Opinion: The only route to victory for Biden

Editor’s Note: Liam Kerr co-founded WelcomePAC, which supports Democrats who persuade independent and GOP voters. He writes the WelcomeStack newsletter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

The biggest obstacle to President Joe Biden’s reelection is not that polls show sharp declines in support among important Democratic demographic groups from 2020 to today. It’s denying this reality.

Liam Kerr - Liam Kerr
Liam Kerr - Liam Kerr

Biden’s executive action Tuesday to limit asylum seekers at the border in spite of progressive opposition gives hope that he is taking the blinders off and course-correcting. But much more must be done and, as with most change, it’s important to start by admitting there’s a problem.

The phenomenon of Democrats dismissing the polls in favor of misplaced optimism has been termed “hopium” by data journalist Nate Silver. Its most prominent booster, Simon Rosenberg, has made this anti-polling case on CNN and in other major outlets. But it is not just Rosenberg who has injected this overly rosy perspective into the national narrative. Biden’s closest advisers also reportedly buy into the thesis that polling is misleading.

This extends even to the president himself, who in early May said that, “The polling data has been wrong all along. How many — you guys do a poll at CNN. How many folks you have to call to get one response?”

But there is no reason to think that polls comparing two extremely well-known presidential candidates would be systematically flawed in favor of Trump. Polling averages consistently showed Biden with a large lead in the 2020 Democratic primary, which he only briefly relinquished before going on to win the presidential nomination. In both 2016 and 2020, the polls were broadly accurate but, if anything, underestimated Trump’s support.

Polling denial is not unanimous in the party, as many Democrats are reportedly in a full-blown “freakout” over Biden’s chances. But it’s the Biden campaign decision-makers who matter. It’s essential they admit the polling is correct, because if Biden is winning, there is little need to change course. But Biden is not winning.

Trump has a persistent lead, particularly in swing states. CNN polling shows voters have reassessed their view of Trump since leaving office, with 55% now viewing his presidency as a success.

The good news for Biden is that Trump’s lead is small, often within the margin of error, in the northern swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that along with bluer states get him on the doorstep of the 270 electoral votes required to win. The better news is that the remedy for overcoming this persistent deficit matches the ailment: Appeal to moderates.

There are some initial signs Biden understands what needs to be done and is beginning to pivot despite his rosy view of the polls. Tuesday’s border action echoes Trump on a major issue on which Biden has been mired deeply underwater. A Gallup poll in April found that, for the third month in a row, immigration was the top problem facing the country. Only 37% of Americans approved of his performance on the border while 61% disapproved.

Progressives predictably expressed frustration with Biden’s move on the border, but it would be a mistake for the Biden campaign to be swayed by these voices. Biden bested a wide field for his party’s nomination in 2020 by building on a career in the political center and resisting his party’s left flank. Since winning the nomination, however, Biden has embraced too many policies on the left.

Polls now show that members of bedrock Democratic voting groups are abandoning Biden to align with Republicans, as CNN’s Harry Enten has demonstrated. Understanding the lack of progressive appeal clarifies this dynamic: Young and minority voters are more moderate than often perceived, especially Black Democrats, who are typically more moderate than White Democrats. This means these groups likely share top concerns with moderate voters generally. Despite the headlines focused on college campuses, for instance, the Harvard Youth Poll found that when presented with 16 issues, young voters ranked two progressive favorites — Gaza and student debt — last.

The disaffected who voted for the president in 2020 but are not planning to in 2024 have been termed “Biden Defectors.” Overall, these defectors are eight times as likely to be moderate/conservative than to be very liberal. A New York Times/Siena survey found that Biden is losing 16% of 2020 voters who call themselves moderate and conservative to Trump, while losing only 2% who call themselves “very liberal.”

Historical trends back up the need for Biden to shift more toward the middle: Moderate candidates perform better. That’s part of why candidates typically “pivot to the center” after winning party nominations. Notably, failed 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton eschewed such a pivot.

But running to the center is how Democrats flipped seats in 2022, engaging moderate Republicans and running to the center on issues. And it continued this year, with moderate Tom Suozzi flipping Rep. George Santos’ vacated House seat to the D column in a New York special election in February.

What does pivoting to the center look like over the next five months? For starters, Biden needs to continue to strike moderate positions. He should follow up his border action with overcoming his reluctance to talk about the country’s record-breading energy production during his administration, for instance.

He also needs to reach out to center-right voters and their standard-bearers. Never-Trump Republicans were a group that proved crucial in 2022. While both Trump and Biden garnered 94% of their base (37% and 36% of the electorate respectively), according to exit polls, Biden won 6% of Republicans to Trump’s 5% of Democrats, and a whopping 54% of independents to Trump’s 41%.

Unfortunately, there have been too many headlines about Biden not reaching out to Trump’s Republican opponents, even those who have endorsed him. As NBC reported in December, “For some Republicans who endorsed Biden in 2020, the next election looks bleak: Several who backed Biden said they never heard from him or his staff again.

Lastly, Biden needs to confront the extremists in his own party. He should do that by making more energetic public appearances and not displaying fear toward those who come in order to undermine him within his own party. The president needs to stop avoiding protests, which will be unavoidable at the Chicago Democratic National Convention anyway, and stand loudly and visibly on the side of the cops.

“Hopium” may feel good. But as Biden noted last week during a commencement address, “faith without works is dead.” Democrats, and the country, should urge Biden to regain his faith in polling and his own ideological compass, and return to the path through the political center that won him the White House.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com