The fog of polls hits the 2024 campaign

After the historic felony conviction of a former president who is also the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, the entire political community — from candidates and strategists to academics, observers and the media — is trying to figure out what it means now and what it will mean in November.

To say this is an unprecedented moment in our brief political history is an understatement. (By the way, I think I’ve written a version of that previous sentence far too many times to count — but I digress.) The fake pundit I’m fond of (mis)quoting these days is Doc Brown from the end of the first “Back to the Future,” when he tells Marty McFly not to worry about having enough road for the DeLorean to hit 88 miles per hour: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

I’ll admit, I’ve been misquoting the Doc lately, using this movie scene to explain what little we know about our own political future as we try to cut through the fog of polls.

That might sound like a cop-out answer, but this is the reality of the country’s current political situation. There was a time when immoral and unethical behavior was a political death knell. But as big tech and social media have algorithmically accelerated our tribal instincts, it’s never been easier for anyone, guilty or not, to claim victimhood with some segment of the public. The red and blue tribes have an amazing ability these days to compartmentalize the bad behavior of folks on their side, while crying foul about an opponent with similar or worse characteristics.

To me, the real question of whether the verdict will have an impact on voters lies in the hands of the two presidential campaigns. How much is the verdict front and center versus simply setting the atmospherics?

The question I keep asking myself is this: Would this verdict matter more to voters if President Joe Biden had a higher approval rating?

It’s an impossible hypothetical to test at this point, but one can’t help but wonder if some voters are overlooking Trump’s moral and ethical failings simply because they don’t think Biden is up to the current job. Of course, if Biden were in better political standing, the GOP might have gone in a different direction during the primaries.

The point is, politics is a zero-sum game, and this is a binary choice in which the public believes it has to elect someone who is flawed. That goes back to a question about the two types of undecided voters in this election: the aspirational and the transactional. The aspirational votes on what’s in the best interests of the country and the transactional voter votes on what they believe is in their own best interests. I’m not sure there are many aspirational voters left in the undecided column, but I do believe there are quite a few transactional voters left.

So far, what limited polling I’ve seen (including private campaign polling) indicates that the verdict has barely moved the numbers in the last week. Of course, “barely” could still be decisive in a close election, so I don’t want to dismiss the idea that even a movement of 1 to 2 points wouldn’t matter.

What’s clear to me, though, is that there is a real divide in Democratic circles about how to use the verdict. And your view on that may depend on whether you live in a swing state or district or in one the blue bubbles of New York, D.C. or some other deep-blue area.

I was in battleground Michigan last week speaking with candidates running at all different levels of government, and they all made similar campaign pitches to me: Their lead issue as they talked to voters was the economy, with abortion rights and public safety (which includes the border) as the other two issues mentioned.

None of them believed a message based around preserving or saving democracy was effective with voters still making up their minds, and none of the Democrats I talked to specifically were huge advocates of Biden making Trump the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. This doesn’t mean these folks weren’t worried about the future of the democracy or the rule of law. But they were being pragmatic about what’s on the minds of the voters they are trying to woo.

The fear these candidates have is that a democracy-first or “Trump’s a threat”-first message from Biden will turn off more transactional voters who are simply fed up with their current economic situation.

When candidates are unpopular, particularly incumbents, there are two basic paths to fixing the problem. Path 1: Make the campaign a choice, not a referendum, and do your best to make your opponent more of a focal point of the campaign. Path 2: Improve your own positives and convince voters that their initial judgment of you was wrong.

Most incumbent campaigns choose the first path. It’s time-tested. One could argue it embodies one of the mantras Biden has always been fond of saying: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”

But what happens when there is so much negative information out there on your opponent and your numbers still haven’t budged? This is Biden’s current situation. I’m not sure what new negative information might be left out there for voters to consider regarding Trump. Obviously, there’s a good amount of negativity baked into Trump; could it get worse?

Here’s a radical thought: What if Biden ignored Trump for the summer and simply concentrated his efforts on rehabbing his own image with voters?

When it comes to Biden’s ratings, what was once his great strength — his personal relationship with voters — is turning into a liability.

In October 2020, just weeks away from him winning the presidency, NBC News’ poll showed that a majority (55%) of those surveyed viewed Biden positively, versus 41% who viewed him negatively. In that same poll, then-President Trump had a positive-negative split of 43%-52%. Biden was plus-13, while Trump was underwater at minus-9 points.

Biden wasn’t sitting in a position where he had to appeal to the final undecided voters as the “lesser of two evils.” The “double-haters” weren’t as large a group and winning or losing them wasn’t decisive for him — though it’s worth noting that Biden did win over a majority of voters who viewed both him and Trump negatively.

Now, Biden is more underwater than Trump was in 2020. In NBC News’ April survey, Biden’s positive-negative split was 38%-52%, 14 points negative. Trump was nearly identical: 38% positive, 53% negative. 

If both candidates are viewed more negatively than positively, then the undecided voter is likely to judge them in a very transactional way — that is, which candidate will be either better for me or do the least damage.

Trump is the living example of the famous George Bernard Shaw quote: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” Trump always does better when the personal character question is somewhat neutralized. It’s why, in my estimation, Trump is marginally ahead of Biden right now. He’s clearly winning the “double hater” vote right now.

Meanwhile, Biden’s personal ratings look a lot more like Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 than they do Biden’s in 2020.

In our October 2016 poll, in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Clinton’s personal ratings were 37% positive and 50% negative, about identical to where Biden is now. As for Trump, he was even more underwater (again, this poll was in the field in the three days after the tape went public), sitting at 30% positive and 63% negative. Trump would climb to 40% positive and 46% negative in our first poll after his election. Clinton’s rating in that first post-election poll was 32% positive and 54% negative.

Can Biden win over undecided voters if they personally feel as negatively to him as they do Trump? Clearly, Clinton couldn’t win over those double-hater voters in 2016, and I’m not sure Biden can win if he doesn’t improve his personal standing with voters.

I know the idea of airing any positive messaging cuts against how so many campaign operatives are wired these days. The cynic in me understands that because our political climate is so negative, positive messaging can sometimes appear out of touch to the average voter.

But I’m also not sure how going hard negative at Trump right now — like the Biden campaign did last week with Robert De Niro’s news conference and the follow-up TV ad narrated by the actor — is going to work as long as Biden is also viewed as unfavorably as Trump. The entire De Niro episode is a real head-scratcher to me: I’m not sure how this strategy makes sense beyond raising money from the base.

Ironically, Biden’s instinct about dealing with Trump at the start of his term was to barely mention him, only referring to him occasionally as his “predecessor.” Biden’s instincts in 2019 about where to tack were also spot on, as he steered clear of the Democratic primary parade to the left.

Biden as personal attack dog is something that just doesn’t fit him — and yet, it appears he’s decided to go down that road, with a “fight fire with fire” mentality. Look, I know politics ain’t beanbag, but there’s a time and a place for everything, and I’m not sure these negative hits on Trump will work until Biden improves his own standing with the public first. If Biden’s personal negatives mirror Trump’s on Election Day, then he’s likely to come up short.

The right’s Fauci obsession 

The anger many on the right have directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci since the pandemic has been breathtaking.

Is he infallible? No. But he’s clearly a dedicated public servant who gave most of his professional career to the world of public health. While he’s not poor, he clearly passed up millions in the private sector over the years to stay at the National Institutes of Health.

The treatment he received this week at the House hearing by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., in particular, was atrocious. Why we can’t have members of Congress accept the premise that we can disagree without being disagreeable is beyond me.

Greene wasn’t interested in getting explanations from Fauci to some of the decisions he advocated during his time in government. She simply wanted to perform for her social media audience. So many outgoing and former members of Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, have personally complained to me about how her behavior in particular epitomizes what’s wrong with our current politics. 

The sad fact is that we are all going to lose going forward, if this is how unelected public servants get treated in public. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a statement Fauci made at the hearing this week that largely got ignored in news coverage: 

“I think this is a powerful disincentive for young people to want to go into public health and maybe even science and medicine in the public arena. Because it’s very clear that not only I, because I’m very much a public figure, but many of my colleagues who are less visible than I, whenever they speak up in defense of the kinds of things that we’re trying to do to protect the American public, they too get threats. And when they see that their colleagues get threats, they say to themselves, I don’t want to go there. Why should I get involved in that? And you have some potentially very good talent that would be important to maintain the integrity and the excellence of the public health enterprise in the United States. We’re not getting the best people coming in because they’re reluctant to put themselves and their family through what they see their colleagues being put through.”

This isn’t just true in the public health arena but in just about everything our politics touches these days. We are not getting the best and brightest to stay in Congress. We aren’t getting the best and the brightest now to run for office. And we are not going to get the best and the brightest to sign up at places like NIH or the military.

Some day, voters will miss having anonymous do-gooders going into public service. Let’s hope they figure this out before it’s too late and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world become the norm.

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