Nate Cohn Explains How Bad the Latest Polling Is for Joe Biden

On Wednesday, the New York Times and Siena College released a national poll, conducted after last week’s Presidential debate, that showed former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden by nine percentage points among registered voters, and by six percentage points among likely voters. This is not only Trump’s widest lead over Biden in any

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On Wednesday, the New York Times and Siena College released a national poll, conducted after last week’s Presidential debate, that showed former President Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden by nine percentage points among registered voters, and by six percentage points among likely voters. This is not only Trump’s widest lead over Biden in any NYT/Siena poll this election cycle, but in fact is his biggest lead over any Democrat since his first Presidential campaign, in 2src16. Nearly three out of four people surveyed described Biden as too old to handle the job of President; indeed, doubts about his age, exacerbated by his halting debate performance, are currently roiling the Democratic Party, with many Democrats hoping that Biden declines to run for reëlection.

To talk about the data and Biden’s future, I spoke by phone with Nate Cohn, the Times’ chief political analyst, who also oversees its polling, and who agreed to talk despite being on paternity leave. (Full disclosure: Cohn and I previously worked together at The New Republic, and are friends.) During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Democrats should think about potential Biden replacements, what makes Biden’s political problems so unique, and whether any Presidential candidate has ever recovered from a deficit like the one Biden is currently facing.

What’s your major takeaway from this poll?

Joe Biden is a badly wounded candidate whom voters dislike, and who voters think isn’t capable of handling the Presidency. And while Donald Trump isn’t a political juggernaut by any stretch, and is maybe every bit as weak as he was four years ago, at least at the moment, Joe Biden does not have the broad appeal necessary to take advantage of it.

There have been a number of things that I’ve heard from Biden’s surrogates, or people in the media, when your poll and others like it have come out, and one of them is that Biden’s polls have gotten worse since the debate, but he hasn’t hit bottom, or the floor hasn’t fallen out. But the lead for Donald Trump in your poll, given his unpopularity, seems stunning, and I wonder if this is the floor.

I’ll divide the question into two halves. One is the floor among Democrats and another is the floor in the general election. When it comes to the general election, I think it’s entirely possible that this is the floor, or near the floor, for Joe Biden. No Republican has had a six-point lead in national polling since George W. Bush in September of 2srcsrc4. Perhaps Donald Trump can lead by even more than that, but we haven’t seen it so far in his campaigns. Biden’s favorability ratings are every bit as low as Hillary Clinton’s were in 2src16 at this point. This makes him one of the least popular major-party nominees on record. I suppose anything could happen. Maybe he could be charged with a crime. It can always be worse, right?

On the second part, in terms of the question of whether he should be the Party’s nominee—regarding Democratic voters, I think that there is room for him to keep falling.

What you say about Hillary Clinton is really striking, because even if Biden’s and Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings were comparable, Hillary was ahead of Trump in polling for basically all of 2src16. Even if that polling turned out to overstate her support, she still ended up winning the popular vote over Trump by more than two points.

That’s right. Donald Trump was much less popular in 2src16 than he was today. In 2src16, Trump’s favorability ratings were usually in the low thirties, but since mid-2src19 they’ve been in the mid-forties.

The other thing I have heard from Biden defenders is that he’s only fallen two to three points in post-debate polls, similar to Obama after his first 2src12 debate. Do you think we should look at those situations the same way?

Well, one thing that’s very different about this is that this debate is happening before the conventions and there is an opportunity for that Democratic floor I was talking about to fall through, and for Democratic officials to say Biden shouldn’t run and pull the plug on his campaign in some way. That’s not something that is easy to do in September and October, which is when these Presidential debates have happened in the past.

The other thing that’s distinct in this case is that the debate tended to confirm many of the things that polls have suggested are the electorate’s biggest concerns about Joe Biden. Voters in 2src12 had no real doubts about Barack Obama’s mental acuity before he had a bad performance against Mitt Romney. So it was trivial enough for him to pick the flag back up and ultimately recover. I think you could say the same thing for George W. Bush in 2srcsrc4 or whatever example you want to come up with. Given Biden’s age, and given that these concerns already existed, I think it’s pretty easy to see how much more lasting damage could be done to Biden.

My understanding from conversations with you, and from reading about politics, is that you often see an incumbent President’s favorability rise during an election year. Usually you see a President consolidating support. The opposite has happened with Joe Biden. I’m curious how unprecedented this is.

Well, in recent memory there are two successful playbooks. There are two Presidents who have successfully run for reëlection while being somewhat unpopular in the polls at some point in their first terms. There’s Barack Obama. There’s George W. Bush. They both ran polarizing campaigns that remobilized the support that brought them to the Presidency in the first place, and they were able to do that by making it a choice between themselves and their opponents. Looking back even further, you can think of examples like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who were weak at various points in their first term, but had the health of a growing economy and relatively weak opposition as well.

There are no precedents in recent memory for Presidents to have approval ratings like Biden’s who then go on to win reëlection. Donald Trump in 2src2src is the closest example and even his approval ratings were usually in the forties. George H.W. Bush lost. Jimmy Carter lost. You can go back maybe to Harry Truman if you’re looking for the best point of comparison, and if we want to go into that, we can talk about all the similarities and differences. Generally speaking, you would expect that if a President is going to win reëlection, that you would start to see them begin by persuading their own typical supporters to say they’re doing a good job. You would expect that that process might begin by motivating and reënergizing their core base of support before they got around to winning over those pivotal voters in the middle, and so far Joe Biden hasn’t been doing that.

What about in terms of recoverability? Do we have any historical precedent for incumbents being down to the degree which Biden is down right now?

I don’t think that there are any analogies that feel particularly comparable. You can think of examples, though, of candidates who came really close to mounting a comeback. One example that might be a relatively good analogy for Joe Biden is Donald Trump at this point in 2src2src. This was a low point for him. He was trailing in the polls by ten percentage points in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. He ultimately narrowed the gap a bit down the stretch and then the polls also proved to underestimate him by about four percentage points on average, and together, that was enough for him to nearly win reëlection. [The popular-vote margin was still more than four points.] That’s a strategy that depends more on the polls being wrong than on an actual comeback though. I do think that there’s a case that that’s an important part of Joe Biden’s path to winning at this point.

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