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Democrats’ Dilemma

Should Biden stay in the presidential race, or should he step aside? We review current and historic approval ratings and other data to provide context for this important discussion.

Berwood A Yost
6 min read

Dear Subscribers,

President Bidens performance in the presidential debate has created a dilemma for Democrats who are openly discussing whether he should leave the race. This month’s newsletter provides some thoughts about the debate in relation to longer-term indicators and our prior writings about the presidents performance.

Thank you for reading,

Berwood Yost

Magical Thinking?

Democrats’ operating theory in this election has been that voters’ concerns about President Biden’s performance generally, and his age and competence specifically, will ebb as voters start to pay closer attention to the campaign, learn more about the president’s notable policy wins, and are reminded about Donald Trump’s character flaws and chaotic term of office. But President Biden’s disastrous performance during the June 27th presidential debate has likely buried that hope. Last fall, 41% of Pennsylvania’s voters thought President Biden was too old to serve another term, compared to 4% who thought Mr. Trump was too old and 43% who thought they were both too old. That sentiment was unchanged throughout the early phases of the campaign, and it is difficult to imagine it has improved since the debate.

In reality, the Democrats’ theory was more magical thinking than critical thinking considering what the polls have shown over time, starting with the way voters have judged President Biden’s performance and the stability of those judgments. As we wrote in a review of state polling last July, President Biden’s average approval rating in the state aligns him more closely with first-term incumbents who have lost than those who have won.

Figure 1 shows that President Biden’s job approval ratings remain closer to an electoral loser’s trajectory than an electoral winner’s, changing little since the end of his first year in office. What’s more, as we noted in January of this year, the president’s approval numbers saw large declines among young voters, minority voters, and progressives, with declines of more than 20 points since March 2021 among Democrats, liberals, non-whites, and residents of southeastern Pennsylvania.

Figure 1 combines a scatter plot with a line graph to show positive job approval ratings by months in office for governor and president by electoral outcome in Pennsylvania among registered voters, 2000 - 2024. Compared to both re-elected incumbents and incumbents who lost their elections, President Biden's ratings have been consistently lower after his first year in office. The data are drawn from multiple Franklin & Marshall College Polls.
Figure 1. Positive Job Approval Ratings by Months in Office for Governor and President by Electoral Outcome, Pennsylvania 2000 - 2024. This figure shows the positive job approval ratings for Pennsylvania governors and U.S. presidents, during their first terms in office, among Pennsylvania registered voters. The red dots and line reflect President Biden’s ratings. The black dots and line track the trajectory of winning incumbents, and the grey dots and line show ratings for losing incumbents. (Data from multiple Franklin & Marshall College Polls)

In our July 2023 newsletter, we also made it clear that feelings about the president’s opponent will matter because that opponent needs to be viewed as a viable alternative. When the challenger is viewed less favorably than the incumbent, the incumbent tends to win, making a president’s approval rating only part of the story. But the president won’t find any relief from this metric, either: his net favorability rating was minus 15 in April (Table A-1), well below his plus five rating in the fall of 2020. Trump’s personal favorability hasn't changed much, so while he hasn’t won over more friends in the state, he hasn't lost many either.

All of this leaves Donald Trump with a growing lead in the most important swing state in the nation (Figure 2). Trying to make a judgment about the president’s chances of success by relying on horse race numbers at this point isn’t wise, but neither is it wise to ignore the race’s longer-term fundamentals. Does anyone believe the president is better positioned now than he was before the debate to change its’ trajectory?

Figure 2 combines a line graph and scatter plot to show that, in aggregate, former President Trump has consistently beaten President Biden in horse-race polls in Pennsylvania since January 2024. The data were downloaded from 538 on July 3, 2024.
Figure 2. Pennsylvania Presidential Polls, January - July 1, 2023 (Created by author using data downloaded from https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/pennsylvania/ accessed 7/3/2024).

The Counterpoint: Senator Casey

Democrats should recognize that the problems confronting the president’s re-election are mainly about the incumbent and not about Democrats, the Democratic Party brand itself, or a gathering red wave that will wipe top Democrats from office. Pennsylvania’s incumbent Senator Bob Casey provides an example of the performance gap between the president and other Democrats, which is also apparent in most other swing states that have a democratic incumbent running for senate.

Senator Casey’s average positive approval rating since 2007 is 36% in our polling, although that tends to increase as Election Day gets closer. In October 2018, for example, his positive job approval rating was 43% and the proportion of the state’s voters who thought he was doing a “poor” job as senator was only 23%. In our last poll, Casey had a 37% positive approval and only 18% gave him a "poor" rating. Compare that to President Biden, who was seen as doing a “poor” job as president by 52% of the state’s voters in the same poll. Casey has a net positive favorable rating of plus six points compared to his opponent Dave McCormick, who has a net negative favorability rating of minus six (Table A-2). Consequently, Casey has held a consistent lead over his challenger (Figure 3).

Figure 3 is a scatter plot and line graph showing that Democratic Senator Casey has been consistently ahead of his Republican challenger, David McCormick, in polling beginning January 2024.
Figure 3. Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Polls, January - July 1, 2023 (Created by author using data downloaded from https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/pennsylvania/ accessed 7/3/2024).

No Risk-Free Choices

Something about the presidential campaign, either the candidate or the messaging, will need to change prior to November if Democrats plan to win Pennsylvania. We have noted before that there is a lack of excitement within the president’s base, particularly how few liberals would feel very hopeful or very happy if he won. As we said at the time, “this challenge probably requires his campaign to do more than simply tout his policy successes and proposals. He needs to find a way to emotionally connect with his base. Whether concerns about his age would be altered by such a connection is unclear, but it might be worth asking whether the lack of a positive vision about the future could be magnifying concerns about his age.”

The president’s attempts to win back and energize his base and cast his opponent as an unacceptable alternative for undecided voters have so far failed, and his debate performance seems to have made his base less enthusiastic about his candidacy. The Democrats’ path forward is full of risks if the president is replaced, but hoping that polarization and abortion rights will bring voters home to Democrats on Election Day is a risk, too.

Attachments

Figure 4 is a line graph and scatter plot showing job approval ratings for both President Biden and former President Trump during their first terms in office. Both have consistently low ratings (under 50%), and President Biden has been rated lower than Mr. Trump since the end of his first year in office.
Figure A-1. Positive Job Approval Ratings by Months in Office for Biden and Trump, Pennsylvania. This figure shows the positive job approval ratings among Pennsylvania registered voters during each candidate’s first term in office. (Data from multiple Franklin & Marshall College Polls)

Table A-1. Favorability Ratings of Presidential Candidates in Pennsylvania, 2000 - 2024

Year

Candidate

Party

Net Favorable Spring

Net Favorable Fall

2000

George W. Bush

Rep

4

7

2000

Al Gore

Dem

7

8

2004

George W. Bush

Rep

3

-7

2004

John Kerry

Dem

4

11

2008

John McCain

Rep

12

5

2008

Barack Obama

Dem

10

20

2012

Mitt Romney

Rep

-19

-4

2012

Barack Obama

Dem

3

4

2016

Donald Trump

Rep

-36

-27

2016

Hilary Clinton

Dem

-11

-6

2020

Donald Trump

Rep

-14

-15

2020

Joe Biden

Dem

0

5

2024

Donald Trump

Rep

-21

2024

Joe Biden

Dem

-15

Table A-2. Favorability Ratings of U.S. Senate Candidates in Pennsylvania, 1998 - 2024 

Year

Candidate

Party

Net Favorable Spring

Net Favorable Fall

1998

Arlen Specter

Rep

35

47

1998

William Lloyd, Jr.

Dem

3

5

2000

Rick Santorum

Rep

20

18

2000

Ron Klink

Dem

8

-4

2004

Arlen Specter

Rep

16

17

2004

Joe Hoeffel

Dem

2

6

2006

Rick Santorum

Rep

5

-10

2006

Bob Casey, Jr.

Dem

15

10

2010

Pat Toomey

Rep

8

4

2010

Joe Sestak

Dem

5

-11

2012

Tom Smith

Rep

1

0

2012

Bob Casey, Jr.

Dem

20

5

2016

Pat Toomey

Rep

-4

-17

2016

Katie McGinty

Dem

0

1

2018

Bob Casey, Jr.

Dem

21

17

2018

Lou Barletta

Rep

-3

-6

2022

Mehmet Oz

Rep

-30

-19

2022

John Fetterman

Dem

7

-8

2024

Bob Casey, Jr.

Dem

6

2024

Dave McCormick

Rep

-6

Candidates and CampaignsElectoral ContextRatings of Political Figures

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