Is an unclear two-point shift enough to bring down Biden?

Is an unclear two-point shift enough to bring down Biden?

The states that decided the 2020 presidential election went for Joe Biden by one percentage point or less: Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Four years earlier, Donald Trump was elected president by similarly narrow margins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In both elections, the Democratic candidate won more votes nationally — millions more votes. But that doesn’t matter. Those razor-thin margins in the Electoral College do.

The implication, then, is that these elections could — and will — come down to similarly narrow margins in many of the same states. A candidate with a lead in those places, even a narrow one, is a better candidate for his or her party. For example, if there was a Democrat who the party believed could beat Donald Trump by a single point in swing states rather than lose to Trump by a single point, that candidate would have a better shot at winning the White House even if he or she got 2 million fewer votes in California or New York.

This is the fundamental challenge facing the party right now. It’s trying to decide whether another candidate would do better than President Biden against Trump in November, but polls continue to suggest that other candidates — most notably Vice President Harris — would have only incremental advantages.

There are reasons why, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But there’s an important point to make first: Those advantages can mean that a narrow swing-state defeat turns into a narrow swing-state victory — but they’re also narrow enough that they’re consistently within the margin of sampling error of a given poll. In other words, the party is trying to figure out where it might have a narrow advantage, but polls can’t accurately measure advantages that are narrow.

There is an undeniable logic to the party’s rethinking of its nominee. As a Washington Post-ABC News-Ipsos poll released Thursday showed, most Americans think Biden should give up his candidacy. He is doing worse against Trump than he did four years ago, and worse than any recent Democratic nominee at this point in the cycle. The debate, held in late June, preceded a modest widening of Trump’s lead in the polling averages.

But that same Post-ABC-Ipsos poll found Biden and Trump tied nationally, as they have been for some time. Americans (and most Democrats) think Biden should leave the race, but if he doesn’t, many plan to vote for him anyway. The debate reinforced concerns about Biden’s age, but most of his voters support him largely because he’s the man running against Trump. To some extent, Biden’s age is baked into his candidacy—just as Trump’s criminal charges and conviction are baked into his support. (In the Post-ABC-Ipsos poll, three-quarters of those who said they planned to vote for Trump said they would continue to support him even if he went to prison.)

Polls are necessarily approximations of how people view political decisions. For example, when asked whether they watched the debate, six in 10 respondents in our poll said they watched or listened to all or most of it. Those who said they paid attention to the entire debate also indicated they supported Trump over Biden by a 17-point margin. Those who said they didn’t pay attention supported Biden by 16 points.

Perhaps this reflects a lack of familiarity with Biden’s debate performance, which bolsters his support. However, it’s more likely that Trump supporters were eager to emphasize the importance of the debate, and Biden supporters downplayed it. In other words, it’s not clear which way the causal arrow points here.

The Post-ABC-Ipsos poll asked registered voters how they would vote in a Biden-Trump contest and in a Harris-Trump contest, should Biden decide to step down or the party replace him at the convention. There are other possible candidates who could end up on the ticket, though Harris is the most likely. Polling those candidates, however, means asking voters what they think of, say, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), someone half the country has never heard of.

How did Harris do against Trump? Slightly better than Biden. Two points overall, and slightly better among younger, nonwhite, and college-educated voters. But all within the margins of error for those subgroups.

Maybe that two-point lead will be enough to convince Democrats that Harris would, by definition, outperform Biden. Perhaps it’s a function of the sample used in the poll, though, since the margin of error suggests that’s a possibility. Maybe Whitmer would be better — but you’d have to run a real campaign putting her in front of voters to find out.

Democrats always want to win presidential elections, of course, but this year that desire is particularly strong. Trump is deeply unpopular within the party and has shown clear contempt for American democracy. If there were a candidate who could demonstrably outperform Biden in November, the party would be justified in throwing its support behind that candidate.

Objective data, however, cannot show such a shift. And in part because he is running against Trump, Biden did not see a massive drop in support after the debate that would underscore how much better other candidates would fare.

The party is acting on instinct: Biden appears to be worse than other candidates and undoubtedly risks further exacerbating concerns about his age. But no one can say for sure that other candidates would do significantly better.