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What To Make of Biden’s Rise in the Polls?

By Sean Trende
Published On: Last updated 04/16/2024, 01:11 AM EDT

There’s little doubt at this point that President Biden’s standing in the polls has improved. In late January of this year, former President Donald Trump led Biden in national head-to-head polls by as many as 4.3 points. As of today, Trump’s lead sits at just two-tenths of a percentage point. Why might we be seeing this?

Some of this movement is likely just Democrats coming home. There are, after all, some logical reasons to expect this. Biden’s student loan forgiveness program (version 2.0) probably enthused some supporters who were disappointed that the administration hadn’t been able to make good on this promise. A well-received State of the Union address may well have helped, while the president’s willingness to take a tougher line on Israel may have brought some wavering left-of-center voters back into the fold.

At the same time, Biden’s job approval rating has remained mostly stable, which seems inconsistent with voters changing their minds about him. Instead, some of this phenomenon is probably just an inevitable return of low-hanging fruit: Biden was never going to take just 43% of the vote, so an upward tick was going to happen sooner or later.

Along with this, Trump is back in the news, and not in a good way. The conventional wisdom has been that the more undecided voters see of Trump, the more they’ll be reminded that they don’t really like him. The fact that he’s standing trial in New York City and facing possible jail time can’t be helping him.

Finally, we should note that there has been some change in the composition of the electorate in some surveys, particularly the New York Times/Siena poll. One explanation, which underscores the previous point, is that Republicans aren’t picking up the phone right now, in part because of the focus on Trump’s legal difficulties. This sort of partisan non-response is a well-documented phenomenon by pollsters, but it’s also difficult to detect – and seems consistent with Biden’s job approval failing to budge.

Two final points are worth noting. First, the movement toward Democrats hasn’t so much been a story of Trump’s poll numbers declining as it has been of Biden’s poll numbers improving. Trump’s vote share has generally been trading between 45.5% and 47%, while Biden seems to have broken out of the 43%-45% range he’d been stuck in since early 2023. Again, this seems broadly consistent with the idea of Democrats who don’t particularly care for Biden resigning themselves to the fact that for better or for worse, he’s the guy. We might also take this as evidence for the theory that Trump has a “ceiling” of 47%. I still don’t think it’s a particularly compelling story, but the evidence for it seems stronger than it did a few months ago.

Finally, we should remember that a narrow popular vote win, or even a narrow popular vote loss, is likely to produce a Trump win in the Electoral College. Obviously, we don’t know for sure that Trump will benefit from the electoral vote skew again this time, but it’s consistent with the state-level polling we’ve seen.  Also, the tendency has been for Trump to overperform his polls, although we should be cautious about drawing strong conclusions from two datapoints.

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