Biden keeps polling poorly and other Democrats keep winning anyway. Why?

"They're more pissed off at Republicans," one strategist argued.

November 10, 2023, 5:07 AM

Just two days after dismal new polling numbers for President Joe Biden showed the public views him unfavorably and rival Donald Trump would hypothetically defeat him in key swing states next year, Democrats saw a string of successes around the country.

The party won notable contests on Tuesday in Kentucky and New Jersey and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Virginia, in blood red and bright blue areas alike, often while highlighting their support for abortion access or while pushing back on what they called extremism.

Democrat Brandon Presley, campaigning for expanded health care, also came within 5 points of unseating incumbent Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in Mississippi, a state former President Trump won by a 16% margin three years ago.

The contrast between Biden's continued weakness in polls and the wins that other Democrats continue to notch suggests conflicting dynamics ahead of next year's elections, according to conversations with more than a dozen strategists, lawmakers and potential voters.

These people suggested that one trend is fueling both Biden's poor polling and Democrats' otherwise strong performance: The public is disgruntled with Biden, which poses a potentially serious problem for his reelection chances -- but when voters have to actually fill out a ballot now rather than predict what they'll do next year, they spurn Republicans.

"The reality is that we are dealing with a largely dissatisfied electorate right now. And for as dissatisfied as they are with Democrats, they're more pissed off at Republicans and their overreach on issues like abortion," Democratic strategist Lis Smith argued.

Still, "the Biden campaign should continue to educate voters about the good things he's done," Smith told ABC News. "It's important to get his accomplishments out there and also to improve his standing before next November."

Tuesday's results continue the pattern of Democratic over-performances seen in the 2022 midterms and the special elections so far this year -- all of which came in the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court decision scrapping constitutional protections for abortion.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden departs the White House on Marine One on November 09, 2023 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden departs the White House on Marine One on November 09, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Experts and strategists have also stressed that off-year contests are not foolproof predictors of presidential elections, which usually see much larger voter turnout amid national dynamics that can be different from the quirks and preferences of local races.

The 2024 presidential election is also still a year away -- a lot can change.

"The results don't mean that we are entirely out of the woods," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the center-left group Third Way. "But they do mean that when this moves from a referendum on Biden to a choice between Biden and Trump, even some voters skeptical of Biden will recognize how much is at stake and do what they must to avoid catastrophe."

Some Republicans explained the losses by pointing to fixable missteps in the party's campaign strategies.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, had blitzed the campaign trail and swamped rival Republican Daniel Cameron, the state attorney general, in fundraising and advertising, and Democratic outside groups dumped millions of dollars in Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia, with opposing Republican groups unable to keep up.

While GOP strategist Bob Heckman contended that "Democrats spent a ton of money to break even in Kentucky and Mississippi and make marginal gains in Virginia," he added: "Republicans can't continue to let themselves be outspent by such huge margins."

Yet other conservatives conceded that they risk facing similar results in the 2024 race, with Trump as their standard-bearer -- at least among voters who have made clear that they have negative views of both the former and current presidents.

"There is a cohort of voters who are deeply dissatisfied with Biden, they don't think the Democratic policies are helping. And yet, they're still willing to vote Democrat because they don't like Trump's influence on our politics," said GOP strategist Scott Jennings, who volunteered for Cameron's campaign. "Joe Biden is deeply unpopular in Kentucky and, at least at the top of the ticket, they voted Democrat despite those reservations about the Democratic Party agenda."

"Obviously, we're going through this now in the presidential primary. [Trump's] very popular in the primary, and I know there's polling that looks pretty good for him right now against Biden. But this was a warning," Jennings said.

Republicans expressed frustration at their failure, in 2022 and 2023, to produce sweeping wins at the polls even with survey after survey showing Biden underwater in his approval rating and with how Americans view his handling of issues like the economy.

A new ABC News/Ipsos poll released on Sunday found that three-quarters of Americans (76%) believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, with one in three (33%) Americans viewing Biden favorably while Trump is viewed favorably by only 29%.

Separately, a New York Times/Siena College poll released on Sunday surveyed registered voters in key battleground states and showed that in hypothetical matchups between Biden and Trump, Trump won in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Biden won all four states in 2020, and they will likely be key to him securing a second term.

Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist and veteran of the presidential campaign trail, said Tuesday's elections didn't present "any good news for Republicans" and showed more "evidence that abortion could be the Democrats' 2024 antibodies for poor ratings on the economy."

Interviews with some people who responded to the ABC News/Ipsos poll signaled at least some willingness to vote for Biden despite misgivings about him.

PHOTO: Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear reacts to a question at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Nov. 8, 2023.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear reacts to a question at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Nov. 8, 2023.
Timothy D. Easley/AP

Andrew Pehler, a retired engineer in Las Vegas, said he has concerns over how old both Trump and Biden are but, while typically leaning toward Republicans, would vote for Biden next year because "it'd be horrible if [Trump] got another four years."

"I think I disagree more with Trump's policies, but Joe Biden, I don't think, has been very effective. And I also think that both of them are far too old to be running for president," added Stephen K., an attorney in Denver who didn't feel comfortable giving his full last name. Yet presented with a binary choice, "I would most likely be voting for Joe Biden again if it were between the two. I wouldn't be happy about it."

And Democrats predicted that Trump will only become a bigger factor the closer it gets to the general election next November and as more of the public starts tuning in, assuming he retains his hefty primary lead and clinches the GOP nomination next year.

"I think a poll one year out might not fully measure what the consequences of election are. And I think part of what you're going to see is Biden will be the Democratic nominee, Trump will be the Republican nominee, there's going to be people who don't want that and are gonna have to pick a little bit more. And you'll also see that people are going to stop viewing Trump just through the rearview mirror and start viewing him as an object ahead on the road," said Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist.

That doesn't mean Democrats are leaving behind any worries about Biden's candidacy -- and how the party overall will fare in 2024.

Biden's involvement in Tuesday's races was mixed: The White House issued a slate of endorsements for legislative candidates in Virginia and voiced support for a pro-abortion access effort in Ohio, but Beshear assiduously kept the president at arm's length.

During a 30-minute sit-down with ABC News on Tuesday before voting ended, Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, the chair of House Democrats' campaign arm, wouldn't clearly say if she thought Biden should be running, only touting his past record and saying, "He's been a strong president."

It won't be clear until Election Day 2024 if Biden will be able to keep anti-Trump voters in his coalition once he's on the ballot after serving a full term.

Thomas Hood, a retired nurse in Lafayette, Indiana, told ABC News, "I would probably have to vote for Trump" even though "I can't stand his personality."

And Samantha Guerrero, who works in data entry at the IRS in Austin, Texas, said, "I would vote for somebody else because both of them have not done anything they said that they would do."

"It's another election where MAGA and extremism lost -- which is a problem for the GOP," Democratic strategist Karen Finney said of Tuesday's results. "Democrats still cannot take anything for granted."

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