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This week once again taught an important lesson to anyone who would listen: There are two kinds of polls.
There are the polls sponsored by media outlets and universities that come with margins of error, crosstabs, and deep debates over methodology. These are the ones that dominate the talking head panels on cable news (and Democratic doom scrolling).
Then there are the polls where voters actually cast ballots and elect representatives or pass ballot measures.
Guess which one counts a heckuva lot more.
In the first kind of polls, particularly a recent one by The New York Times that showed President Biden trailing Trump in key battleground states, the Democrats and their incumbent party leader are in a world of hurt.
The second kind of polls, the ones to which the voters traipse on Election Day (or vote absentee), have tended to paint a different picture. Starting with the midterms in 2022, through a slew of special elections, and now with votes in multiple states last night, the Democrats are outperforming expectations (at least the ones set from the first kinds of polls).
That’s election after election of actual data.
What’s going on?
It’s hard to tell exactly. It’s not like opinion polls showing very low approval ratings for President Biden and ominous signs for Democrats generally are outliers. Poll after poll shows these things. As do focus groups with voters. There seems to be a lot of dissatisfaction about how things are going in the country. There is angst over high prices, discontent about a broken system at the border, fretting over crime and world affairs. As for Biden, people say they are concerned about his age and his ability to handle everything else that worries them.
The president’s supporters are a bit apoplectic. They argue, with considerable justification from the actual data, that the United States economy is brimming with success, especially when compared to other parts of the world. Millions of new jobs have been created. There have been huge wins for labor, and economic growth has been robust. As for other Biden accomplishments, his backers note that he passed the largest climate bill in American history, and it is already paying dividends; he has appointed an inspiring and diverse set of new federal judges; and he has rebuilt America’s standing on the world stage and rallied allies around crises in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
All of that may be true, but even successful presidencies come with caveats and complexities. Making policy is about making choices and compromises. You are bound to disappoint or alienate someone. And often, setting a nation up for long-term success, as President Biden argues he is doing, does not translate to visible wins in the short term.
Indications abound that, fair or not, there is unease and perhaps widespread dissatisfaction in the electorate. And that usually bodes poorly for the party that holds the presidency.
It’s a pretty tidy narrative with a lot of historical precedent. It is also a narrative that has crashed into a wall of reality when it comes to actual voters.
Remember all the talk about the “red wave” going into the 2022 midterm elections? We all saw that the only wave that happened was waving goodbye to the heady expectations of Republicans. And then last night. After days of doom and gloom for Democrats fretting over scary poll numbers, more banner election outcomes in numerous states.
One of the big successes came in Ohio, where voters in what has become a solidly red state overwhelmingly enshrined a right to abortion in the state constitution (they also legalized marijuana while they were at it). Abortion was a major part of Kentucky Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s successful reelection campaign, too. Democrats in race after race highlighted the issue. And it proved to be a big winner.
The momentum that abortion has provided in shaping the American electorate doesn’t seem to have dissipated in the nearly 18 months since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. And it now appears this may continue into the 2024 election. And as long as this is the case, it will be a strong wind at the back of Democratic candidates.
There are still a lot of notes for caution or even concern for President Biden and his party heading into 2024. World events are unstable, and what is taking place in the Middle East is especially straining the Democrats’ coalition. Some election analysts also contend that there are some voters who come out only when Trump is on the ballot. And certainly Democrats remember the lessons of what happened in 2016. And finally, the issue that started this column — President Biden is not especially popular (whether or not that is fair).
There are also a lot of unknowns between now and Election Day 2024, which is just under a year away. One big factor is what is going to happen to President Biden’s likely opponent, the most famous criminal defendant in America. Will he be a convicted felon come November? And will that matter?
There is no place for complacency for Democrats. But any Democrats who are worrying about all the troubling poll numbers should also take some solace in the message coming from the only polls that really matter.
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