Is Biden Trailing by More Than the Polls Show?

By Adeline Von Drehle
Published On: Last updated 07/08/2024, 02:37 PM EDT

With the 2024 presidential election just 120 days away, former President Donald Trump is polling significantly better than he ever did in 2020, according to the RCP Average.

Trump is leading Biden by 3.3 points in the RCP Average after President Joe Biden’s poor debate performance spooked many Democrats and further cemented fears about the 81-year-old president’s mental acuity. On the day of the debate, Trump led by just 1.5 points.

Even more concerning for the Biden campaign is a comparison to the 2020 race. Four years ago today, Biden was leading by 8.8 points in the RCP Average, a commanding lead in what shook out to be an incredibly close race in the Electoral College (and a 4.5% popular vote margin).

Polls have always struggled to capture Trump’s popularity. In 2016, Trump won the election over Hillary Clinton with 306 electoral votes. But 120 days before the election, Clinton was leading by 4.7 points in the RCP Average – and was ahead in all the swing states Trump won in eking out his electoral vote win. There has been little consensus on why the polls underestimated Trump’s support, just the undeniable truth that in both 2016 and 2020, Trump performed significantly better than was predicted by pollsters.

Now, with just four months to go until the November election and Trump leading comfortably, it is understandable that the Biden campaign would be nervous. Unless the pollsters have failed to correct their sampling errors, Biden could be in for a devastating defeat.

The 2024 polls have fluctuated in tandem with the job performance approval ratings of both Trump and Biden. A recent USA TODAY / Suffolk University poll taken post-debate shows that 51% of respondents said they approved of Trump’s job performance compared to 41% who said they approve of Biden’s current job performance.

The same poll shows that nearly 60% of Americans view Trump as someone “who can get things done,” compared to 44% for Biden, a concerningly low percentage for a president who prides himself on the passage of sweeping bipartisan legislation

Looking at these more qualitative responses might give poll analyzers and predictors a clearer understanding of Trump’s appeal to the American public. Perhaps the confidence voters place in Trump’s performance capabilities will be more telling of the way they plan to vote in November than a simple question about the head-to-head matchup.

As the director of polling at Muhlenberg College, Christopher Borick, put it: “In the end, like so many Trump-related things, there may be different rules when polling an election with him on the ballot.” If the past is any predictor of the future, Biden may be trailing by more than the polls show.

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