If Everyone Voted, Would Biden Benefit? Not Anymore.


In a reversal of one of the most familiar patterns in American politics, it appears that Donald Trump, not President Joe Biden, would stand to gain if everyone in the country turned out and voted.

In New York Times/Siena College polls over the last year, Biden holds a wide lead over Trump among regular primary and midterm voters, yet he trails among the rest of the electorate, giving Trump a lead among registered voters overall.

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The pattern is the latest example of how the Trump brand of conservative populism has transformed American politics. His candidacy galvanized liberals to defend democracy and abortion rights, giving Democrats the edge in low-turnout special and midterm elections. Yet at the same time, early polls suggest, many less engaged and infrequent voters have grown deeply dissatisfied with Biden.

The disengaged voters do not necessarily like Trump, the polling shows. But they’re motivated by pocketbook issues, more desiring of fundamental changes to the political system, and far less concerned about democracy as an issue in the election. Many low-turnout voters — notably including many who consider themselves Democrats — now say they’ll back Trump.

This unusual turnout dynamic is one of the central forces shaping the 2024 campaign. It helps explain why recent polls and election results seem so divergent, and why Trump has gained among young and nonwhite voters, who are less likely to vote than older white voters. It creates a challenge for the campaigns, who are finding that time-tested strategies for mobilizing irregular voters may not work quite the same way as they did in the past.

With five months to go until the election, there’s still time for less engaged voters to tune in and swing back toward Biden. Many infrequent voters aren’t yet tuned into the race, and their preferences appear highly volatile. If the polls are right, they’ve swung 20 percentage points since 2020, but some changed their answers when re-interviewed in the wake of Trump’s felony conviction in New York. Even if Trump holds his edge among the disengaged, it’s not clear many of these low-turnout voters will ultimately show up to vote.

But if they do vote, Trump would stand to gain — something unimaginable for a Republican as recently as a few years ago.

In the Obama era, Democrats’ electoral fortunes seemed to depend on drawing young and nonwhite voters to the polls. The party excelled when Barack Obama helped mobilize that turnout in the presidential years of 2008 and 2012, but was pummeled in the low-turnout 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.

Even today, the assumption that Democrats benefit from higher turnout remains deeply embedded in the American political consciousness, from the progressive dream to mobilize a new coalition of voters to new Republican laws to restrict voting.

The new turnout dynamic has already upset these familiar political goals. Suddenly, many voters whom Democrats took for granted are now considered “persuasion” targets, as if they were traditional swing voters.

Republicans, meanwhile, watched a widely expected “red wave” fail to materialize in the 2022 midterm elections, despite a wave of new voting laws enacted by Republican state legislatures. Last summer, Republicans in Ohio scheduled a referendum on an irregular date in hopes of sidestepping the public’s ability to vote for abortion rights, only to see the referendum lose by double digits.

The evidence for Democrats’ strength among high-frequency voters has regularly been on display on Tuesday nights, as they have cheered the results of special elections. While Trump has struggled to unify highly engaged Republican voters, Democrats have excelled in such elections, in an environment that might appear unfriendly: The electorate is disproportionately white, half of voters are seniors, and virtually no young people show up at all.

The signs of Democratic weakness among infrequent voters, who skip low-turnout special and primary elections, is harder to find. It is obvious in the polls — and not just in the Times/Siena polling — but there are hints of it everywhere, if you look carefully.

While Democrats beat expectations in the 2022 midterms, they fared worse than in special elections held in the same districts just a few months earlier. Similarly, Trump managed to beat expectations and nearly won in 2020 — in the highest-turnout election in a century — in no small part because of surprising strength among lower-turnout Hispanic voters. New voter registration trends have also been increasingly favorable to Republicans, even though new registrants are disproportionately young and nonwhite.

In Pennsylvania, where Democrats enacted automatic voter registration last year, new registrants have affiliated with Republicans over Democrats by 6 percentage points. Before automatic registration was enacted, Trump sent an all-caps message on social media decrying the law.

Demographics are not the explanation for Trump’s strength among infrequent voters. Although these voters are less likely to hold a college degree, they’re still disproportionately young and nonwhite. They would be expected to be Democratic-leaning if they had the same preferences as demographically similar voters who turn out more regularly in elections. Instead, infrequent voters of every demographic group seem less likely to support Biden in the early polls.

On paper, many of the disengaged voters behind Biden’s weakness look as if they should be loyal Democrats. Many are registered as Democrats and still identify as Democratic-leaning voters. They support abortion rights, back Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate and are from Democratic-leaning constituencies, like young, Black and Hispanic voters.

But their attitudes are more complicated. They are much more likely to say the economy is “poor” than Democratic primary voters, and they’re much likelier to disapprove of Biden’s job performance. They want fundamental changes to America, not merely a promised return to normalcy. Some even mistakenly hold Biden more responsible than Trump for the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — perhaps out of a sense that the president should have been able to do something about it. They get their news from social media, not MSNBC.

While the Biden campaign hopes to overcome low approval ratings by focusing on abortion rights and the threat to democracy, less engaged Democrats don’t necessarily share the alarm. Almost by definition, low-turnout Democrats were not as driven to vote to stop Trump in 2018, 2020 or 2022. Many of them didn’t vote, after all.

Virtually none of the low-turnout Democrats say “democracy” is the most important issue in the election, even as around 20% of regular Democratic primary voters say the same.

As the campaign goes on, one crucial question is whether these voters’ lack of concern over democracy and abortion is because they’re disengaged, or because they’re genuinely more concerned by nonideological issues, like the economy or Biden’s age.

If it’s because they’re disengaged, perhaps they’ll gradually shift toward Biden as they tune in and focus on the stakes of the election. If not, Biden faces a stiff challenge.

Whether they ultimately decide to express their dissatisfaction by turning out to vote for Trump is another question — one with the potential to decide the election.

c.2024 The New York Times Company



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