The Poller Coaster: Sometimes, you’re up. Sometimes, you’re down.
And at the end of the day, those climbs and drops don’t always tell you all that much about where you’re going to wind up.
Tough polling. Strong elections. What gives, and what does it tell us about 2024?
Before last week’s elections, Democrats nationwide read with horror new polls: A Sunday New York Times/Siena battleground survey had Biden lagging Trump in five of the six most critical swing states, while a Tuesday CNN poll put Trump ahead 49%-45% nationally.
The one swing state that seems to be an exception is Wisconsin, where Biden led Trump in both the Times survey and a Wednesday release from the highly-regarded Marquette University Law School poll.
Despite the troubling polls, last Tuesday night, Democrats won control of the Virginia state legislature, won the Kentucky Governor’s race, and passed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the freedom to access abortion in Ohio—all while winning countless local offices.
Seriously—how does that add up? Are Democrats flailing or soaring?
The answer, in short: campaigns matter.
Last week, various folks asked me—as the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin—whether anything beyond demographics set Wisconsin apart from the other states surveyed. My answer: yes. What? Huge campaigns, recently.
Wisconsin, which is likely to be hold-your-breath close in 2024, is the one battleground polled that has had a massive election this year. Our April state Supreme Court race, the most expensive judicial election in American history, hinged in particular on two issues: abortion and democracy. This fall, Wisconsin voters once again saw a flood of ads and door-to-door organizing around those same two issues in reaction to the GOP’s now-withdrawn threat to impeach the just-elected Supreme Court justice before she could start hearing cases. That’s critical for the poll, in which respondents in Wisconsin gave Biden a +13 advantage on the issue of “democracy,” compared to a dead heat in the other battleground states, and a +15 advantage on abortion (compared to +9 across the sample). These issues are front-of-mind for more Wisconsin voters for the very simple reason that major campaign efforts have put them there.
Similarly, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and other states that held elections last week, fights around abortion and democracy often took center stage. Well-funded Democratic campaigns ensured that voters knew that their personal freedom to make their own decisions about their own bodies could be affected by their votes. Freedom-loving voters responded, defeating MAGA candidates at a moment when conventional wisdom would suggest that down ballot elections would be most affected by the approval rating of the sitting president.
But what can all this tell us about how that very president will fare in 2024?
The answer is that all of our data points to one conclusion: the president’s campaign—and the work of allied groups across the country—will play a massive role in determining the outcome of the presidential election. In contrast to other years when the public’s reaction to external events plays a starring role, the Biden-Harris campaign (and all of its supporters) will be the author of their own destiny.
The launch video of the Biden campaign opened with a series of shots depicting the stakes in 2024: the Capitol, befogged by tear gas during the January 6 insurrection. Police trying to hold back insurrectionists waving Trump flags. A hand holding a protest sign in front of the Supreme Court: “Abortion is Healthcare.”
The Biden campaign knows that it is fighting a battle for the soul of America—because it always has been. But as we saw in the midterms in 2022 and in special elections and off-year elections nationwide in 2023, these issues only take center stage if campaigns put them there, through focused, intensive communications and organizing operations. None of this is to dismiss the real challenges for Democrats over the next year. Polls are a snapshot of a moment in time, and they are—at least partially—capturing voters’ generalized discontent about what is happening in the world. But the recent findings also contain crucial warning signs for Democrats: we have work to do in communicating our values, our goals, and our achievements, particularly to younger voters and voters of color. Those findings echo other public polling, and we would be foolish to ignore them or to take any votes for granted. The Biden campaign knows this, which is why they launched a pilot program in Arizona and Wisconsin aimed at deepening outreach to those communities. At the same time, the fact that Biden has ground to make up with his base suggests room for improvement. By contrast, Trump has generally enjoyed a high floor of durable, committed support but a relatively low ceiling.
Predictably, many Democrats have reacted to bad polls by either succumbing to full-on despair or trying to discredit its results. Neither is productive. Instead, we should follow the lead of Biden’s campaign team: put our heads down and do the hard work of persuading our fellow Americans to join us in this perilous moment in our nation’s history.
In some ways, 2024 will be a “choice” election between Biden and Trump. But at a deeper level, the job of every campaign will be to make it something more akin to an issue referendum—a moment when voters decide between more freedom or less.
And voters choose freedom. The freedom to make your own health care decisions, the freedom to live in a democracy, the freedom to raise your children in safety, to find a family-supporting job, and to retire with dignity.
The central job of campaigns is to determine what the election is “about.” Over and over, in this moment of MAGA extremism, Democratic campaigns are succeeding in doing exactly that. Polling in the absence of campaigns provides a snapshot that tells us that the fight has not yet been defined.
Early private polls in the aforementioned Wisconsin Supreme Court election found the progressive candidates trailing the conservatives. After waging her campaign, Justice Janet Protaseiwicz defeated her eventual right-wing opponent by 11 percentage points—a landslide by Wisconsin standards.
Polls in 2011, 1995, and 1983 that found roughly tied races for the reelection of Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. All went on to win reelection by large margins.
Campaigns—organizing, communication, grassroots infrastructure—made the difference in each of those years. The hard work of campaigning now, if Americans pour their time, energy, and resources into it, will make an even bigger difference. Let’s do the work.