Have Americans ever hated two candidates as much as Biden and Trump?

Why favorability might not matter in the 2024 presidential election.

April 1, 2024, 10:08 AM

Shocking news: Americans are not jazzed about their choices in the 2024 presidential election. According to 538’s averages,* only 43 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of former President Donald Trump, while 53 percent have an unfavorable opinion. And only 40 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of President Joe Biden; 55 percent have an unfavorable one.

It’s historically unusual for any major-party nominee to be this unpopular — let alone both of them. Using 538’s current polling-average methodology, we went back and calculated retroactive favorability averages for every Democratic and Republican presidential nominee since 1980.** By late October before the election, only seven of the 22 candidates had negative net favorability ratings.

If Trump’s and Biden’s net favorability ratings remain underwater through Election Day, 2024 will be only the second presidential election since at least 1980 in which Americans had a negative view of both candidates. The first was in 2016 — which also happens to be the only recent presidential election in which the two candidates were, on average, more disliked than Trump and Biden are now.

It’s possible that, with most Americans entrenched in their partisan camps and believing that the country is on the wrong track, we’ve entered an era of perpetually unpopular presidential candidates. Before 2016, no presidential nominee in at least 36 years was more than 9 percentage points underwater; since then, five of the six have been.

Granted, that assumes that Trump and Biden will remain this unpopular all year long; there are still seven months until Election Day, which is plenty of time for Trump and Biden to improve their standings. However, three election cycles is just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of American history, so this could just be a blip borne of this specific political moment (to wit: three of the five uber-unpopular nominees were/are Trump).

That also raises a question: When both candidates are so unpopular, do their favorability ratings even matter?

Let’s look again at our retroactive favorability averages for past presidential nominees — this time comparing each one to their opponent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the candidate with the higher net favorability rating in late October went on to win the election eight out of 11 times.

But this isn’t an ironclad rule. Three times, the candidate with the lower net favorability rating actually won (although one of those times, then-President George W. Bush versus then-Sen. John Kerry in 2004, they were effectively tied in favorability). And one of those times was 2016, the only other year Americans disliked both nominees. That year, Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton despite having a lower net favorability rating than she did (-25 points versus -12 points).

It stands to reason that funny things can happen in the rare instances when Americans dislike both options. When one candidate is popular and the other candidate is unpopular, it’s pretty easy to predict what’s going to happen — the popular candidate is going to win. But when both candidates are unpopular, neither candidate can get to a majority without winning over some voters who dislike them.

That means predicting the winner of the election isn’t as simple as just picking the less unpopular candidate. True, it’s mathematically easier for that candidate to get a winning number of votes, just because they have fewer “haters” to convert. But they still have to convert some, and that means forcing those haters to make a choice about who they hate less. That’s a different question than which candidate has a smaller number of haters, and it’s something a favorability rating can’t tell us on its own.***

Thankfully, some pollsters ask respondents not just whether they have an unfavorable view of the candidates, but also how strongly they feel that way. And on this score, Trump and Biden are more evenly matched. According to a simple average of polls conducted in March, slightly more Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of Trump (43 percent) than have a strongly unfavorable view of Biden (42 percent), despite the fact that Biden’s overall unfavorable rating is higher.

This is, in a nutshell, why Biden is not necessarily doomed just because his net favorability rating is -15 points and Trump’s is -10 points. The candidate with the higher net favorability rating doesn’t always win the election — especially when both candidates are underwater, you have to consider how intensely those disaffected voters hate them.

G. Elliott Morris contributed research.


*As of 9 a.m. Eastern on April 1.

**Based on all the favorability polls we’ve collected in our database. For older election cycles, our database is not comprehensive, so we are very likely missing some polls; however, we have still collected enough that we’re comfortable generating an average.

***The same principle holds, in reverse, for elections in which both candidates are popular. If that ever happens again, maybe I’ll write about it outside a footnote!