Joe Biden is facing a near-historic deficit for an incumbent

Electoral analysts, myself included, like to cover our behinds. We use words like “may” and “could” to make sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves – especially when examining polls of a potential 2024 general election matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

But the truth is that Trump has a small but clear advantage over Biden right now. This makes Biden just the second president since scientific polling began to trail in his reelection bid at this point in the campaign.

Take a look at recent national surveys from CBS News/YouGov, CNN/SSRS, Fox News, Marquette University Law School and Quinnipiac University. All five are high-quality polls that meet CNN standards for publication.

All five give Trump an advantage of 2 to 4 points over Biden among registered or likely voters. On their own, none of these data points mean too much. Trump’s lead in all of them is within the margin of error. Averaged together, though, they paint a picture of an incumbent with a real problem.

Over the past 80 years, incumbents have, on average, led their eventual challengers by a little more than 10 points about a year out from the election. This includes nearly every incumbent for whom we have polling since Franklin Roosevelt in 1943.

It includes Barack Obama against Mitt Romney in November 2011. This is notable because a number of Democrats have tried to dismiss the current data showing Biden in trouble by saying that Obama had been behind at this point, too. That simply isn’t true.

In fact, the lone incumbent to be behind in the polls at this point is the man Biden succeeded and is likely to face again: Trump, who trailed Biden by about 10 points in November 2019.

That’s what makes Trump’s small polling edge right now so remarkable. He never had such an edge during the 2020 campaign. I’m not just talking about this point in the 2020 cycle. I’m talking about at any point. I’m also not just talking about a lead in the average. I’m talking about a lead in any national poll that meets CNN’s standards for publication over the entire 2020 cycle.

There have been 17 such surveys this cycle in which Trump scored a higher vote share than Biden.

The same is true in the swing states, where Trump has been ahead in at least one poll in states where he never led in 2020. These include Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania – all states that will be key in determining the next president.

What changed for Biden?

The question, of course, is why is Biden having so much difficulty against a man he was able to defeat the last time.

It might be tempting to think that it’s because of a divide within the Democratic ranks. Specifically, that Biden is having issues with his party’s left wing, as reflected by the loud criticism of his handling of the Israel-Hamas war.

I don’t see that in the numbers. For example, Biden leads Trump 96% to 2% among very liberal voters in the latest Quinnipiac poll. He’s up 95% to 5% among this group in Marquette’s survey.

These numbers are, if anything, better than how he performed in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center’s report on validated voters. Biden won very liberal voters 92% to 6%.

Biden’s biggest decline is actually in the middle. He was ahead by a mere 12 points among moderates in Quinnipiac’s poll and by 18 points in Marquette’s survey. Fox had him up by 5 points. CNN put the margin at 17 points.

The Pew report from 2020 had him winning this bloc by 28 points. The exit polls had him winning moderates by 30 points. On average, we’re talking about a 15-point swing away from Biden.

In fact, ideology is probably the wrong way to explain why voters are shifting away from the president.

It could be the economy, an issue on which Biden is trailing Trump. But voters also preferred Trump to Biden on the economy by the end of the 2020 campaign.

Probably the best explanation for Biden’s troubles that I can come up with is age. More than perhaps any other indicator, the question of whether Biden is too old to be president has changed the most from 2020.

Consider the New York Times/Siena College polls released earlier this month from the six closest states Biden won: Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan. A massive 71% of registered voters in those states said Biden was too old to be an effective president. A majority of every group listed in the crosstabs of the poll said so, including 51% of Democrats.

Back in 2020, half that percentage of registered voters (36%) said Biden was too old to be an effective president.

The fact that so many voters feel Biden is too old makes sense given that he is the oldest president ever.

Now, Biden could win this campaign if he can convince enough voters that his opponent is too old for the job as well. After all, Trump would also be the oldest president ever to win election.

Biden’s problem, though, is that a mere 39% of voters believe Trump is too old for the job.

If Biden is able to get that number up, don’t be surprised if the polls begin to shift. But if he can’t, Trump could become the first president since Grover Cleveland to be elected to nonconsecutive terms.

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