Mellman: Election Day is nearing — How is President Biden doing? 

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How is President Joe Biden doing in his campaign for reelection?  

We can answer that question from a public opinion point of view only by making comparisons across time and space.  

Start with the easiest point of comparison. 

About two months ago, the 538 poll average put former President Donald Trump 2 points ahead of Biden in the national horserace.  

Today their average shows Biden just seven-tenths of a point behind. RealClearPolitics’s average gives Donald Trump an even smaller three-tenths of a point lead.  

Which is to say, the race is tied. For the most part, it’s been a 1- or 2-point race either way since the midterm elections. But the president seems to be doing a bit better than he was a couple of months ago. 

That’s reflected in swing state polling as well. In every one of those seven states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), Biden is faring better today than he was two months ago. 

In critical Pennsylvania, for instance, Trump’s lead shrunk from 3.7 points to just 1.1 points over the last two months, according to 538. 

Not huge movement, but consistent and in the right direction nationally, as well as in the states that will likely decide 2024. 

But consider another comparison. Today, Trump leads the poll averages in every one of those seven swing states.  

In 2020, President Biden defeated Trump by 4.5 points nationally and garnered 306 electoral votes.  

In that year, Biden was never behind in the national poll average and never behind in five of the swing states. (Again, that’s not to say he wasn’t behind in some individual polls, but he was never behind in the averages.)   

Of course, it’s a different race in a different context, and in 2020 Biden got more electoral votes than he needed, but that comparison is less reassuring for the incumbent.  

Another point of comparison considers the relationship between presidential approval and electoral outcomes that we’ve discussed here many times.  

Approval ratings act as an anchor for votes. 

A dozen incumbent presidents have run for reelection since World War II. In four of those 12 cases, the percentage of the vote earned by the incumbent was lower than the percentage approving of the job he was doing, and in eight cases the vote was higher than the approval.  

In the cases where the vote outstripped approval, the average difference was 3.4 points. That is, if approval before the election was 40 percent, the vote for that incumbent on average would be 43.4 percent. 

President Biden’s approval rating has ranged between 39 percent and 41 percent for the last four quarters, according to Gallup.  

So, unless the president’s approval rating increases, it would take a record difference between approval and vote for him to win. 

But an improved approval rating is plausible. Our last two incumbents seeking reelection — Barack Obama and Trump — increased their approval ratings by 6 to 8 points between the summer and the balloting.  

A 46 percent to 48 percent approval rating would put President Biden within striking distance of victory, based on history.  

Add to that all the unique properties of this race.  

Only one candidate in our history (Grover Cleveland) has succeeded in accomplishing what Trump is attempting — coming back after defeat to win a second nonconsecutive term in the White House.   

And no challenger to an incumbent president has ever been as unpopular as Trump is today.   

Since the two-term limit was instituted, only three elected presidents were denied a second term — and one of the three was Trump. 

Forecasters who suggest one candidate or the other is a certain victor have a 50/50 chance of being 100 percent right.  

But what’s clear from the data is that, as of today, neither candidate is a sure thing.  

Either one could win. Those putting down big bets on either side, financially or reputationally, should be prepared to lose.  

Mellman is a pollster and president of The Mellman Group, a political consultancy. He is also president of Democratic Majority for Israel.   

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