Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden is struggling. A new CNN poll shows that Biden is facing a number of serious issues beyond the usual low approval ratings and concerns about his age. Biden is even losing the enthusiasm of his own party, with an astounding 67% of Democratic voters saying that the party should nominate a different candidate.
And if Democrats don’t think the Hunter Biden story matters, the numbers suggest otherwise. As the special counsel gears up to indict the president’s son relating to gun charges, 61% of those polled believe that Joe Biden had some level of involvement in Hunter’s business dealings — and 42% think that he acted illegally (there has been no proof of wrongdoing by the president).
Only 28% of Americans say he inspires confidence (down 7% from March), and perhaps most concerning of all, 46% of all registered voters felt that any Republican nominee would be better than Biden in 2024.
While there are a few bright spots in the data — namely that 81% of Democrats believe that Biden cares about them and 75% within the party approve of his job performance — the findings are troubling. Although one poll should never be seen as determinative, these results match some of what experts and pollsters have been saying and it is unclear that any of this will change.
Regardless of how hard Biden touts his legislative record, current public perceptions might very well stick until election day.
What is the path forward for Democrats?
At this point, it is a fairly safe bet to assume that Biden will be the party’s nominee, with little evidence that any credible Democrats will step up to challenge him. And while there is nothing Biden can do about his age, he would benefit from an issue-based campaign that can drum up enthusiasm. There are a number of issues, such as reproductive rights, drug prices, public works, and climate change, where the administration can win over voters and garner greater public support.
To be sure, it isn’t easy to run a reelection campaign that doesn’t focus on the incumbent and doesn’t revolve around a grander vision for the nation — think Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” in 1984 or Clinton’s “Bridge to the Future” in 1996. But it can be done. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign effectively honed in on a number of key issues, such as immigration and inequality, in an effort to paint Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a right-wing extremist
Ultimately, the most important factor for Biden will end up being Trump. Nothing will motivate independents, as well as progressives and moderate Democrats, like the prospect of a second Trump term. Biden’s ability to defeat Trump in 2020 will offer some reassurance should Trump win the nomination, which he is likely to do. Then the focus will inevitably turn to Trump, the chaos he brings to the Oval Office, his willingness to violate rules and norms, his role in January 6, the four indictments, and the radicalization of politics that he embodies. This is the framework for a campaign that plays into the same strengths Biden capitalized on in 2020 — the stability that he represents and his commitment to institutions and working-class Americans.
Finally, in an era of intense polarization, it is possible for an incumbent president to win, even with mediocre approval ratings. In the end, partisanship can guide electoral decisions as much as character or a president’s legislative record. This has been the pattern in recent decades, with victories largely determined by turnout as well as swing voters. The fear of former President Donald Trump, combined with the broad support for key issues like reproductive rights, could be enough for Biden to win, despite all the concerns about him.
Nonetheless, the numbers show that this campaign will not be easy. It is likely to be extremely competitive, even with Trump as the nominee. A Republican victory is certainly possible and the ongoing attacks on Biden — from his age to his son — should not be taken lightly.
The administration has to play to its strengths and figure out how to reassure Democrats, as well as win over swing voters. In addition to an organized ground game focused on canvassing and turnout, Democrats will have to use a combination of push and pull factors to win.
While the threat of another Trump presidency will drive many voters away from the former president, Biden also needs to offer a compelling case as to what he hopes to accomplish with a second term.
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