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If the election were held today, Biden would probably lose


It’s an article of faith among much of the LGM commentariat that:

(a) Polls don’t mean anything any more, or (less absurdly) polls in May aren’t good predictors of what will happen in November; and/or

(b) For reasons, the polls are systematically and perhaps intentionally understating support for Biden and overstating support for Trump.

Ezra Klein throws some cold water (gift link) on this, pointing out a couple of things:

(1) For all the methodological problems facing pollsters these days, the polls were in fact a lot more accurate in regard to the 2022 election than the pundits. Pundits almost universally predicted a red wave, while the polls predicted modest Republican gains — a prediction which flew in the face of both historical precedent and media predictions, but turned out to be correct. So polls have a lot of problems, but they have more going for them than vibes/seat of the pants opinions.

(2) To the extent polls have been wrong about Trump in the past, they’ve underestimated rather than overestimated his support. This was true in both 2016 and 2020.

Well that sucks, but both of these observations are correct, so hand waving polls away is just wishcasting, although of course the more modest point that polls in May measure public sentiment in May, not November, is also correct.

Klein then marches through a bunch of other explanations for why Biden is trailing right now, and dismisses most of them pretty convincingly.

It’s the media’s fault.

Klein points out that Biden has massive leads among voters who get their news from traditional media sources — he’s ahead by 49 points among people who read newspapers as their primary news source, which is all the more astounding considering such voters skew much older than average, which otherwise is good for Trump — and is losing badly among people who don’t follow news media at all (Do I even have to say her name?).

It’s a bad time for incumbents.

This may be true internationally, but it wasn’t true in 2022 in the US elections, nor is it true in the same polls that show Biden doing badly and Democratic incumbents in swing states doing much, much better.

Voters are angry about inflation/the economy

Inflation and the economy were vastly worse in 2022 than they are now, and Democrats did exceptionally well compared to historical norms for midterm elections.

Biden is too liberal.

The polls show Biden losing almost no support among his most liberal supporters. Israel/Palestine seems to have very little salience in this regard.

Which leaves us with, you guessed it, Biden is too old.

Klein has been beating this drum for a long time, so it’s easy to dismiss him, but he does make a couple of valid points. The first is that the polls show that, for an overwhelming majority of voters, this is their biggest problem with Biden. Yes it’s ridiculous given that Trump will be 78 next month (Biden is 81), and Trump sounds exactly like a demented Fox News grandpa because he very literally is a demented Fox News grandpa, but it is what it is, as Tony Soprano would have said if he hadn’t gotten shot in that diner by the guy in the Members Only jacket (spoiler alert).

The second is that Biden has good days and bad days on the campaign trail and in interviews, and the right wing scream machine is extremely good at editing his public performances in such a way as to make him sound far less cogent than he is on average (watch Fox News some day for a couple of hours and you’ll get a good sense of why everybody who consumes right wing news media thinks Biden is in mid-stage dementia already).

So this is a big problem for Biden, and it’s not going away no matter how unfair it is, which of course is radically unfair, since any voter who was deciding on this basis alone ought to prefer Biden to the already wildly incoherent Trump.

The optimistic take is that the bar for Biden is low and a strong debate performance or two will win him an unusual amount of support. The pessimistic take is that a lot of voters have concluded that Biden isn’t up to the job. Democrats have been telling them they’re wrong, but telling voters they’re wrong is a good way to lose an election.

Biden has some months yet to prove otherwise. The June debate will be his best opportunity. Doubts about age are really doubts about capability, and all Biden needs to do is persuade enough voters that he is more capable than the erratic criminal defendant across the stage, who turns 78 next month.

This is probably correct, terrifying as that conclusion remains.

But then Klein lets his particular pundit kink/fetish get in the way of sound analysis:

But if the debate goes poorly, or if Biden’s numbers deteriorate further, Democrats will need to decide between a Biden-Harris ticket that is very likely to lose or an open convention.

I’ve read the Democratic party’s current by-laws, and there’s no mechanism for “deciding” between a Biden-Harris ticket and Klein’s hardcore pundit fantasy. The only way an open convention can happen is if Biden can’t or won’t accept the nomination, or the Democratic party’s leadership decides to junk its primary process after it’s complete, which would probably be illegal (political parties have almost unlimited legal leeway regarding what process they decide to employ before the fact to select candidates, but quite a bit less in regard to ditching a completed selection process after the fact), and, much more more to the practical point, is not going to happen, despite the fact that after considerably more than four hours Klein still hasn’t consulted his physician.

In the end, Klein’s suggestion/magic bullet is this: Democrats need to run against Trump, and the way to do that is to emphasize all the substantive ways that Trump was a terrible president, not merely to hammer home the whole “end of democracy” thing. Now on one level this is clearly correct: as Murc has been pointing out in comments here for some time, the Democrats need to go massively and unrelentingly negative on Trump, rather than trying to sell Biden. The problem is that voters in general, and swing voters in particular, don’t pay any attention to substantive political issues: it’s vibes all the way down, and the vibe about Biden is that he’s too old. That’s maddening, but Klein is unfortunately correct about that.

What he’s massively wrong about is the idea that “the Democrats” can do anything about that in regard to Biden’s candidacy. “The Democrats” have already chosen Biden to be the nominee, if by “the Democrats” one means Democrats who vote for presidential nominees, which just happens to be how Democratic presidential nominees are chosen.

That at this late date Klein is still clinging to his open convention fantasy is a sad commentary on both him and a bunch of other things, but again he’s unfortunately correct about a lot of what he says in this article.

Now for a touch of hopium: I myself am still clinging to the belief that voters will in the end recoil at the prospect of another Trump presidency over the course of the next five and a half months, and Biden will win the election by a solid margin in the Electoral College and by many millions of votes in the humans casting votes part of the proceedings. (That there’s so little talk of the consequences of Trump winning the EC while losing the election by many millions of votes –which could of course very easily happen — is a topic for another post).

But Klein points out that there’s still no evidence that this is beginning to happen. If Trump gets convicted in his current criminal trial, I think we will begin to see that evidence shortly afterwards, but I figure the odds of a conviction versus a hung jury are no better than even money (the odds of an acquittal are close to zero).

So yeah. The thing is to get out there and do everything you can to forestall an incomprehensible catastrophe that, at the moment, has a terrifyingly high prospect of happening.

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