If you’re looking to reconcile the surprisingly strong Democratic showing in the midterm elections with President Biden’s weakness in the polls today, consider the political attitudes of two groups of respondents from New York Times/Siena College polls over the last year.
First, let’s consider the 2,775 respondents from Group A:
It’s relatively old: 31 percent are 65 or older; 9 percent are under 30.
It’s split politically: 33 percent identify as Republicans compared with 31 percent who consider themselves Democrats.
About 72 percent are white. Black and Hispanic respondents are at 9 percent each.
It’s relatively well educated: 41 percent have a college degree.
Next, let’s look at the 1,534 respondents from Group B:
It’s relatively young: 26 percent are 18 to 29; 17 percent are 65 or older.
It’s relatively Democratic: 26 percent identify as Democrats, compared with 19 percent who identify as Republicans.
Only 54 percent are white; 13 percent are Black and 19 percent are Hispanic.
Just 28 percent have a college degree.
Mr. Biden probably won Group B by a comfortable margin in the 2020 presidential election, whether based on fancy statistical models or based on what those respondents told us themselves.
But it’s actually Group B that backs Donald J. Trump in Times/Siena polling over the last year. Mr. Trump leads Mr. Biden, 41-39, among Group B respondents, while Group A backs Mr. Biden, 47-43.
OK, now the reveal:
“Group A” is people who voted in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Group B” is people who did not vote in the 2022 midterms.
Is this a surprising finding? Yes. But it also makes sense of a lot of what’s going on in the polling today.
Mr. Biden may be weak among young, Black and Hispanic voters today, but that weakness is almost entirely concentrated among the voters who stayed home last November. As a consequence, Democrats paid little to no price for it in the midterms, even as polls of all registered voters or adults show Mr. Biden struggling mightily among these same groups against Mr. Trump.
These less engaged voters might just be the single biggest problem facing Mr. Biden in his pursuit of re-election, the Times/Siena data suggests. If there’s any good news for Mr. Biden, it’s that his challenge is concentrated among voters who still consider themselves Democrats — a group that, in theory, ought to be open to returning to the president’s side.
Overall, self-identified Democrats who stayed home in the midterms back Mr. Biden by just 67-15, compared with Mr. Biden’s 93-3 edge among those who turned out last November. Similarly, Mr. Biden holds just a 79-6 lead among self-reported Biden ’20 voters who did not vote in the midterms, compared with a 91-3 edge among those who did turn out.
The Times/Siena data doesn’t offer many clues about whether Mr. Biden will improve his standing among these seemingly favorable groups. One possibility is that these voters aren’t especially tuned into politics but will be around for Mr. Biden once the campaign gets underway. The other possibility is that these voters are disengaged precisely because they’re not happy with Mr. Biden. If so, he’ll have a tough time winning them back or getting them to vote.
Whatever the explanation, his challenge among low-turnout voters is broad, spanning virtually every demographic group. As noted in a previous newsletter, the Black and Hispanic voters who skipped the midterms are unusually likely to back Mr. Trump (though not by majority support). Similarly, Mr. Biden holds a 51-33 advantage among young voters who turned out in the midterms, but just a 43-36 lead among those who did not.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pattern even extends to college graduates. Mr. Biden leads by just 11 points among college graduates who skipped the midterms, compared with a 19-point lead among those who turned out. College-educated Democrats who skipped the midterms back Mr. Biden by just 70-9, while college-educated Democrats who turned out in the midterms back him, 98-0.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, does not face any challenge among Republicans who stayed home last November. He holds a 90-3 lead among Trump ’20 supporters who stayed home in 2022, about the same as his 90-2 lead among those who turned out. Similarly, self-identified Republicans who didn’t vote in the midterms back Mr. Trump, 88-7.
It’s worth pausing to dwell on the curious implications of all of these findings. According to the Times/Siena data, the 2020 general electorate was probably more Democratic and more supportive of Mr. Biden in 2020 than the 2022 midterm electorate, since a slightly higher proportion of Democrats and Biden ’20 voters skipped the midterms than Republican or Trump ’20 voters (we wrote more about that here).
On that basis, one would ordinarily assume that a higher-turnout election in 2024 would help Mr. Biden and Democrats, by drawing those drop-off voters back to the polls. Yet according to the same data — the same survey respondents — a higher-turnout election would not help Mr. Biden today, even though it would draw more Biden ’20 and more Democratic voters to the polls. That’s because too many of those Biden ’20 and Democratic-leaning drop-off voters have defected from the president, with fewer Trump supporters defecting.
I know all of this is somewhat perplexing. It runs 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 a clear takeaway. Mr. Biden’s pronounced weakness among less engaged voters is, at least momentarily, disrupting the usual patterns. It has at least temporarily weakened or even reversed the typical Democratic advantage from higher turnout. It has hurt Mr. Biden in national polling of registered voters and all adults, as low-turnout young and nonwhite voters make up a far larger share of eligible voters than the actual electorate. And it has dulled Mr. Trump’s relative advantage in the Electoral College, as Mr. Biden is suffering fewer losses in the relatively white battlegrounds.
It’s entirely possible or even likely that these patterns will revert toward the norm over the next year. If so, Mr. Biden’s numbers among young and nonwhite voters would gradually climb. His position in the national polls would gradually improve as well, though gains in the relatively white battleground states would be harder to come by.
But if not, the polls today would augur a relatively weak turnout among young, Black and Hispanic Democrats. It would cost Mr. Biden much or all of the usual Democratic advantage in the national vote. And it might just cost him the pivotal battleground states and therefore re-election as well.