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The Upcoming Presidential Election: Looking Back to Look Ahead

What can the 2023 F&M polls tell us about what issues will loom large in the 2024 presidential election, and what voters think about the candidates?

Berwood A Yost
6 min read

Dear Readers,

Happy New Year! This month we revisit some of the data we presented in 2023 that we think provide important context for setting expectations about the upcoming presidential election. We also note a few questions that arise for 2024 for each of the five trends we’ve identified. If you have your own ideas about important indicators to watch or trends to follow, please feel free to share them with me. You can always submit your comments through the contact link at the top of our newsletter page.

We plan to release our first statewide poll of 2024 on February 1, so please keep an eye out for those results.

Thank you for reading,

Berwood Yost

Looking Back to Look Ahead

The major trends in public opinion that we identified and followed during 2023 are going to be the same indicators we follow to understand the upcoming presidential election. In this article, we discuss five patterns we saw in our data for 2023, and the questions that each of those indicators raise as we think about the November 2024 election.

1. President Biden hits a low point in job approval

President Biden’s positive job approval ratings in the state averaged 29% over our polls this year, with a low of 27% in April. As I wrote when we compared his approval ratings with other first-term governors and presidents, “Democrats are right to be worried about President Biden's re-election chances in Pennsylvania. His average approval rating in the state as well as his current approval ratings align him more closely with first-term gubernatorial and presidential incumbents who have failed to win the state than those who have been successful this century.” The erosion in the president’s approval numbers has signaled that he may have a significant problem reassembling his electoral coalition from 2020 with notable declines in approval taking place among young voters, minority voters, and progressives. His job approval ratings have declined by more than 20 points since March 2021 among Democrats, liberals, non-whites, residents of southeastern Pennsylvania, and among those living in the large fringe metro areas where state elections are decided (see Table 1).

Key Questions for 2024: Can the president improve his standing and rebuild the coalition that elected him in 2020? Can he elevate his job approval ratings into the mid to upper 40s where they need to be for him to win?

2. Trump rebounds with Republicans, but that’s about it

Our late October survey showed that former President Trump led the Republican primary field in Pennsylvania with a significant advantage over his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Mr. Trump’s advantage over Governor DeSantis widened considerably over the course of 2023: in April he led DeSantis by six points, 40% to 34%, and by October his lead had grown to forty points, 55% to 14%.

The former president’s snowballing support from Republican voters during 2023 belies an equally important feature of the coming presidential race. Despite his strong support from Republican primary voters, President Trump’s standing among all of the state’s voters hasn’t changed since his election defeat in 2020. Prior to the election in 2020, Mr. Trump’s favorability ratings were overwhelmingly negative: 57% of the state’s voters viewed him unfavorably and 42% viewed him favorably. Our October survey showed that he remains an unpopular figure: 58% viewed him unfavorably and 41% viewed him favorably. Mr. Trump’s image has not improved among the state’s voters despite the support he has built among his base.

The court cases against Mr. Trump, despite the apparent benefit they’ve provided him among his base, are unlikely to benefit him in November. Our August poll showed why many believe the indictments will ultimately harm Mr. Trump in the general election–most (58%) of the state’s registered voters felt his actions after the 2020 election constituted serious crimes. Our review of this data showed a strong partisan divide on the question, with most registered Democrats (89%) and independents (63%) thinking he committed serious crimes, compared to only one in five (20%) Republicans. That a large number of independents believe Mr. Trump’s acts were criminal suggests many of them would be uncomfortable supporting his candidacy in the general election.

Key Questions for 2024: Can Mr. Trump broaden his appeal beyond his base? Will any of his upcoming trials affect voters’ perceptions about Mr. Trump’s criminality outside of the Republican base, or within it?

3. Voters would like other options

The sitting president’s low approval ratings and the unpopularity of his expected challenger mean that many voters are unhappy and thus uncertain about the choice they will make in 2024. On average, about one in five voters told us during 2023 that they preferred someone other than Trump or Biden, or that they “didn’t know” how they would vote in such a match up. National polling shows the same large pool of voters looking for an alternative to the two major party candidates in head to head matchups. Further, the inclusion of third-party candidates in vote choice questions tends to lead to even less expressed support for each of the expected major party candidates.

This dissatisfaction increases our uncertainty and makes any projections about the outcomes of the 2024 presidential race tenuous. Our 2023 polling consistently found a large group of voters, roughly one in five, have negative, unfavorable opinions about both candidates. These "disapprovers" will be vital to the 2024 outcome: two in three (68%) of those who planned to vote for a third-party candidate in our August poll disapproved of both President Biden and Mr. Trump. This resembles the 2016 election when a large share of voters (16%) had an unfavorable opinion of both candidates on Election Day. The exit polls showed that “disapprovers” broke for Mr. Trump 56% to 31%.

Key Questions for 2024: How will “disapproving” voters behave—will they vote for a third-party candidate, will they break decisively toward one candidate, will they vote at all? Which and how many third-party candidates will be on the November ballot in Pennsylvania?

4. Economic anxiety is pronounced, but abortion rights loom

Our polls showed that the state’s registered voters had a generally negative outlook about the economy and the direction of the state throughout 2023. In October, half (50%) of respondents said they were “worse off” financially than a year ago, and one in three (35%) registered voters expected to be “worse off” financially a year from now. Concern about the economy, including unemployment and higher gas and utility prices, were consistently mentioned throughout 2023 as the most important and often mentioned problem by the state’s registered voters.

Abortion rights also loomed as a less mentioned top-of-mind, but important, issue in 2023. Our analysis of voting data for both the 2022 mid-terms and the 2023 State Supreme Court races hinted at the importance of abortion as a motivator for some voters and as a liability for Republicans. As we noted in the wrap up to the 2023 race, “the past two election cycles suggest that at least some voters are thinking about more than just the candidates on the ballot and the president’s performance as they make their choices. The current assemblage of emotionally-laden issues has reinforced partisan branding in the last two cycles that has helped Democrats. What, if anything, will change that in 2024?

An analysis of voters’ perceptions of partisan issue advantages found that judgments about the Republican Party’s views on abortion appear to have created a problem for them because a portion of voters who mostly identify with the Republican Party see its abortion position as being outside the mainstream. Then again, Democrats have issue vulnerabilities on immigration and public safety because more independents see the Republican’s positions on these issues as more mainstream.

Key Questions for 2024: How will perceptions about the economy and voters’ assessments of their economic circumstances change in the coming months? Will abortion rights continue to motivate voters to Democrats’ advantage, or will some other issue emerge that advantages Republicans?

5. Josh Shapiro is off to a strong start as Governor

Governor Shapiro’s job approval ratings rose consistently throughout 2023, his first year in office, despite a prolonged budget standoff. In October, almost one in two (49%) registered voters said the Governor was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, which was the highest approval rating for a governor at that point in a first term since Governor Ridge. The survey showed that Governor Shapiro had more positive ratings among Democrats (76%) and independents (38%) than either Senator Casey or President Biden.

The Governor is rated much more positively among key Democratic constituencies than President Biden. Shapiro’s positive approval ratings are 19 points higher than Biden’s among liberals, and more than 20 points higher among younger voters, whites, and those living in the southeast and Philadelphia. He is more popular outside the Democratic base as well, with three in five moderates, and two in five independents, giving him positive job approval ratings.

Key Question for 2024: How much can Governor Shapiro leverage his popularity to the advantage of Democrats running in 2024, including President Biden?

Candidates and CampaignsEconomic IssuesElection AnalysisElectoral ContextRatings of Political FiguresTrump-Related IssuesUndecided VotersVoter BehaviorAbortion

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