Democrats are growing increasingly anxious about the state of President Biden’s reelection campaign, concerned the president and his political team are ignoring warning signs and not taking action to correct course amid increasing indications that Biden is likely to face a tough race against former president Donald Trump.
The latest fuel for these worries landed with a thud this weekend when a series of polls showed Trump leading Biden in a potential head-to-head matchup nationally and in several swing states. This story is based on interviews with a dozen Biden aides and allies, many of who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“I am concerned,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “I was concerned before these numbers. I am concerned by the inexplicable credibility that Donald Trump seems to have despite all of the indictments, the lies, the incredible wrongdoing.”
New York Times-Siena College polls found Biden trailing Trump in five of the six most competitive battleground states: Trump led Biden by 10 percentage points in Nevada, six in Georgia, five in Arizona and Michigan and four in Pennsylvania. Biden led Trump by two in Wisconsin. In 2020, Biden defeated Trump in all six of those states, though generally by very narrow margins.
Of particular concern to Biden allies are indications that his support among Black voters, who were critical to his victory in 2020, may be softening.
“People fundamentally misunderstood what Black voters said in 2020,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “The depth of support was never there. The enthusiasm was never there for Biden. We were very pragmatic. We knew he was the best chance to beat Trump.”
Albright said many Black voters, especially younger ones, have been disillusioned by Biden’s policies, especially on student debt — his effort to forgive borrowers was overturned by the Supreme Court — and his fervent support of Israel. Albright predicted many Black voters would still end up supporting Biden, but he said the president runs the risk of having some sit out the 2024 election if his campaign does not ramp up engagement with voters.
The Biden campaign and its supporters sought to quickly tamp down the concerns, arguing that polls often paint a dire picture for incumbent presidents a year before the election and may not reflect voters’ behavior on Election Day. Most voters are not tuned into politics at this point in an election cycle, they said, and the environment will improve for Biden once he officially has a clear Republican opponent.
Biden campaign officials expect that opponent to be Trump, who has a long list of political vulnerabilities, including his role as a defendant in several criminal trials.
“Predictions more than a year out tend to look a little different a year later,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said in a statement, noting that polls forecast a loss for President Barack Obama in 2012 and for congressional Democrats in 2022, only to see them perform well a year later.
“President Biden’s campaign is hard at work reaching and mobilizing our diverse, winning coalition of voters one year out on the choice between our winning, popular agenda and MAGA Republicans’ unpopular extremism,” Munoz said. “We’ll win in 2024 by putting our heads down and doing the work, not by fretting about a poll.”
The campaign also pointed to its current $25 million advertising buy, including efforts targeting Black and Latino voters, and cited its organizing pilot programs launched last month in Arizona and Wisconsin. Those programs include about two dozen staffers on the ground in both states with a focus on digital and in-person outreach.
Inside the campaign, the aides closest to Biden largely dismissed the polls over the weekend and did not signal any serious concern about their strategy. But some Democratic strategists have long worried that Biden’s core political team, which includes a coterie of long-serving aides, is not fully transparent or open to outside advice, a criticism Biden officials rejected Monday.
Democrats not directly involved in the reelection campaign questioned whether Biden’s strategy of emphasizing the economy and “Bidenomics” agenda has been effective, and whether it is time for a shift in messaging and tactics. The president should be campaigning more actively, they say, taking on Trump and the other Republicans with vigor and emphasizing social issues such as abortion rights where Democrats enjoy a big advantage.
Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the Biden team still has considerable work to do, particularly with younger people and Black and Latino voters. “Once it’s Trump and Biden next year, a big chunk of that will come back. We need all of it to come back,” Rosenberg said. “There’s a distance between Biden and younger voters that we’re going to have to overcome. This is a weakness that we’re going to have to address. I think it is doable.”
For now, Biden campaign operatives say, they are gathering information, testing ways of reaching voters and attempting to measure what sticks and what doesn’t.
Democrats have long expected a competitive general election against Trump as the likely Republican nominee, and a recent memo from Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, emphasized that the election would be close. She argued that Biden was well-positioned to win, however, because of the consistency and popularity of his message; the extreme positions of any possible Republican nominee; and Democrats’ unity behind his candidacy.
Blumenthal said that while he thinks Biden will be reelected, his campaign needs to “more impactfully and dramatically” sell the president’s record.
“A campaign strategy isn’t always obvious or evident a year from the election,” he added. “A lot will happen over the next three and six months that will help shape the election. I can guarantee that we will look back on this conversation and say ‘Wow, we never anticipated that’ and you can fill in the blank. At the end of the day, Joe Biden knows how to lead. Donald Trump does not.”
Some Biden allies argue that because the latest polls were conducted in the midst of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, the results paint a picture that is likely to change. Biden has supported Israel’s incursion, but many young, Black and liberal Democrats passionately oppose it.
Others contend that much of Biden’s vulnerability relates to his age, 80, and his sometimes-frail appearance, which could be harder to address. Trump, at 77, is only three years younger than Biden, but polls regularly show his age to be less of a liability.
In the New York Times-Siena College polls, 22 percent of Black voters in key swing states supported Trump, who won just 8 percent of Black voters nationally in 2020. Young voters, an important factor in Biden’s 2020 win, favored Biden only slightly, with the president winning voters under 30 by one percentage point.
The result is a new level of anxiety among Democrats. “The chatter level is at an intensity I have not seen it before,” said one Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid picture. “There are concerns among people in the consulting world that the campaign is not being run the way it’s supposed to be run.”
Some political veterans have previously derided such fears as “bed-wetting,” saying Democrats are quick to panic at the slightest provocation. But the closeness of the potential Biden-Trump race is seen by some with genuine alarm, especially given that Biden’s likely opponent faces an array of criminal charges, sought to overturn the last election and has vowed revenge against his political opponents if he wins again.
“We should bed wet a little,” one strategist said. “We should be scared. We should be terrified about what might happen.”
The recent polls emerged shortly after many Democratic luminaries, including Obama, gathered in Chicago last weekend to celebrate 15 years since he was elected. Attendees said there was a pervasive sense of concern about Biden’s standing.
But others came quickly to the Biden campaign’s defense. “There is just no evidence that any of these polls this far out are right,” said Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
“Once this is a binary choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, then these numbers will change and they will change quickly — we know this from every campaign,” Messina said. “It’s what happens because we are a very partisan country and everyone wants someone else, including probably my wife, but in the end she’s not going to get something else.”
Biden allies also said that a year out from the election is traditionally a low point for incumbents seeking reelection. In 2012, Obama was struggling and did not settle on the strategy that eventually helped him win a second term until late in 2011. But Obama was facing a likely opponent in Mitt Romney who was far less-known that Trump is now, suggesting Biden has less room to change the current dynamic.
Rosenberg said the latest round of presidential polls conflicts with the results of special elections around the country this year, where Democrats have had a string of successes. Political advisers to the president noted that a year ago, polls were suggesting a red wave would give Republicans a major victory in the midterm elections. Instead, Democrats performed much better than the polls predicted.
Biden’s political advisers say that is already happening.
“Obviously with young people and with our core communities of color, we know there is a lot of work to be done,” one adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive matters. “We have to be sure we are reaching these voters. … That’s why we started so early.”
But some activists warned that the campaign needs to ramp up those efforts.
“Some of this is going to change as we get closer to the election,” Albright said. “But some of it is more fundamental, and if they don’t start to do things differently, than it will become a bigger issue.”