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US Elections: Biden vs Trump?

by H.E. Prof. Ambassador Tal Edgars - 16 April, 2024, 12:00 432 Views 0 Comment

On November 5th Americans will elect their next president. The contest will feel familiar: the main two candidates are the same as in 2020. Joe Biden, the incumbent, faced no viable competition for the Democratic nomination. His predecessor in office, Donald Trump, easily saw off a crowded field in the Republican primary. This will be the first rematch election in almost 70 years. After Mr Trump lost the previous election, his supporters tried to overturn the result. He faces federal charges over his alleged participation in that scheme, as well as three other criminal cases. Mr Biden’s presidency has been defined by high inflation, big industrial-policy bills and turmoil abroad, in Afghanistan, Ukraine and the Middle East. Both men are unpopular. The election will be less a popularity contest than a referendum which many Americans think is the least bad option.

The gaps between the perception of the economy and the reality, explained. 

American economic pessimism has been bafflingly persistent despite major indicators showing that the economy is strong. Unemployment is low, inflation is significantly down from its 2022 peak (if sticky and ticking up in the last month), wages are up, the stock market is hitting new all-time highs, and it looks like the Federal Reserve might be able to keep the US out of a recession.

Surveys are beginning to capture growing consumer confidence — but for President Joe Biden, the question is whether it’s rising quickly enough for him to avoid being penalized in the 2024 election.

He had no control over the pandemic-rattled economy he inherited, but voters may nevertheless blame him for it, as they have (rightly or wrongly) blamed their presidents for the country’s economic troubles in the past.

Voters have mentioned economic issues (think: inflation, jobs, and more) as their greatest concern since 2022 in a long-running and ongoing Gallup survey. Another February Morning Consult/Bloomberg survey of voters in swing states also found that the economy is the most important issue — and could therefore decide the outcome of the election.

Recent polls show Trump with an 11- to 20-point edge over Biden on which candidate would better handle the economy. In some ways, this isn’t a surprise: The economy was generally good under Trump, except for the Covid-induced recession; under Biden, high inflation has been the biggest economic story. If Biden is to turn his fortunes around, he’ll have to convince the American public that the economy is in fact better than it feels and will continue to improve — and that it’s better than they remember under Trump.

“The fundamental problem for Biden and the Democrats is that while the rate of inflation is down, it’s not going backwards,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “It’s hard to persuade people that things are better.”

Americans think the economy is worse under Biden

Americans have been stubbornly downbeat about the economy under Biden, with Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index hovering between -20 and -40 for months on a scale of -100 to 100.

That number is derived from monthly surveys of US adults in which they are asked to rate national economic conditions, with 100 signifying that all respondents “say the economy is excellent or good and that it is getting better” and -100 signifying that they all “say it is poor and getting worse,” according to Gallup.

Two scenarios could explain where the 2024 election stands right now. In one, President Joe Biden is locked in something close to a 50-50 contest with former President Donald Trump.

On the other, Biden is trailing by more — maybe much more — than the national polls suggest.

The answer depends largely on whether Trump and Republicans have maintained the advantage in the Electoral College that they held in the last two presidential elections.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2 percentage points

— but Trump’s performance among certain demographics and in certain states meant he defeated her in the Electoral College, 306 to 232.

In 2020, Biden bested Trump in the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, getting him the same number of Electoral College votes Trump won four years earlier — 306.

And if that trend carries over to 2024, Biden might have to win the popular vote by 5 points or more to get the 270-plus Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

But a two-election trend is no guarantee of future results. And there’s another school of thought about 2024 that the GOP’s Electoral College edge may not be as pronounced, as Trump has made gains with Black and Latino voters, including in states like California and New York that won’t come close to deciding the presidential election. Even slightly better margins for Trump in those big, blue states could bring the national vote and the tipping-point state vote into closer alignment.

The question, however, is how sizable that decrease might be — if there is any. It’s an important piece of information to help gauge what the national polls mean right now, but it’s also shrouded in mystery.

The case for the GOP maintaining its Electoral College edge

When political analysts discuss Electoral College bias, they’re referring to the difference between the margins in the popular vote and in the “tipping point” state — that is, the decisive state that carried the victorious candidate across the 270-electoral vote threshold needed to win the presidency.

Over much of the last 70 years, the tipping point states have closely tracked the popular vote.

In 2012, for example, Barack Obama won the popular vote by almost 4 percentage points, and he carried his tipping point state, Colorado, by more than 5 points.

But that changed in the Trump era when the Electoral College bias grew to the highest level since 1948 — in the Republican Party’s direction.

Part of the explanation was Trump’s particularly strong performance among white working-class voters in the Midwest and Rust Belt battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Another explanation was Democrats’ overperformance in states like California and New York, which aren’t key to deciding presidential contests in our current political landscape.

Biden won by roughly 7 million votes [in 2020],” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, the GOP half of the bipartisan team that conducts the NBC News poll. “He won California by 5 million votes; he won New York by 2 million votes.”

“This means in 48 other states and D.C., the vote was essentially tied,” McInturff added.

Also, Democratic improvement in Texas — going from 41% of the vote in 2012 to 46% in 2020 — further underscores how, in the Trump era, three of the most populous states have swung in the Democrats’ direction relative to the nation.

And with Biden and Trump set to be on the presidential ballot again in 2024, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see both overperformances — Trump’s with white working-class voters, Biden’s with voters in places like California and New York — repeat themselves.

The case for the GOP losing its Electoral College edge

A year ago, however, political number crunchers Nate Cohn of The New York Times and J. Miles Coleman and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics surmised that 2024 could be different from 2016 and 2020.

With national polls showing Trump faring better with Black and Latino voters, and with Democrats performing better in the 2022 midterms in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania than in California and New York (relative to past results), they argued that the pro-GOP Electoral College bias could be shrinking.

Indeed, recent high-quality California polls show Biden ahead of Trump in the state by about 20 points in a head-to-head matchup, down from Biden’s nearly 30-point winning margin in California in 2020.

As Cohn put it in his New York Times article last year: “At the very least, tied national polls today don’t mean Mr. Trump leads in the states likeliest to decide the presidency.”

Where the battleground polling stands right now

Currently, Biden and Trump are locked in a competitive contest nationally, according to

head-to-head polls, but Trump has held a small, yet consistent, advantage in several of the top battleground states, although those results are usually within the margin of error.

And polling averages do hint at a pro-Trump Electoral College bias in some battlegrounds, but not others. Now, a big caveat: Using polling averages to measure exactly where a presidential contest currently stands can be problematic, because of the polls’ different methodologies, their different margins of error and their different reputations. But they can be useful to take a broad view of how the national polls might be different from battleground surveys.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Biden and Trump are essentially tied in the national polls.

They’re also essentially tied in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, suggesting little to no pro-GOP bias in those states — a shift from the final results in the last few elections, when those states tilted several points to the right of the national vote.

But Trump is ahead in other battleground states, including Michigan, which some analysts believe could be the tipping point state in 2024.

H.E. Prof. Ambassador Tal Edgars
Author is a Special Envoy and GBSH Consult Group Executive Chairman Worldwide.
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