The Map, the Issues and the Incumbency Favoring Democrats

Nearly seven in 10 Americans believe their country is on a “wrong track.” The incumbent president will be 81 on Election Day 2024. More than half of the voters in his own party don’t want him to run for re-election.

Yet as President Biden embarks on his campaign for a second term, Democratic officials firmly believe he is beginning his bid on Tuesday from ground that is far more solid than his personal standing indicates. Democratic unity has stifled even the hint of an intraparty insurgency. The issues dominating the nation’s politics have largely worked in the Democrats’ favor. And a battleground that has narrowed to only a handful of states means, at least for now, that the 2024 campaign will be waged on favorable Democratic terrain.

“I’m always going to be worried because we’re a very divided country, and presidential races are going to be close, no matter who is in it,” said Anne Caprara, who helped lead Hillary Clinton’s super PAC in 2016 and is now chief of staff to Illinois’s Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker. “But for the first time in my career, I think Republicans have painted themselves into a terrible position. They’re losing and they can’t seem to see that.”

Without doubt, Mr. Biden’s personal liabilities are tugging at the Democrats’ well-worn worry strings. Despite low unemployment, a remarkably resilient economy and an enviable record of legislative accomplishments in his first two years, the octogenarian president has never quite won over the nation, or even voters in his party. A new NBC News poll has Mr. Biden losing to a generic Republican presidential candidate, 47 percent to 41 percent.

“President Biden is in remarkably weak shape for an incumbent running for re-election,” said Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster who co-directs the NBC News poll.

Republicans plan to play on those uncertainties, harping on Mr. Biden’s age and frailty and painting him as the weakest incumbent president to run for re-election since Jimmy Carter tried 44 years ago. The campaign of former President Donald J. Trump is already looking past the coming Republican nomination fight to contrast what it sees as the strength of personality of an aggressive challenger against a vulnerable incumbent.

“This is a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, adding, “If they think that is their greatest strength, they are going to have a long, miserable year.”

But the political fundamentals look significantly better than Mr. Biden’s personal approval.

By avoiding a serious primary challenge, Mr. Biden will not be spending the next year fighting with members of his own party on difficult issues like immigration, crime, gender and abortion in ways that might turn off swing voters. Instead, he can bide his time attending ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings for roads and bridges, semiconductor plants, electric vehicle manufacturers and solar energy projects that stem from his three biggest legislative achievements — the infrastructure bill, the “chips and science” law and the Inflation Reduction Act, with its huge tax incentives for clean energy.

The mere presence of Mr. Trump in the Republican primary race is helping the Democrats make the 2024 campaign a choice between the two parties, not a referendum on the incumbent, a far more difficult challenge for the party in power, said Jim Messina, who managed the last successful presidential re-election campaign, Barack Obama’s in 2012. Early polls, both in key states like Wisconsin and nationally, have Mr. Biden holding onto a slim lead over Mr. Trump, but even with or behind Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

The Republicans’ narrow control of the House has also given Mr. Biden a foil in the months before a Republican presidential nominee emerges, just as the Republican Congress helped Mr. Obama.

And then there is the map.

The 2022 midterms should have been a disaster for a president with low approval ratings. Instead, in two critical states — Pennsylvania and Michigan — the Democratic Party greatly strengthened its hand and its electoral infrastructure, with victories in the governors’ races in both states, the Pennsylvania House flipping to the Democrats and the Michigan Legislature falling to complete Democratic control for the first time in nearly 40 years.

At the outset of the 2024 campaign, two-thirds of the Upper Midwestern “Blue Wall” that Mr. Trump shattered in 2016 and Mr. Biden rebuilt in 2020 appear to favor the Democrats.

As partisanship intensifies in Democratic and Republican states, battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio and Iowa have moved firmly toward Republicans, but other battlegrounds like Colorado, Virginia and New Hampshire look reliably Democratic.

That has elevated just a handful of states as potentially decisive next year: Wisconsin, the third brick in the “Blue Wall”; Georgia, once reliably Republican; Arizona; and Pennsylvania, especially if the political winds shift in the Republicans’ favor. If Mr. Biden can lock down Pennsylvania, he would need to win only one of the other big battlegrounds — Wisconsin, Georgia or Arizona — to get the necessary Electoral College votes in 2024. Even if he lost Nevada, he would still win as long as he secures New Hampshire and doesn’t split the Electoral College votes of Maine.

Wisconsin had a split decision in 2022, with the Democratic governor, Tony Evers, winning re-election while the Republican senator, Ron Johnson, also prevailed. But this month, an expensive, hard-fought State Supreme Court race in Wisconsin went to the Democratic-backed candidate by 11 percentage points, a remarkable margin.

Democrats won the governorship in Arizona in 2022. And while they lost the governor’s race decisively in Georgia, they eked out the Senate contest between the incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and the Republican, Herschel Walker.

Those recent electoral successes point to the other major factor that appears to be playing in the Democrats’ favor: the issues. The erosion of abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has continued to dominate electoral outcomes in key states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. And abortion is not fading, in large part because the socially conservative core of the Republican electorate keeps driving red states and conservative judges forward on abortion restrictions.

The tragic drumbeat of mass shootings has kept gun control high on the political agenda as well, an issue that Democrats believe will help them with suburban voters in key swing states and will trap Republicans between a base of voters who want no compromise on gun rights and a broader electorate that increasingly favors restrictions.

Republicans have issues that could favor them, too. Crime helped deliver House seats in New York and California, which secured the narrow House majority for the G.O.P. And transgender politics might help Republicans with some swing voters. A poll for National Public Radio last summer found that 63 percent of Americans opposed allowing transgender women and girls to compete on teams that align with their gender identity, while broader support for L.G.B.T. rights has only gained ground.

But a hotly contested primary is likely to drag the eventual nominee to the right, even on issues that could otherwise favor his party. Mr. DeSantis, widely seen as Mr. Trump’s most serious challenger, signed a ban on abortion in his state after six weeks, a threshold before many women know they are pregnant.

And at some point, Republicans’ drive against transgender people and their fixation on social issues may appear to be bullying — or simply far afield from real issues in the lives of swing voters, said Ms. Caprara, the chief of staff for the Illinois governor.

“There’s this toxic soup between abortion, guns, gay rights, library books, African American history,” she said. “It just comes across to people as, ‘Who are these people?’”

The biggest issue, however, may be the storm cloud on the horizon that may or may not burst — the economy. In 2020, Mr. Biden became one of the few presidential candidates in modern history to have triumphed over the candidate who was more trusted on the economy in polls.

Since then, the surge of job creation from the trough of the coronavirus pandemic has shattered monthly employment records, while unemployment rates — especially for workers of color — are at or near their lowest levels ever. Inflation, which peaked near 10 percent, is now at about 5 percent.

Yet Mr. Biden continues to get low marks on his economic stewardship, and those marks could deteriorate as the Federal Reserve continues to tamp down inflation with higher interest rates, warned Mr. Messina, the former Obama campaign manager. A new poll for CNBC found that 53 percent of Americans expect the economy will get worse, compared with 34 percent when Mr. Biden took office.

“Today, I’d rather be Joe Biden,” Mr. Messina said. “But I wish I knew where the economy is going to be, because that’s the one thing hanging out there that nobody can control.”

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