Democrats are praying 2024 is not 1980 and Biden is not Carter

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The good news for Democrats is their commitment to abortion rights resonates across the country and their messages exceeded expectations in off-year elections Tuesday.

The bad news for Democrats is most people don’t like their president and there’s real concern he could be the first Democrat to lose a bid for reelection since Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

“The country has soured on Joe Biden; there’s just not another way to put it,” said CNN political director David Chalian in sharing results during election night coverage of a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS. Only about 40% of Americans approve of the job Biden’s doing as president and just a quarter think he has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively.

Concern about his fitness has so far cost Biden in the polls more than former President Donald Trump, despite their relatively close ages and Trump’s own recent verbal slips. More than half of registered voters in the CNN poll said Trump has the strength and stamina to serve effectively.

Plenty of Democrats were already antsy about Biden’s prospects to win reelection. CNN’s poll that shows him trailing Trump will send those concerns into hyperdrive, particularly since Biden has lost support among key Democratic constituencies.

“Biden’s support in the poll is significantly weaker now among several groups that he previously won by wide margins and were critical to his election in 2020,” writes CNN’s polling director Jennifer Agiesta.

From her report:

Among voters younger than 35, 48% support Trump, 47% Biden. Political independents break 45% Trump to 41% Biden. Black voters favor Biden, 73% vs. Trump’s 23%, while Latino voters split 50% Biden to 46% Trump. And among voters of color generally, women divide 63% Biden to 31% Trump, while men split about evenly, 49% Trump to 46% Biden.

“The best thing in this poll for Joe Biden is the date on it, November 7th, 2023, and not 2024,” said the former White House communications director and now CNN political commentator Kate Bedingfield, appearing on CNN’s election night coverage Tuesday.

“No question that he has his work laid out for him, no question the campaign knows about it,” she said, adding that Democrats will try to contrast Biden with Republicans on issues like abortion and climate change in an effort to win back his fraying coalition.

That’s another way of saying it’s a long time until Election Day, and the general election portion of this campaign is not yet underway. Neither are the four criminal trials facing Trump. That Biden should trail someone the US government and prosecutors in Georgia have accused of trying to subvert democracy and steal the 2020 election is mind-boggling and speaks to his weakness as a candidate.

The circumstances of this election defy comparison

It’s hard to remember now, but Democratic primary voters in 2020 opted for Biden, starting with his victory in the South Carolina primary, in large part because of his perceived ability to beat Trump. One election cycle later, he could potentially lose to Trump, who remains just as divisive and is also unpopular at the national level.

Only one Democratic president since the Civil War, Carter, lost his bid for reelection. All of the other recent one-term presidents, including Trump, were Republicans.

Carter was even less popular at this point in his presidency than Biden, according to Gallup polling. These ratings aren’t set in stone. Carter did see a bump in his approval rating in early 1980 that coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But it was temporary.

This is not 1980

There are some similarities between today and 1980 that should scare Democrats, including turbulence in the Middle East and fears about the economy and inflation.

While polling suggests Biden is losing support among key groups, Carter faced a full-on, left-wing revolt. Then-Sen. Ted Kennedy fought Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination all the way to the Democratic convention. Kennedy’s effort pulled Carter’s policy positions to the left and perhaps also doomed his reelection bid.

There is also no strong third-party alternative to Biden, as there was in 1980, when former Rep. John Anderson’s independent bid siphoned general election support from Carter.

The Republican in the race next year is also not going to be Ronald Reagan. Rather than choosing a smiling former actor promising morning in America, Republicans seem set on Trump, who is using his 2024 campaign as an effort to beat back his legal problems and framing the contest in terms of a revenge tour. Trump stands a decent chance of being a convicted felon by the time Election Day rolls around a year from now.

Who, then, is Biden like?

Former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican who eventually lost reelection, had strong approval ratings at this point in his presidency – over 60% approval, according to Gallup. Like Carter and unlike Biden so far, Bush faced both a spirited primary challenge from Pat Buchanan and a third-party threat from Ross Perot in 1992.

Democrats today are likely to argue that Biden’s approval rating, while dismal, is not too far afield from former President Barack Obama’s in 2011. Obama, like Biden, had lost control of the House of Representatives after a productive first two years in office. And Obama trailed his Republican rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in polling for portions of the 2012 campaign cycle.

Romney, among the few Republicans to publicly and forcefully oppose Trump, feels today like a relic of a Republican Party that no longer exists.

The ground is shifting under politicians’ feet

If there’s a next-gen Romney out there – a wealthy and handsome Republican governor in a relatively liberal state – it’s probably Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was humiliated by Virginia voters on Tuesday as he tried to moderate Republicans’ MAGA tendencies.

Youngkin tried to put a moderate spin on the abortion issue. Rejecting the term “abortion ban,” Youngkin tried to sell Virginians on his plan to outlaw – he said “limit” – most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Despite heavy spending and tireless campaigning on Youngkin’s part, rather than giving his Republicans control of the state Senate to enact the limitations, voters left the chamber in Democrats’ hands and snatched control of the state House away from Republicans to boot.

Voters in red states also sided with Democrats on the abortion issue

In Ohio, voters on Tuesday rejected abortion limitations pushed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and instead enshrined abortion rights language into the red state’s constitution.

In Kentucky, voters reelected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who had targeted his opponent, Republican state attorney general Daniel Cameron, for his support for an abortion ban.

How exactly to turn support for Democratic priorities like abortion rights into support for Democratic candidates is something else entirely. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, has succeeded in that state, despite its rightward shift, with a populist message.

Solving the Biden problem

It was interesting to see Brown be interviewed by CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday. She repeatedly asked him about the potential for Biden’s unpopularity to drag down Democrats and also Brown in particular as he runs for reelection next year.

Brown, notably, did not utter Biden’s name during the interview and at one point promised to stand up to presidents of both parties.

Asked if he supported Biden, unlike some Ohio Democrats who have called for Biden to step aside, Brown did not say yes.

“I think he will be the nominee. I think he will win,” was Brown’s response, which was not a ringing endorsement of the Democratic president.

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