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The Grit Gap
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The Grit Gap

A lesson for Biden from the latest polls.

President Joe Biden is greeted by Hurley Coleman III and Hurley Coleman IV while arriving to a campaign event with supporters at Pleasant View Golf Course in Saginaw, Michigan, on March 14, 2024. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Parties are like parents: They want their people to develop grit.

How do Democrats continue to win special elections and outperform expectations despite having a deeply unpopular member of their own party in the White House? They’ve got grit. Up, down, or tied, core Democratic constituencies keep turning out to vote.

How did Donald Trump do so well in Iowa despite blizzard conditions and icy roads? Gritty voters who clomped to caucus when the supporters of other candidates stayed cozy at home.

And, like for kids, the best way to develop grit is through adversity. But not too much. You might want your daughter or son to develop grit by working a physically demanding summer job, but that doesn’t mean they should work in a sweatshop. You might want them to learn to keep trying when they don’t make the team, but you wouldn’t want the coach to post a video making fun of their tryout.

Exceptional people are the product of the right balance of opportunity and hardship. They don’t coast because it’s too easy. They don’t give up because it’s impossible. And so it goes with voters.

Of all the ways we can explain Joe Biden’s vastly superior performance in 2020 to Hillary Clinton’s four years before, one compelling story is rooted in adversity.  

The epigrammatic story of Clinton’s loss is about Michigan and how her campaign ordered labor volunteers to stay away from the Great Lakes State for fear of calling attention to her perilous position there. The Clinton campaign didn’t want Republicans to think they could win, but instead convinced Democrats that they couldn’t lose. Voters, especially those unenthusiastic about their nominee, felt excused in not turning out. 

That let Trump eke out a 10,704-vote win despite getting 34,203 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost Michigan by 3 points in 2004. Rather than throwing a scare into Democrats by talking about the real possibility of losing the presidency to the host of Celebrity Apprentice, the Clinton campaign was picking its Cabinet and shifting resources around to help win what they called a “governing majority” in the Senate.

Since the Trump presidency, Democrats have been under no illusions about inevitability. The grit that served them so well in 2018, 2020, and 2022 was born out of the pain of 2016.  

But adversity in excess of what can produce grit slides quickly down to despair. The necessary prerequisite for any landslide loss is that the losing team has to know it is going to lose. What would attendance be for a baseball game in which the home team is guaranteed to lose? Not great. You might get some die-hards and gawkers, but even loyal fans would spare themselves the indignities of giving up their evening to watch a sure loser. 

The same with elections. That defeatism, when coupled with the well-documented bandwagon effect for frontrunners, is how close elections can quickly turn into blowouts.

So how are things going for Democrats this time around? 

They certainly aren’t in any danger of irrational exuberance. President Joe Biden is losing, and unambiguously so. The latest New York Times swing state poll shows the incumbent behind by substantial margins in Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona, with Trump getting about half of the vote. It’s tight in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with a modest lead for Trump in the former and for Biden in the latter.

This poll is just the latest amplifier of the Democratic doom loop, and not unreasonably so. Biden is the weakest incumbent in the history of modern public opinion research. And as the same poll shows, he is beset by both divisions in his own party resulting in low enthusiasm among core constituencies and, more ominously, bad marks among the persuadable moderates who delivered him the presidency four years ago.

Biden is bad at running for reelection, and he, his campaign, and his administration appear overwhelmed by the moment. In that way, this certainly seems like an election in which the bottom could fall out.   

But Michigan, like it did in 2016, has an instructive story to tell us. 

Let’s start with the stipulation that it’s way too early to start thinking seriously about who is or is not a likely voter. With nearly six months to go, it’s not very useful for the purpose of forecasting to start separating the wheat from the chaff. Voter intentions don’t really start to firm up until the end of summer.

But the Times took a stab at it and found something interesting. Among registered voters in Michigan, Biden trails Trump by 7 points, 49 percent to 42 percent. But with the likely voter screen applied, Biden wins by a point, 47 percent to 46 percent. 

We talk a great deal about the “enthusiasm gap,” a term that relates to the excitement voters feel for their preferred candidate. And in that measurement, Biden continues to take a pasting. But I detect something like a grit gap in Biden’s advantage among likely voters as opposed to registered voters.

It may be grim, but it is resolute. It may be rooted more in fear than in love, but it is persistent. It may be a grind, but it is durable.

What we will learn this summer is how much grit Republicans have. Riding Trump’s bandwagon is much less challenging than doing the work of turnout and motivation for a candidate who is behind. And when the hard times come for Trump, as they surely will, that’s when determination counts.  

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.