The latest freakout over President Joe Biden's reelection chances stemmed from a pair of polls this week. One suggested Biden's approval rating among Democrats is reaching record lows, while another suggested Biden is running behind Donald Trump by several points in five key swing states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia (Michigan and Nevada were the outliers).
Let's not waste a second dissecting that poll, because it is 100% irrelevant at this point. Why? Because many Americans—if not most—haven't even come to the realization yet that 2024 will likely end up a Biden-Trump rematch.
This is something Focus Group podcaster Sarah Longwell has noted repeatedly in her groups. Voters who are unenthused by Biden and on the fence about voting for him again in 2024 often come around once they are told Trump will likely be the Republican nominee.
"When you tell them, What if it's Trump again, they're like, ‘Oh yeah, no, no, no—I'm all in,’" Longwell said.
So all of these Biden-Trump head-to-head polls are currently asking voters about a matchup that a whole lot of people don't believe is going to happen. In other words, voters aren’t even in the headspace to properly take such a scenario seriously.
The metric that really matters was crystalized nicely by Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher, who noted recently that Trump will likely secure some 47% of the electorate—roughly the same share he won in both 2016 (45.9%) and 2020 (46.8%). That's his ceiling.
So the real tell is how close Biden gets to securing 51% of the electorate.
"Anything that undermines Biden garnering a majority is how we get 2016 all over again," Belcher said of the third-party spoiler that gifted key swing states to Trump.
"Also note, polls that aren’t bad for Biden get no press," Belcher added, linking to a Marist/NPR/PBS NewHour poll earlier this month that showed Biden running ahead of Trump, 49% - 46%.
As I have written before: Third-party candidacies that eat into Biden's ability to reach 50-plus-one continue to be Democrats' biggest obstacle next year.
For now, polls show anti-vaccine activist and “independent” gadfly Robert F. Kennedy Jr. taking more votes from Trump than Biden. But that does not factor in bids by a “bipartisan” No Labels ticket, or left-wing activist Cornel West—or even the latest Democratic primary challenge from Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, which appears precisely designed to do little more than hobble Biden.
The 2024 election cycle promises to play out on one of the most unpredictable political landscapes in modern memory, likely defined by two candidates for whom Americans are uniquely unenthused to vote. The trick for Team Biden will be to recreate the anti-Trump coalition of 2020—but this time around Biden will have a record to defend and a lot more distractions to deal with.
Trust me when I say none of the current polling or hot takes are capturing the complexities of next year's electorate.
For now, the most constructive thing any Democrat who wants to reelect Biden can do is repeatedly remind their anti-Trump friends and family members that casting a third-party vote next year—or even staying home—is a de facto vote for Trump. That is especially true of young voters, who still generally lean Democratic but could be third-party curious or simply too dispirited to get to the polls.