Skip to content
The General Election Mirage
Go to my account

The General Election Mirage

Voters have not yet forced themselves to consider the choice that seems likely to await them next year.

President Joe Biden arrives to hold a press conference in Hanoi on September 10, 2023, on the first day of a visit in Vietnam. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Detroit is on strike, the House is moving toward impeachment, his son is facing three felony counts with more on the horizon, gas prices are up, a government shutdown looms, and following a foreign trip that featured another Mr. Magoo moment, prominent Democrats are now openly debating whether he must drop his presidential bid for the good of the country.

President Biden has been at the center of the action this week, and it’s been … not super.

The White House and the Biden campaign are working hard to shame the press and quell Democratic concerns and get back to treating Biden like a Fabergé egg: fragile, valuable, and impossible to replace. The message is that Democrats should stop agonizing and stay focused on the general election and the threat of a second Trump administration.

But whatever combination of Biden’s actual feebleness and Democrats’ anxieties about it is to blame for the low esteem in which voters hold the incumbent, the result is clear. The latest Quinnipiac University poll asked registered voters which candidate, Biden or former President Donald Trump would do a better job handling a national crisis, 51 percent said Trump, while 44 percent said Biden.

When you’re losing to this guy on crisis skills, it’s a problem. And I doubt seriously that it’s because David Ignatius is saying in public what nearly every Democrat I know is saying in private. As with Republicans about Trump’s cruelty, megalomania, and paranoia, Democrats are silent about their fears of Biden’s feebleness not because they don’t want to hurt the big guy, but because they don’t want primary voters to punish them. It’s self over party, party over country. 

But how bad off is Biden, really?

Consider the new poll that shows Biden trailing Trump by 6 points in a survey of battleground state voters in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada, and Michigan, with Trump at 41 percent to Biden’s 35 percent. In 2020, Biden carried those states by a combined 1.3 points, so the 6-point deficit in the poll is understandably concerning for Democrats. But 24 percent are undecided. 

C’mon, people.  

The only thing to reasonably take away from a poll with so many respondents without a preference is that voters have not yet forced themselves to consider the choice that seems likely to await them next year. Twenty-four percent undecided in a choice between candidates with 100 percent name identification is a big, fat “meh” from voters. 

Whatever secrets insiders think they’re keeping, voters know Biden is out of it and Trump is a maniac and, outside of besotted partisans, despair of such a choice. Like gutter cleaning, they’re going to delay engaging on the matter of Coot v. Crook until they absolutely have to. 

It was around this time four years ago that news broke about the underlying scandal that led to Trump’s first impeachment, which was for trying to extort campaign dirt on Biden from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

The lowest points in Trump’s job approval—prior to his nosedive following his defeat in the 2020 election—were a pair of 36 percents in 2017. One came in the late summer of his first year after he equivocated about the murder of a woman who was protesting at a gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the other at the end of the same year as Republicans were trying unsuccessfully to repeal Obamacare.

Trump left office with a 34 percent job approval rating as voters watched him try to steal a second term and generally make an ass of himself. His final number was similar to those of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, who both left office in bad odor with Americans but went on to become well-regarded as former presidents. Trump’s reputation, on the other hand, has flatlined.   

His highest points, 48 percent and 49 percent, both came in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, before he started freelancing pandemic policy.

But when Trump was at the same point as Biden is now, almost 1,000 days into his presidency, impeachment pending and trying to cram down dissent within his own party, Trump was doing … about the same as Biden is now. Biden’s approval rating is at 42 percent, according to Gallup. At the same point, Trump’s was at 40 percent. Coincidentally, that’s exactly where Barack Obama was at this point in 2011, too.

Biden is doing about as well as Trump was, who was doing about as well as Obama was.

Biden has a lot of problems with that undecided 24 percent, most of all concerns about the economy and anxiety about rising prices. But he has one big advantage that neither of his two most recent predecessors did: Most Americans already know and strongly dislike the person most likely to be his challenger next year.

Obama and Trump had to try to make the other party’s congressional leaders their foils in their reelection campaigns until the other team made its choice. Every time Democrats and swing voters despair at the thought of Biden shuffling his way into another term, they turn to see Trump’s mug. And as he moves closer to securing the Republican nomination, Trump will loom larger and larger.

Biden most certainly could lose to Trump and Democrats are right to be nervous about their man, but the politically obsessed among us should always temper our feelings by the knowledge that we ourselves are quite weird. Normal people are spending about as much time thinking about the unsavory choice taking shape for next year as they are about the leaves that will soon clog their downspouts. 

Voters are not yet willing or able to tell the parties exactly what they want them to do, which is a problem when parties exist almost exclusively to keep the other side out of power. Republicans and Democrats will have to clean their own gutters for now.


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.2%
Average disapproval: 54.2%
Net score: -13.0 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.0 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↑ 0.2 points

[Average includes: Reuters/Ipsos: 42% approve-52% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 39% approve-55% disapprove; CBS News: 40% approve, 60% disapprove;Wall Street Journal: 42% approve-57% disapprove; Emerson: 43% approve-47% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: ‘CHESAPEAKE COWBOYS’

New York Times: “A couple thousand spectators had gathered in [St. Michael’s], the Colonial-era tourist town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about 80 miles east of Washington, D.C., to watch the cowboys square off in a competition unique to the Chesapeake Bay: boat docking. … ‘It’s redneck like NASCAR, just on the water,’ one competitor, Ronnie Reiss, known as ‘Reissy Cup,’ said on his boat. … Each pilot competes, alone or with teammates, against a running clock. It’s like extreme parking with some rodeo at the end. After clearing their boat slips, competitors throttle forward and turn hard, kicking up a swell that sometimes wets the fans. … The boaters reverse hard, again, backing into another narrow slip by the bleachers at full tilt. The boats, ideally, come to a stop inches from the bulkhead, then the captains scramble to lasso two lines to the pilings. The competitor who does it fastest, wins.”


DEMS AT CROSSROADS AS BIDEN AGE CONCERNS MOUNT

New York Times: “During his recent trip to India and Vietnam, Mr. Biden’s aides aggressively pushed back on suggestions that he has lost a step, highlighting his busy schedule as a sign of his vigor. … While Mr. Biden’s [recent ad blitz] does not frontally address a central concern raised by Democratic voters—his age—they showcase his vitality and stamina. … Last week, Jim Messina, who has become a leading voice of the don’t-panic-about-Biden chorus, circulated a 24-page presentation suggesting that the political environment was good for Democrats and calling for ‘bedwetters’ in their ranks to relax. … [But recent polling] has suggested that Democratic and independent voters had concerns about Mr. Biden himself, not his legislative record. … 63 percent of Democrats said their biggest concern about Mr. Biden’s candidacy was his age, mental acuity or health.” 

Auto worker strike threatens Biden’s blue wall: Politico: “The strike that the United Auto Workers [launched on Friday] could close some of the state’s biggest factories for weeks and upend the economy. … And it could scramble President Joe Biden’s political calculus in the key battleground state. Michigan Democrats support the union but caution that the president, a self-described ‘car guy,’ faces potential political danger if thousands of union workers go on strike in such a critical swing state. … At the same time, the UAW has been vocal in expressing alarm that Biden’s climate policies are subsidizing the creation of factories for electric car parts in non-union states. … As he has before, Trump made it clear again Wednesday that he will try to leverage the potential strike to drive a wedge between Biden and the autoworkers.” 

2024 ad spending will surpass $10 billion, shattering record: NBC News: “Political ad spending is projected to reach new heights by the end of the 2024 election cycle, eclipsing $10 billion in what would amount to the most expensive two years in political history. … AdImpact, a firm that tracks political ad spending, projects that campaigns and outside groups will spend $2.7 billion on ads in the presidential election alone, followed by $2.1 billion on the Senate, $1.7 billion on the House, $361 million on gubernatorial elections and $3.3 billion on other elections. … TV ad spending is projected to make up a slightly smaller piece of the pie this election cycle, while streaming television is projected to make up a slightly larger share and Spanish-language ads are projected to increase 9% from last cycle.” 

DNC punts on New Hampshire primary drama: Politico: “A top panel on the Democratic National Committee is expected to vote Thursday on a plan to give New Hampshire more time to comply with the national party’s demand that it hold its presidential primary after South Carolina’s contest in early February. … That would mark the third time this year that the DNC has pushed back the state’s deadline. … If the state ultimately holds an unsanctioned Democratic primary, New Hampshire Democrats risk losing half their delegates to the national party’s nominating convention in 2024 under rules passed last year. … There is a risk if Democrats can’t find a solution. Should New Hampshire go first against the wishes of Biden and the DNC, the sitting president might not put his name on the primary ballot there and could potentially cede the unofficial early contest to fringe candidates.”

Dem election officials pump the brakes on 14th Amendment talk: Politico: “The campaign to keep former President Donald Trump off the ballot under constitutional grounds is not finding much reception with an audience who could quickly force a resolution: Democratic secretaries of state. … ‘The United States Supreme Court is the appropriate place to resolve this issue. The bottom line is it’s not about us at all,’ said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. … Attempts to block Trump from the ballot remain in their infancy. … Some Republican secretaries of state—even those who have clashed with Trump—have also said it is not within their power to make that call.”

GOP SENATORS SEARCH FOR A WINNING MESSAGE ON ABORTION

Wall Street Journal: “At a closed-door lunch this past week, Senate Republicans received a briefing on shifting public attitudes toward abortion. … The takeaways: Research shows voter support for some restrictions after 12 to 15 weeks; few back absolute bans; and many want exceptions for rape, incest and life or health of the mother. … The briefing advised senators it is no longer enough to identify as pro-life without giving voters a detailed description of what they are for and against. … [The briefing] underscored that public attitudes toward abortion remain a core concern for the party even as polls show advantages on other key issues such as the economy. … In the group’s poll, 71% of suburban women said they were somewhat or strongly opposed to the Supreme Court’s decision. … Among Republican women overall, 41% disagreed with the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

BRIEFLY

Romney will retire when his Senate term expires—Washington Post

Wisconsin GOP looks for redistricting off ramp as court prepares for gerrymandering case—AP 

New York Stock Exchange exec passes on Michigan Senate run—Politico

Poll: Civic knowledge dips compared to last year—Annenberg Public Policy Center

WITHIN EARSHOT: SO YOU’RE SAYING THERE’S A CHANCE 

“I’ll put him down as a ‘maybe’”—Former Vice President Mike Pence looks on the bright side when responding to a heckler who shouted “Get the f— out of our country and get the f— out of Iowa!” during an event in Decorah, Iowa. 


MAILBAG

“It has been difficult to find any positive comments about Pence from any quarter since he entered the race. And no wonder, he has shown enough political waffling to engender mistrust among voters at large. His complicity with Trump’s obvious disqualification for leadership in 2016 (arguably he saved Trump’s candidacy after the Access Hollywood tapes were released) seriously impairs his appeal to anti-Trump voters. And of course his perceived betrayal of the president in 2020 makes him anathema to Trump supporters. He has no home in Republican politics unless he builds it himself. Your portrayal, while not an endorsement, places Pence in a fairer light. He has a strong Reaganite core that has adapted but not changed over the course of his career and his diagnosis of the state of affairs is spot on. He is worth another look as a candidate and a wider hearing as an elder statesman of what was once my party before Trump.”—Ian Macagy, Fresno, California

I think you have perfectly summed up what Pence is aiming for, Mr. Macagy. The hard part is that it is unlikely to succeed in winning the nomination. The question he faces is whether he is willing to work as hard for every vote as if he were neck-and-neck with Trump. That’s the only way lost causes ever get found. The hard part for conservatives is knowing that they face the choice of dividing their party against itself and thereby increasing the chances that a Democrat will win.

“Since Super PACs and campaigns are not allowed to officially communicate, how do they coordinate?  The candidates seem worried enough about the laws that they don’t blatantly flout them but they must have some way of getting strategy out. I’m thinking it’s like a neo-All the President’s Men thing where someone posts on an obscure Instagram account and a picture of three flowers means go after [Vivek Ramaswamy] on the economy, but four means attack him on Ukraine. Or do they just plant stories about how angry the candidate is about Person X in the Super PAC and they get the picture?”—Craig Berry, Frankfort, Illinois

I don’t think anybody needed to tell Ron DeSantis’ super PAC that people are angry, Mr. Berry. The donors who watched $100 million go down the pipe probably gave plenty of real-time feedback to the gang over there. Yes, campaigns and PACs do use the press to pass information to each other, and it is common practice to post content on public platforms that campaigns want PACs to use and vice versa. This is a great indication of how preposterous our campaign finance laws are and how laughable enforcement of them has become. One of the many unfortunate side effects of trying to make politics into drama is that all involved—the politicians, the reporters, the donors, the staffers—are prone to overstate the importance of their roles. Think of it this way: The crimes committed by the men in All the President’s Men were pointless. Having the secret strategy for the Democrats’ 1972 presidential campaign would have been like the Harlem Globetrotters stealing the playbook for the Washington Generals. Richard Nixon went down because some dudes working for him had seen too many movies like the one they inspired and turned a cake walk against a shattered Democratic Party into a world-historic example of corruption. Political intrigue makes for great drama. William Shakespeare’s characters like Prince Hal and Lady MacBeth live on in the popular imagination because we recognize them in our own times: The goof-off who grows up and claims his place in his family’s political dynasty, the power-obsessed spouse who pushes his or her partner into deep waters. The same goes for modern authors like Robert Penn Warren and Billy Lee Brammer who so skillfully used politics to reveal larger truths about how power and proximity to it can strip away our virtue. I love political thrillers. One of my favorite books of all time remains Charles McCarry’s Shelley’s Heart and I gobble up good pulpy shows and movies like the first season of House of Cards or the original The Manchurian Candidate. But we have to always remember the truth: Most of the real-life drama is intimate and emotionally complicated. As the Watergate goofballs and the DeSantis PAC men illustrate, the most interesting stories are usually about hubris and “the best laid plans of mice and men,” not the secret machinations of the powerful.

“My assumption is that the Electoral College is a first-past-the-post system in terms of the 538/270 threshold requirements. Like if a third party candidate actually won a handful of states, the winner would then be the one with the most Electoral College votes, not 270? I thought this would be an easy Google question but found it a bit more difficult than I expected to get a clear answer.”—Dave Kilborn, Saskatchewan, Canada

Understandable, Mr. Kilborn! It’s not a first-past-the-post contest in the Electoral College, it’s outright majority or bust. Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution holds that “if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List” of candidates receiving electoral votes are to be put before the House of Representatives. But in this scenario, each state would get one vote, presumably determined by the wishes of a majority of each state. North Dakota and California would get the same say in the outcome. The vote would take place among the members of the newly elected Congress, but for a rough guide, Democrats hold majorities in the delegations of 22 states, Republicans in 26 with two states, Minnesota and North Carolina evenly divided. It’s pretty close, but Republicans definitely have the edge. But remember also that Democrats expect to gain seats in the upcoming elections. If they could tip Arizona, for example, it could end up determining the presidency. That could create a 25-25 tie, and then things would really get wild. The last time something like that happened was 1877 and the parties had to strike a deal to resolve the deadlock in which Republicans agreed to end the military occupation of the South in exchange for Rutherford Hayes becoming president.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the discerning Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: DAD SHOD 

Former Vice President Mike Pence during a town hall at New England College on September 6, 2023, in Henniker, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
Former Vice President Mike Pence during a town hall at New England College on September 6, 2023, in Henniker, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

As a dad, a frequent eschewer of socks, and the owner of several pairs of New Balance tennis shoes (though I have of late returned to the Stan Smiths of my youth), I felt seen in this photo of former Vice President Mike Pence in an interview with friends of this note, Julie Mason and Steve Scully, of SiriusXM. Our winner this week was feeling that paternal energy right along with me—with a dose of historical political rhetoric, too.

“The time has arrived for the Republican Party to get out of the shadow of socks’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of bare ankles!”—Chris Lee, Corvallis, Oregon 

Winner, Fusionism Division:

“Former VP Mike Pence notes ‘there is a time to choose a blazer, a time to choose jeans, and a time to choose both.’”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Joe Dirt Division:

“Mike Pence: The American Mullet. Business on top, party down below.”—Matt Dunning, Cincinnati, Ohio

Winner, It’s a Cover Up Division:

“No. I had no problem with sunburn during the 10k.”—Richard Kennedy, Ferndale, Michigan

Winner, Stop Video Division:

“XM? They told me this was a Zoom call.”—Bert Hauver, Walkersville, Maryland

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


BUSTED COVERAGE AP: “Sports betting company DraftKings apologized Monday after using the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to entice people to bet on baseball and football games on the anniversary of the tragedy that killed nearly 3,000 people. The Boston-based company offered users a 9/11-themed promotion that required three New York-based teams—the Yankees, Mets and Jets—to win their games Monday, the 22nd anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the downing of a passenger jet in a field in Pennsylvania. After an outcry on social media from people offended by the promotion titled ‘Never Forget,’ DraftKings took it down and apologized. ‘We sincerely apologize for the featured parlay that was shared briefly in commemoration of 9/11,’ the company wrote. ‘We respect the significance of this day for our country and especially for the families of those who were directly affected.’”

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. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

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.