By Charles M. Blow
I know all the warnings and caveats about polls taken a year before an election. But much of the recent polling on the 2024 election is still frightening and disconcerting.
We shouldn’t be here. We have a president who, on the whole, has had a successful first term and has capably performed the principal function for which he was elected: to return the country to normalcy and prevent more damage being done to it by his predecessor.
That president, Joe Biden, will almost certainly be running again against Donald Trump, a former president facing a mound of legal troubles born of his own deceptions and anti-democratic impulses.
So the choice next year should be clear, but the electorate keeps telling anyone listening that it’s not. The results of a New York Times/Siena College poll released this month showed Biden trailing Trump in five of six important battleground states. A recent NBC News national poll found that Trump was narrowly ahead of Biden. Pretty clearly, voters aren’t satisfied with their choices, but they’re also not rewarding Biden or punishing Trump in the ways that one might expect.
Rather, multiple things appear to be at play at the same time.
Some voters exalt in a revisionist history in which destroyers are viewed as disrupters, in which our own past anxieties are downplayed.
In the view of many of these voters, even with his evident faults, Trump “isn’t so bad,” and what he did in office is increasingly remembered as positive, including shaking up the Washington establishment and the political status quo. For those losing faith in government in general, this may be attractive — the nightmarish Trump days somehow converted into halcyon ones.
In that same scenario, some seem to be experiencing a false sense of invincibility, the kind that you might experience after surviving a car wreck, in which you come to see your escape from the worst as proof that the danger was less potent than it once seemed and that you’re more resilient than you might have thought.
But the threat Trump poses hasn’t diminished. It has increased. He’s more open about his plans to alter the country and our form of government if he is returned to the White House. And yet, some Americans simply aren’t registering that threat as having the potential to harm in the way that it obviously can.
It seems, in their minds, that if the country survived one Trump term, it can survive another. And that all the Chicken Littles claiming that the sky is falling, or could fall, are addicted to worry and prone to hyperbole.
There are also people who’ve bought into the narrative that Biden is too old for a second term. And while I think the age issue is overblown, it clearly has settled in among many voters and will be very hard to shake.
And then there are those who just don’t feel the positive effects of the Biden presidency, whether it’s on the economy or on foreign policy. This isn’t because the administration hasn’t had successes but because individual citizens sometimes don’t recognize the source of those successes or experience them in ways that they can immediately feel.
This has been, among other things, a massive failure of messaging. It’s not enough to inundate voters by repeating, over and over, lists of bills passed, steps taken and amounts allocated or spent. Campaigning by spreadsheet is mind-numbing. How do people feel? What do they feel? That has to be the basis of any successful electoral appeal.
But the Biden team hasn’t taken that tack. Instead, it engages in disastrous branding like “Bidenomics,” trying and failing to convince people that they should feel better than they do because some of the top-line economic indicators are positive, even when the bottom line, for many households — the cost of groceries, how far a paycheck stretches, whether buying a house is possible — is still precarious, and efforts to numb that feeling with numbers can come off as callous and aloof.
In presidential races, the successful candidates are generally those aligned with the electorate at that moment. That was Biden in 2020, but it is not at all clear that it will be him in 2024 — not so much because he has changed, but because the appetite of many voters has.
Yes, a year is an eternity in politics, and Biden has time to turn things around and adjust his messaging. But it’s still something of an outrage that we’re even in a position where we have to gamble on Biden’s ability to pull himself up and out of a significant hole. It is certainly an outrage that the survival of our democracy may depend on it.
It doesn’t matter if I or anyone else believes that Biden deserves a second term — Americans keep signaling that they aren’t sold on one. And at some point, we all have to listen more than we lecture. We have to understand that Biden’s insistence on seeking a second term — rather than making way for someone from the next generation of Democratic leaders — comes at high risk and that what’s at stake is greater than the aspirations of any individual candidate.
At the moment, the electorate is drifting away from its safest option. It is courting the country’s demise. Maybe something or someone will be able to jolt voters out of this self-destructive impulse. We have to hope so. The price of that not happening is far too steep.