The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are more confident about who they won’t vote for than who they will

President Biden has seen his popularity drop since winning the 2020 election, but his main Republican competitors aren't particularly popular either. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

We do not yet know who will be on the presidential ballot in November 2024.

It seems quite likely that the Democratic nominee will be President Biden, but it seemed pretty likely in December 2019 that the NBA wasn’t going to suddenly shut down three months later. Weird things happen.

It also seems likely that the Republican nominee will be one of two people: former president Donald Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Between the two of them, they vacuum up about three-quarters of the support in national primary polling so — while weird things do happen! — it’s safe to operate under the assumption that one of them will eventually be the nominee.

What this sets up, then, is a presidential campaign with at least one major-party candidate who is awfully unpopular. If the Republicans nominate Trump, there will be two such candidates. If they nominate DeSantis, we can be confident that, by the time November rolls around, his current, middle-of-the-road favorability ratings will have taken a distinct downward turn.

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We have previously considered what it means to have two potential presidential candidates who are quite unpopular, a dynamic that defined the 2016 race. Then, voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton went heavily for Trump, giving him the required margin in the states he flipped from 2012. In 2020, there were fewer candidates who disliked both candidates because Biden was still relatively popular. Now, he isn’t — but people who dislike both him and Trump tend to prefer that Biden remain president.

Polling released Thursday by Monmouth University depicts the unpopularity contest in another way. Monmouth’s pollsters asked registered voters if they would definitely or probably support the Democrat or the Republican in a hypothetical contest. Over and over, voters were significantly more likely to say they would definitely not vote for a candidate than definitely vote for them.

Pit Biden against Trump, and about 45 percent of voters say they definitely wouldn’t vote for either. By comparison, about 3 in 10 say they definitely would support either candidate.

The patterns are similar for other hypothetical contests: Biden vs. DeSantis has the “definitely nots” at about 40 percent and about a quarter of voters saying they definitely would support either candidate. Monmouth also asked about a contest between Biden and former vice president Mike Pence, which might occur if it turns out that Mike Pence is the only member of the Republican Party who is a natural-born citizen of the U.S. More voters say they definitely wouldn’t vote for Biden than say that about Pence — but more also say they would definitely vote for Biden.

Despite how unlikely his candidacy is, including Pence is useful in part because of the contrast it offers with Trump and DeSantis. If we break out support for the Democrat and Republican in the three hypothetical matchups by party, you can see the emergent pattern.

A few things worth pulling out there.

First, notice the overall gap in the evaluations of Biden in a contest against DeSantis. It suggests some uncertainty when considering Biden against DeSantis, no doubt stemming in part from DeSantis being less well-known than the former president or vice president.

Next, notice that Democrats are much more hostile to Trump than Pence, though most Democrats would still prefer Biden to the other former vice president.

Most interesting, though, are the perceptions of the Republican candidates by Republicans. About 6 in 10 Democrats say they would definitely vote for Biden regardless of who he’s running against. About 7 in 10 Republicans say the same of Trump. For DeSantis, though, only 55 percent of Republicans are similarly confident.

For Pence it drops to 40 percent. That divide isn’t surprising, given how views of Pence have plunged among Republicans since Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump’s incessant attacks on his former vice president for not trying to unilaterally overturn the election. (This is also why views of Pence among Democrats have improved.)

This research is interesting even if it doesn’t tell us a whole lot about who is best positioned for 2024. A lot of people who say they’d never vote for a candidate will end up doing so anyway, often because they so strongly dislike the other major-party candidate on the ballot.

In late May 2015, after all, 57 percent of Republicans told pollsters for Fox News that they would never support one of the candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016, a guy named Donald Trump.

That changed.