President Joe Biden’s poll numbers may be showing stark warning signs over his reelection, but top Democrats see a possible silver lining amid the panic: The sooner they can jolt voters from dismissing the chances that Donald Trump could return to the White House, the better.
Inside Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington and inner circle in the West Wing, numbers from a New York Times/Siena College poll showing the president trailing Trump in key battleground states were not a surprise. They have been seeing similar results in the weekly briefings about their internal polls. CNN’s latest poll out Tuesday also showed Trump narrowly leading Biden in a hypothetical rematch.
Still, The New York Times poll over the weekend – and the underlying data about how many Black and Latino voters especially appear to have abandoned Biden, along with others who voted for him over Trump in 2020 now saying they no longer believe the president is up to the job – came as a major shock to many Democrats in Washington and across the country.
While some leading Democratic operatives hoped that these polls might spark the urgency they have long felt is lacking – “They’re eventually going to run a good message campaign,” griped one Democratic strategist close to the campaign. “I’m worried about how long it’s taking to get there.” – the worries have multiplied due to the way they have seen and heard Biden’s inner circle shrugging.
No major strategy revamp is coming. No deep reassessments. No candidate replacements.
Instead, being confronted with how close Trump seems to be to returning to the White House has reinforced the sense among many leaders in the party that they must step up their efforts to make Americans see 2024 as an existential choice.
“The complacency is one of the worst things you can get – if this shakes a few people up, good for it,” said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. “It boggles my mind that it’s this close. But I recognize what it is. Just keep grinding.”
Biden officials say the president has a real record to run on and voters are about to be reminded of what they didn’t like about Trump. They also believe the Israel-Hamas war is proving that Biden’s age and experience are assets; the strength in the economy will be felt more by next November – even though both issues have proved thorny for the president among key voter groups.
And despite loud calls from some pundits, no one seriously thinks Biden is stepping aside. They just hope they can get people to think about more than just his name when they go into vote.
“We’re running,” said Cedric Richmond, the former Louisiana congressman and White House aide who is now a co-chair of Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign. “And if I had a dollar for every time people have counted Joe Biden out, I’d be a wealthy man.”
“Biden’s negatives are fully baked into the cake, but his positives are not – and neither are the extraordinary negatives of having Trump as president again,” a senior Biden campaign official added. “We feel confident that voters will move in President Biden’s direction when they focus on what he actually has done and the policy differences between him and his Republican opponent.”
Biden allies looking past the polls a year out
Biden may not look like he is ever going to truly electrify most voters, but Democratic leaders and operatives hope issues like abortion rights, democracy and climate change can outweigh what is now a clearly set sense that the president is too old and that the economy is stuck on sputter under him.
“We are going to tell folks it’s all about those things, because it is all about those things,” said Lavora Barnes, the Democratic state party chair in Michigan. “That’s the story to tell.”
Barnes said those larger issues are what her organizers are seeing resonate most with the voters whose doors they have already been knocking on all over the state. Still, she and other Michigan leaders said they have been feeling for months how unstable Biden’s footing is going into next year, even in a state that has been trending bluer since Trump’s shocker win in 2016.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said that emphasizing what a Biden win – and Trump loss – would entail will flow naturally.
“I don’t think it’s going to be about making the election about these things. That’s what the election is going to be about,” Davis said. “It’s not a talking point. It’s not theoretical.”
That will be helped, Davis argued, not just by the work of the campaign but by how much of the trials over Trump’s 91 indictments and other legal proceedings will be televised. Already on Monday, in the civil trial in New York over whether he misrepresented the values of his assets, the former president spent part of his time in court shouting at the judge.
The same polls that show Biden behind also show that he would surge ahead if Trump were convicted, even as the former president continues to weave the prosecutions against him into his own narrative of the political establishment trying to stop him.
“An election is not ever just about the candidate,” said Robert Garcia, a California congressman who is close with the president and vice president and said he is not concerned about the polls. “An election has to be about the broader issues that the candidate and the party that the president is leading is moving forward on. The campaign has to be, and should be, about more than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It’s got to be about movements, or ideas, and the things we stand for.”
Biden and top aides are constantly annoyed at being counted out, but they also take a sort of enjoyment in the prospect of getting to prove the doubters wrong again. This time around, campaign aides say, they are diligently putting together plans and raising more money each quarter than all of the Republicans combined.
“The Biden campaign has always said this was going to be a close election – it’s ingrained into the culture of that campaign,” said Garcia. “People should not be freaking out.”
Renewed calls to step aside
But freaking out is exactly what many Democrats are doing, worrying that their party is heading into the election with what could be the one candidate destined to lose to Trump as the former president dominates the Republican field.
The numbers are just incontrovertibly bad, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN, and “if the election were held today, they’d be even more concerning.”
To some, the pain of thinking about Trump back in the White House is made ever worse by the feeling of watching the collapse in Biden’s numbers happen in slow motion for so long without anyone doing anything about it.
One Democratic congressman – who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House – privately said he believes the president should not run for reelection. “The poll just reinforced what we already know – Biden has racked up an incredible record, but it’s not enough to overcome the personal and economic negatives,” he said.
This congressman has not publicly suggested that the president abandon his reelection campaign.
That is precisely the case that Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips has been making – about Biden’s weakness as a candidate, but also that he is saying publicly with his longshot primary challenge what many other Democrats in Washington and beyond are saying privately.
Asked for his reaction to Biden’s numbers, Phillips told CNN on Sunday ahead of more campaigning in New Hampshire, “I could offer no statement more powerful than the one made by suffering Americans in this poll.”
Walz, a fellow Minnesotan and friend of Phillips’ who is adamantly opposed to his running, said what he reads in the polls is, in fact, soft support for Trump – evidenced, he said, also by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ endorsing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday despite Trump’s huge leads in Republican primary polling.
Walz said if Trump is the nominee, that will mean a year full of opportunities to pull over disaffected Republican voters and wavering independents, at the same time as pushing Democrats to stick with Biden if only to keep Trump out of office.
“As a teacher, what we call that is a preparatory set,” Walz said. “If you’re worried about this, here’s the plan to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
CNN’s MJ Lee, Arlette Saenz and Manu Raju contributed to this report.
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