President Biden and Democrats were greeted this weekend with perhaps their most ominous poll of the 2024 election cycle. And it has injected new urgency into a question that has long loomed: Would their party be better off with someone else at the top of the ticket?
The poll suggests that might well be the case — though it’s not quite as simple as some panicky Biden backers are wagering.
The New York Times-Siena College survey shows Donald Trump leading Biden in five of six swing states polled. If those numbers hold up and both men remain in the race, the indicted former president would in all likelihood return to the White House.
But some have spotlighted a potential saving grace for Democrats. In addition to showing Trump ahead by an average of four percentage points, the poll asked voters about a race without Biden. An unnamed “Democratic candidate” shifts the race by 12 points on the margins, turning a four-point Democratic deficit against Trump into an eight-point lead, 48 percent to 40 percent.
Simple enough. It would seem Democrats are leaving plenty of potential voters on the table — and possibly victory — with Biden. And some are spotlighting this as a reason to nominate someone else.
Former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod floated that possibility, and Bill Kristol explicitly endorsed it while citing the “generic” ballot. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who has launched a primary bid against Biden, also cited that finding, saying, “I could offer no statement more powerful than the one made by suffering Americans in today’s NY Times poll.”
But as we’ve long written, such generic ballots can be misleading. They invite people to imagine their ideal alternative in such a race, rather than the potentially very flawed, actual alternatives. Would California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) or Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) actually lead Trump by that margin? Probably not. Even if they did right now, heightened scrutiny resulting from their actual candidacies would surely take a toll.
And what many missed about the poll is that a generic Democrat isn’t the only one significantly overperforming the actual candidate likely to lead the ticket.
The poll also tested a race without Trump. The result? The same 12-point shift on the margins. The GOP’s lead goes from an average of four points with Trump to an average of 16 points without him, 52-36.
One way to look at that is that Biden’s underperformance is unremarkable. But there’s another, equally valid interpretation: Biden is as much a liability at the top of the ticket as the guy whom so many people have been labeling a liability for the better part of six years.
And if it’s valid to talk about how much better off Republicans would be without Trump, it’s surely valid to have the same conversation about Democrats and Biden.
The question from there is what the party does. In Trump’s case, there at least is a readily available alternative who is polling better: former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. She outperforms Trump in the general election — not for the first time — stretching the four-point lead over Biden for Trump to eight points.
But the poll also provides a case-in-point for how these things can shift over time. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was once christened the “electability” alternative to Trump, when he was fresh off his resounding 2022 reelection victory in the governor’s race. Yet, the new poll shows him faring worse in the general election (leading Biden by an average of one percentage point) than both Trump (four points) and Haley (eight points).
In other words: DeSantis looked great in theory. In practice, not so much. And scrutiny of actual candidates matters — just as it most probably will for Haley now that she has begun to assert herself as the leading Trump alternative.
Still, Democrats would be foolish to ignore this polling. Even if things might not be quite as gloomy for Biden right now as the poll suggests, that he is costing his party as much potential support as Trump would seem to speak volumes about voters’ reluctance to reelect him.
That could change, and Biden has proved he can beat Trump. But time is running short for Biden and Democrats to decide whether they want to roll the dice and hope this goes away — or that something like a Trump conviction shifts these dynamics (as the same poll suggests it could).
The Democrats’ problem is that there isn’t that readily available alternative. The poll did test Kamala Harris, who would seemingly be next in line. But unlike Haley, the unpopular vice president did little better than her party’s presumptive nominee. She did do one point better, which, given her own apparent problems appealing to voters, would seem to reinforce Biden’s struggles.
Ultimately, the lack of an easy and obvious alternative will probably compel Democrats to grin and hope for the best, regardless of whether that’s the right call.