The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Biden 2020 his way to victory in 2024?

This combination of pictures created Oct. 22, 2020, shows then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville. (Jim Bourg/Pool/AFP)
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Joe Biden is president largely because Donald Trump was president.

Trump was reviled by Democrats and many independents, who’d only narrowly supported him in 2016. The 2018 midterms were a rout for Trump’s party as many voters turned out to express their frustration with the administration. When the 2020 Democratic nominating process began, Biden’s most important advantage was that he was viewed as more electable by primary voters. He won the nomination.

Then, in November, he won the election. Independents backed Biden by double digits, with polling showing that nonpartisans viewed Trump’s presidency broadly negatively. Biden won in large part because he was not Trump and because he was palatable, if not exciting, to a lot of people who wanted anyone but Trump as president.

That might not be enough for Biden to win again.

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The Washington Post and our partners at ABC News released new polling over the weekend evaluating early opinions about the 2024 presidential contest. It’s very early, admittedly; by this time next year, less than a handful of contests will have been held. Polling a year out from primaries in previous cycles have not been flawless predictors of outcomes.

Nonetheless, evaluating this particular question — where Biden and Trump stand — offers its own insights, given that the 2024 contest may come down, once again, to a relative comparison between these two candidates.

So we begin with the necessary predicate for a Biden-Trump general election: do primary voters want them to be their parties’ nominees? In both cases, the answer is, eh, not really? Half of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) would like to see someone besides Trump be the party’s nominee; nearly 6 in 10 Democrats (and leaners) say they want someone besides Biden.

Our poll also asked how people would feel if Biden or Trump won the nomination and, subsequently, the election. More than 6 in 10 respondents said they’d feel dissatisfied or angry if Biden won, with more than 9 in 10 Republicans holding that position.

More than half of respondents said they’d be dissatisfied or angry if Trump won, including more than 9 in 10 Democrats. A plurality of respondents said they’d be dissatisfied if Biden won. More than a third said they’d be angry if Trump did.

But notice the difference in those saying they’d be “angry.” Six in 10 Republicans said they’d be angry about a Biden win; 7 in 10 Democrats said the same about a Trump victory. Independents were about as likely to be angry at either, though slightly more Trump than Biden.

Again, this is in part how Biden won: People were furious at Trump’s presidency. Trump was the reason Republicans came to vote in 2020 — he is also the reason Democrats came out to vote. Many Democrats were meh on Biden all along, but he wasn’t Trump.

If we compare how Democrats would feel about Biden being reelected in 2024 with January 2020 Post-ABC polling asking how people felt about the Democratic primary field (which Biden was then leading), we see an almost perfect overlap. Democrats in 2020 were lukewarm about their candidates; Democrats now are lukewarm about the prospect of Biden winning again.

Trump’s position has shifted more dramatically. In October 2019, two-thirds of Republicans wanted him to be the party’s 2020 nominee. (There was no real challenge to that eventuality, given how the Republican Party cleared the field for him.) Now, though, only 44 percent of Republicans want to see him nominated — about the same percentage that say they would be enthusiastic about his winning in 2024.

The pattern here would seem to suggest a steady Biden position and a softening Trump one. Yet the Post-ABC poll shows a tight race between the two potential candidates, with Trump holding a slight, nonsignificant lead. In other words, given Biden’s margin in the popular vote in 2020, the head-to-head poll doesn’t show Trump running weaker. Among independents, for example, Trump has a not-significant advantage — a much better position than he enjoyed in 2020.

Biden and many in his party seem to think that a rematch of 2020 provides Biden with a distinct advantage. It’s probably true that Trump has so much baggage that he enters a potential 2024 race at a disadvantage relative to Republicans who haven’t earned as much animus. But even in this case, Biden can’t breathe easily. Former Obama administration official Julián Castro summarized one Democratic concern about Biden’s reelection chances: “if he’s faring this poorly after a string of wins, that should be worrisome.”

Trump has probably been aided by his relatively low profile (one forced upon him) since leaving office. Were the 2024 race between Trump and Biden, it’s likely that a lot of Americans would soon remember why they preferred Biden three years ago. It’s also possible, though, that Biden’s failure to energize Americans in support of him and his agenda would make a 2024 choice not one between a neutral and a disliked candidate but, instead, a choice between two disliked ones.

The last time Trump was in a fight like that was 2016.