every single poll that has asked about Biden’s age has shown similar results as the Times poll did. An overwhelming majority are concerned about it. Look deeper into some of the other weaknesses voters see in Biden’s presidency and one can’t help but wonder if the concerns about his ability to lead on the economy or overseas are all simply derivative of the concerns about his age. It looks as if that’s the prism through which voters are judging Biden’s entire presidency. That’s a problem. And right now, they don’t seem to have a plan to deal with it.

Biden and the White House have tried a few conventional approaches to fixing his problems with the public. They’ve been on the air with a biographical ad of sorts, trying to remind voters that Biden is still the guy from Scranton, looking out for the little guy. But they haven’t moved the needle (at least, not yet).

And while Biden’s team believes he always comes out well when voters are presented with a choice of Biden vs. Trump, it doesn’t appear that’s as clear cut as it was three years ago.

One thing Trump has going for him is that voters — even those that don’t like him — see him as a fighter, according to strategists who have been studying voter perceptions of Trump. And whatever one thinks of his other qualities, it’s true that he is a fighter, at least when it comes to the courtroom or the press or anyone he has a beef with.

Team Biden believes their candidate is the more authentic fighter for the little guy, but the lack of vigor in this campaign so far makes that messaging more difficult.

Trying to limit Biden’s public interactions and public campaigning is not going to make this problem go away for the Democrats. They need to confront this head on by accepting the risk of Biden being Biden and going out in public more and letting it all hang out, warts and all.

The staff treats him like a Fabergé egg. If he really needs this type of protection, then maybe he shouldn’t run. But from everything I know about Biden, this isn’t the case. Yes, he’s a tad slower and his voice isn’t as strong, but if Democrats want to win, they need to get voters more comfortable with how he is, period. 

The only alternative to that strategy is hanging onto the abortion issue for dear life, hoping somehow the economy continues to recover so that it isn’t a negative-20-point issue for Biden by Election Day 2024, and wait for at least one criminal conviction of Trump somewhere. It’s not implausible, but banking on that set of circumstances makes for an election year of heartburn for Democrats.

A political friendship that must be real 

Ron DeSantis had better never forget an important date in Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ life — because wow, does he owe her one. 

Despite DeSantis running what appears to be, at best, a campaign trending in the wrong direction, Reynolds decided to stick to her guns and formally endorse DeSantis for president. 

It’s notable that Reynolds let the press know she called Nikki Haley to let her know she was going to do it — it implies Reynolds was perhaps contemplating supporting her as well. But not only is she choosing to stay alienated from Trump-world by sticking with DeSantis, Reynolds is risking wasting her own considerable Iowa political capital for a candidate who could easily finish third in the caucuses. 

Now, if DeSantis somehow pulls the upset and wins Iowa, this could be a huge boon for Reynolds and strengthen her position as the state’s political juggernaut. But that appears to be the least likely outcome. Still, whatever reason Reynolds had for sticking by DeSantis, one can’t say she simply stuck her finger in the wind and made a decision. If her chosen candidate doesn’t finish first or second, it could be something that creates problems for her. Whatever else there is to say about her decision, she is not taking the easy way out.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.