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Three Numbers, Six Months, and One Slog of a Campaign
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Three Numbers, Six Months, and One Slog of a Campaign

Before thinking about the election, let’s think about the electorate.

Voters casts their votes at a polling station in Nashville, Tennessee, on Super Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

We are six months and one day from Election Day, and the state of the race is … a muddle.

The incumbent president and his principal challenger are tied nationally. In the swing states, the challenger has had a small, persistent advantage, but nothing to suggest that this race is anything but a dead heat. 

Same story for control of the House of Representatives, where the two major parties are grinding it out in pursuit of what looks like another very narrow majority. The Senate isn’t much different. Republicans have an advantageous map that puts Democrats on the defensive in more places, but it would be a surprise to no one if the GOP squandered yet another opportunity. 

Weak candidates, weaker parties, and a national debate substantially devoted to which side would most surely hasten American decline. Ugh. But what did you expect in an evenly divided nation with the first presidential rematch since the year Elvis had his first hit record?

We will spend most of our time in the next 26 weeks looking at and analyzing what the campaigns are doing to try to win, and the issues beyond their control shape public perceptions. But before we go over Niagara, it may be helpful to you to first think about the condition of the electorate rather than the election.

Working to our advantage in that task is the fact that this contest is a rerun. 

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are both worse off in the eyes of voters than they were four years ago. Biden’s age and infirmity, as well as his leftward lurch in the opening phase of his presidency, have left him a far less appealing and unifying candidate. Trump carries the stain of January 6, and his subsequent descent into ever darker and more ominous rhetoric makes him a uniquely unsuitable choice as a challenger seeking a “change” election. 

But they are fixed in the public imagination. Neither candidate can be redefined, either by themselves or by their opponent. Voters know what they’re in for. So where are the voters, exactly? Ten percent of voters tell pollsters they’re still undecided, but that’s not because they’re not sure about the candidates—just which one they will regret voting for the least. 

With that in mind, here are three numbers to help us understand the differences in the electorate between 2020 and 2024.

1) Satisfaction 

Gallup routinely asks voters the following question: “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?”

At this point in the 2020 cycle, 32 percent said they were satisfied and 66 percent said they were dissatisfied. Today, it’s 23 percent satisfied, 74 percent dissatisfied. 

That’s bad news for the incumbent. Even when change is going back to a previous option, that degree of dissatisfaction is a powerful sign that the status quo is in trouble. The good news for Biden is that there’s plenty of time for that number to change. The bad news is that it could change for the worse. 

That number dropped 11 points between late spring and Election Day 2020 as the nation was gripped by violent protests and a deepening atmosphere of unrest—and Trump flailed in his response to both that and COVID. When we consider why Democrats are so rightfully anxious about what may go down in Chicago around their convention this summer, the satisfaction number looms large.

2) Partisanship 

Don’t let them fool you with talk about “unskewing the polls.” The partisan leanings of the electorate are not fixed figures. They not only change over time as new voters come into the mix, but also ebb and flow with the attitudes of existing voters. In the span of the same cycle, a voter might feel a stronger or weaker affiliation to their generally preferred party. Genuine party switching is vanishingly rare, but many voters will drift from independent to weak partisan to, sometimes, strong affiliation. 

How voters see themselves is a reflection of the parties’ brand value and can point to how wavering voters may ultimately decide. Gallup again provides us with the best, most consistent measurement on this question

At the beginning of May 2020, 28 percent saw themselves as Republicans, 31 percent as Democrats, and 37 percent identified as independents. The most recent numbers for this year show 30 percent Republican, 28 percent Democratic, and 41 percent independent.

The difference between a 3-point edge for Democrats then and a 2-point edge for Republicans now speaks volumes about the relative condition of each party’s respective coalition. Much of that can be explained by the advantage of being the party out of power. It’s easier to keep your coalition together when you don’t have to govern and, inevitably, disappoint your own people. Those self-described independents who previously would have called themselves Democrats—both frustrated progressives and fed-up moderates —are the voters the Biden campaign thinks about day and night. 

What Democrats hope is that history repeats itself and the party in power comes back together as the election draws nearer. Republicans came home in 2020 and drew basically  even with Democrats by November, 30 percent to 31 percent. We will be watching to see if Biden can bring his coalition back as Democrats get real about the possibility of a Trump return to power.

3) Enthusiasm 

We know Republicans have the edge on voter enthusiasm compared to Democrats, but that’s about how excited partisans are to pull the lever for their candidate. But in this rematch, we may care less about which party likes its candidate and more about which party dislikes the other side more. And we know that Democrats are far more afraid of Trump than Republicans are of Biden. Fear may be the better motivator in a slugfest like this.

What we will be tracking is not affection for a candidate but enthusiasm to vote for whatever reason. So again, we turn to Gallup. The best indicator at this point in the campaign for what turnout will eventually be is the net enthusiasm in the whole electorate about voting. 

At this point in 2020, 56 percent of respondents said they were “more enthusiastic than usual” about voting, with only 28 percent saying they were less so. This time, it’s a very different picture: 54 percent say they’re more enthusiastic than usual—about the same— but a whopping 41 percent say they’re not feeling it, 13 points up from four years ago.

This is strong evidence that turnout this fall will be down substantially from 2020. But which party will suffer more? Republican enthusiasm is down 18 points overall, compared to a 9-point decline for Democrats, but the GOP was starting from a much higher baseline.  A 20-point advantage for Republicans back then has been cut almost in half to 11 points, which is still plenty in a tight race.

If we are heading for a lower turnout election—perhaps one on par with the recent past—that’s probably good news for Republicans. In a smaller pool of voters overall, even a smaller advantage on enthusiasm could be worth a win.


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: 40.4%
Average disapproval: 56.8%
Net score: -16.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.2 points

Change from one month ago: ↑ 0.4 points

[Average includes: CNN: 41% approve-59% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 35% approve-61% disapprove; Monmouth 42% approve-55% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 42% approve-53% disapprove; NBC News: 42% approve-56% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: WHEN BUSHWACKER MET THE DRAGONSLAYER 

Washington Post: “J.B. Mauney, 37, was the first man to get legit rich at bull riding. ‘The Dragonslayer,’ they called him, as he set the record for career prize money with more than $7.4 million and tied for most event victories on the Professional Bull Riders circuit with 32. But his real legacy, what made him the most popular draw in fringed chaps, was that he always chose the fiercest bull to ride, costing himself who knows how much more in money and titles. … The consensus greatest bull of all time is named Bushwacker. A mahogany-colored beast, he could kick his hind legs so dynamically that his [hooves] reached 10 or 12 feet in the air. … For five years, Bushwacker was all but unrideable. He owned the longest streak of consecutive buck-offs in PBR history, with 42, until one summer night in Tulsa in 2013 when Mauney caught a ride on him that a friend … likened to ‘bodysurfing a tornado.’ Mauney scored 95.25 points out of a possible 100. Bushwacker would not be ridden again, by anyone.”


LIBERTARIANS TO HOST TRUMP

Associated Press: “Former President Donald Trump will speak at the Libertarian National Convention in Washington, D.C. later this month. … ‘If Libertarians join me and the Republican Party, where we have many Libertarian views, the election won’t even be close,’ [Trump said in a statement]. … The event comes as Trump’s campaign has ramped up its attacks against Kennedy, who is running as an independent. … Kennedy has talked up his support for the Libertarian Party, telling CNN in January that he had a ‘really good relationship’ with the party. A Kennedy alliance with the Libertarian Party could expedite his effort to gain ballot access in all 50 states. … While Trump has insisted publicly that he believes Kennedy’s candidacy hurts him less than it does Biden, he has been lacing into him in interviews and on his social media platform.

Trump tries to stage-manage a platform: Semafor: “The 2024 Republican National Convention is being planned to mark Donald Trump’s full takeover of the Republican Party, setting the stage for behind-the-scenes debates in the coming months over what policies and politics will define Trumpism. … The most important signal of the party’s future will likely come in the form of a new GOP platform. That will be the first since 2016 … On issues like Ukraine, where Trump has been somewhat ambiguous and recently rejected prominent supporters’ calls to oppose the latest aid package, finding a consensus could be difficult. Then there are more traditional policy topics that were sensitive before Trump arrived and are still being debated within his movement: Abortion, where Trump has downplayed a national ban, trade, where he’s called for a global 10% tariff, and entitlements, an issue where he’s sometimes struggled to articulate a position and faces allies calling for cuts to benefits or other changes.”

A veepstakes straight out of central casting: USA Today: “Former President Donald Trump will spend part of his weekend hosting the latest episode of ‘The Apprentice,’ but this time it’s the vice presidential edition. At least six contenders for the former president’s running mate – Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum – will attend a Republican donor retreat Friday and [today] in Palm Beach, Florida, in what looks like a series of auditions.”

DeSantis, Trump make amends: Politico: “Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump seem ready to put their feud from the Republican presidential primary aside — for real this time. The two Florida Republicans met in Miami Sunday morning to talk about how they could work together during the general election. … The get-together was arranged by Florida real-estate broker Steve Witkoff. … DeSantis told his most loyal donors during a retreat in Hollywood this month that he would be fundraising for Trump’s campaign. … Making amends also could help to elevate DeSantis’ profile, including the role he’ll play in the 2024 general election and the GOP convention in Milwaukee. … DeSantis previously said he didn’t expect to campaign with Trump in Florida because the Republican-leaning state isn’t competitive — and the Trump campaign fired back that he wasn’t wanted.” 

BIDEN HOPES WEED WILL LIFT YOUNG VOTERS  

Wall Street Journal: “President Biden’s push to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug is the latest in a series of administrative policy moves that anxious Democrats hope will bolster his re-election standing with young voters. … The move to loosen pot rules follows efforts by Biden to forgive billions in student-loan debt and efforts to toughen climate rules. … Polling shows that support for legalizing marijuana, while strong among Americans overall, is particularly high among young adults. A Gallup survey in October found that 70% of Americans think marijuana use should be legal, a record high in the group’s surveys dating to 1969. Support was especially strong among adults under age 35, with 79% supporting legalized marijuana use.”

Rolls out new abortion ad aimed at Latino men: Reuters:  “Joe Biden will ramp up spending this month as part of a new advertising push aimed partly at convincing Latino men that abortion rights are a vital issue that affects them, the U.S. president’s 2024 campaign said on Friday. A television, radio and digital advertisement airing in both English and Spanish in competitive ‘battleground’ states features Cesar Carreon, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who now works as a Las Vegas carpenter, mentioning his daughters and attacking Trump as ‘not tough’ for taking away women’s ‘freedom.’ The campaign will spend more than $1 million in Hispanic media for May alone with more to come in the months ahead, it said.”

Harris kicks off national tour to bolster black support: New York Times: “Vice President Kamala Harris made a new effort to energize Black voters in battleground states on Monday, visiting Atlanta for the kickoff of a national economic tour that will highlight how the Biden administration says its policies are helping a constituency that will be vital to Democrats’ success in November. … The vice president’s Atlanta visit, her 12th trip to Georgia since taking office, was the first stop in a tour of several battleground states in the coming weeks. Much of the tour will focus on Black small businesses and economic issues. … Ms. Harris’s tour will also seek to engage Black men, whom Democrats are urgently courting as polls show them softening in their support for Mr. Biden.” 

Maine Dems threaten tit-for-tat if Nebraska GOP reallocates delegates: ABC News: “Democratic leaders in Maine are threatening to eliminate the state’s split-vote system for allocating Electoral College delegates if Nebraska Republicans move forward with their plan to do the same. … The two states are the only ones in the country to allocate some delegates proportionally by congressional district. … But in early April, Trump, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen and other prominent Republicans endorsed a legislative measure that would change Nebraska’s allocation of Electoral College votes to a Trump-favorable, winner-take-all system. … Now, Democratic leaders in Maine are indicating they’d make a similar change — effectively negating any advantage Trump would gain under the proposed reform in Nebraska.”

MCCONNELL ZEROES IN ON FOUR CRUCIAL SENATE RACES

Politico: “[Senate Minority Leader Mitch Mcconnell] leader is clearly wary of his party overextending itself despite the advantageous conditions after the twin debacles of 2020 and 2022. … So even though Republicans have room to compete in eight states, McConnell said in an interview that he’s primarily focused on four for now. … ‘You take polls around Labor Day and begin to decide where you’re going to play,’ McConnell said. ‘But we know where we’re going to play for sure right now: Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland.’ … A striking trend is emerging as an obstacle to those ends: Democratic incumbents are generally running well ahead of Biden’s sagging numbers. … Still, Tester and Brown will clearly have tough races in red states that Trump is likely to carry in the presidential election.”

Dem desires for diversity, cash at odds in Maryland: Politico: “Nearly every major Democrat in Maryland is lining up behind Angela Alsobrooks’ attempt to make history, calling on voters to help the Prince George’s County executive become the state’s first senator of color. Rep. David Trone, her primary opponent, has a very different pitch to voters — and to his own party: He’s rich, and he’s willing to spend his fortune. … With the contest two weeks away, Trone is explicitly making his bank account a selling point, testing whether it’s more important for Democrats to diversify the overwhelmingly white and male Senate — or to have the resources to save their deeply endangered incumbents. … Democratic operatives expect to beat Hogan, but they concede they’ll need to play some defense — and it’ll take resources to remind voters in the pricey Washington media market that their former governor who nourished a bipartisan reputation is really a Republican.” 

BRIEFLY

A big Democratic overperformance in Buffalo-area special election—New York Times

Hochul moderates as New York Dems vie for battleground seats—Politico

5th Circuit rejects Louisiana plan to add majority-black district—Louisiana Illuminator


WITHIN EARSHOT: THINKING HAPPY THOUGHTS

“I’ve never considered that if I die that I’m somehow going to toss the majority.”—Florida GOP Rep. Cory Mills ponders costing the GOP its thin majority ahead of a Republican trip to parachute from World War II-era planes on D-Day’s 80th anniversary.  


MAILBAG

“Felt compelled to throw an attaboy your way. Just finished watching your Sunday show on NewsNation …  It should be noted that I used to get my Sunday Dispatch talking-head fix when [Steve Hayes] made the occasional, but always welcome appearance on Meet the Press. But when Chuck Todd departed, I found myself open to new Sunday punditry. And then your show appeared—it’s good stuff! Love it when David Drucker makes an appearance, but of course you anchor the show so well with your unique wit and wisdom. Related—as a Steelers fan, I also chuckled at your quip … about ‘General Chaos’ being picked up in the draft. Sadly, I do not have Pittsburgh roots, so I’m not as familiar with the local fan draw. But could it be that you grew up in the part of West Virginia that is close enough to Pittsburgh that the Steelers were your home team?”—Paul Kirchhoff, Amherst, Massachusetts

Mr. Kirchhoff,

I hesitated to include your kind words for fear of excessive self-service, but I guess if I’m going to include critics, I should also include praise. Thank you for watching. I’m still trying to figure myself out as a broadcaster, but I have a great and patient team, and bosses who are committed to letting our show be something different than most.

And as for football, yes, northern West Virginia is indeed Steelers’ country, and very much so in my hometown of Wheeling and the rest of the Northern Panhandle. But there are, of course, divisions. Some in the Eastern Panhandle are fans of the Washington, D.C.-area football club, whatever it calls itself these days, but the main divide for most things in West Virginia is north/south.

The principal dividing lines for West Virginia roughly follow the old pre-Eisenhower highways that run across the state, U.S. 50 and U.S. 60. In the northern tier, which also includes Parkersburg, Morgantown, Fairmont, and Clarksburg. Pittsburgh plays a significant role: an airport, cultural activities, and, of course, sports teams. 

In the southern tier, “South of 60,” you have the capital, Charleston, as well as Huntington, and the hamlets of the coal fields. Down there, you’re more likely to find Bengals fans than any other denomination. The same goes for the Reds when it comes to baseball. But the connection is weaker than in the north to Pittsburgh. Cincinnati is farther away and the Charleston-Huntington metro area is big and isolated enough to be a hub. You’re far more likely to find high school sports fanatics down there than hardcore pro enthusiasts.    

In between the highways is, well, not much. This is one of the most scenically beautiful parts of the Eastern United States. In the eastern portion are the stunning mountains and the national parks and forests, rolling west into the gentle hills that approach the Ohio River. If you’ve never made the trip, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a lot better than football.

Thanks and all best,

c


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 perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: WOOF

House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries at the  Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2024. (Photo by Saul Loeb/ AFP/Getty Images)
House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2024. (Photo by Saul Loeb/ AFP/Getty Images)

It can be dicey to try to get a topical joke into a visual gag. Many Cutline Contest entrants have gone astray by such shoehorning. But sometimes, when a story is ubiquitous and weird enough and the picture, like this one of House Speaker Mike Johnson and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, is on the money, it pays off: 

“Speaker Johnson and Leader Jeffries, seen here after being invited to the Noem ranch to ‘celebrate the new litter’”—Daniel Summers, Knoxville, Tennessee

Winner, Netflix and Cloture Division:

“Streaming now: Regular Order, a new comedy-drama about two politicians who are complete opposites who must put aside their differences and join forces to outflank the noisiest fringes in each of their parties to do the right thing.”—Lisa Klepper, Waxahachie, Texas

Winner, Backseat Division:

“If you touch me one more time, I’m telling Mom you stole an extra pudding at lunch today.”—Steve Wilson, Batavia, Ohio

Winner, Sad Trombone Division:

“I thought YOU were bringing the hot dogs and I was bringing the buns.”—Bob Bell, Roseville, California

Winner, None of the Above Division:

“Um … I’ll go with Door No. 3, Monty!”—Tripp Whitbeck, Arlington, Virginia


AN ARTIST UNAPPRECIATED IN HIS OWN TIME 

CBS Sports: “A New York Mets fan was removed from his seat at Citi Field during Tuesday’s $1 hot dog night after a bizarre scene where surrounding fans began throwing extra hot dogs at him in the ninth inning. The fan, a welder from Westchester County, had to be moved from his seat by security in order to get the other fans to stop showering him with spare hot dogs. … The fan in question had apparently gone all out for the night, wearing a hot dog hat and a handwritten shirt that read ‘Bad day to be a Glizzy’ and featured a running tab of hot dogs to beers consumed. The fan reveled in the hot dogs thrown his way, standing up and waving to the others to keep throwing hot dogs his way, before he was escorted from his seat to restore order. … A good time was seemingly had by all, and the product on the field certainly helped: The Mets won 4-2 over the Chicago Cubs.”

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.