Presidential: Biden and Trump Locked in Close Race

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 14, 2024 · 9:00 AM EDT

While the presidential race is careening toward a rematch, 2024 won’t necessarily be a replay of 2020. 

The race looks familiar with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump topping the ballot, but both men are bringing more baggage to the contest, creating a level of volatility that doesn’t often accompany rematches. 

The familiar is apparently fueling optimism from the incumbent. "I'm the only one who has ever beat him. And I'll beat him again," Biden told The New Yorker recently about facing Trump again. But Biden is in a fundamentally weaker position this time around. 

Instead of a challenger facing an unpopular incumbent, Biden is the unpopular incumbent seeking re-election. Voters are holding Biden responsible for the country’s ills while romanticizing (or at least forgetting about) the challenges during Trump’s first term. 

Biden’s job rating has been poor and steady for two-and-a-half years. The president’s disapproval rating has been higher than his approval rating ever since the country’s exit from Afghanistan. Biden is also the country’s oldest president in history with a disproportionate focus on his ability to serve a second term.

Last fall, Democrats comforted themselves by comparing Biden’s unpopularity to President Barack Obama’s standing in 2011. But Obama’s job rating had improved by this point in 2012

Since public opinion has hardened around Biden, the president will likely have to rely on voters who disapprove of the president to support him for a second term. Luckily for Democrats, Trump gives Biden an opening to do just that. 

With more than 90 indictments in four different federal cases, hundreds of millions of dollars in fines due in civil cases, and his unwillingness to call off his supporters as they invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump has given independent voters reasons to pause before giving him a second term. 

Yet despite his remarkable list of liabilities, Trump is in a strong position if the election were held today. He leads by a couple points in the national polling average, which doesn’t mean as much as his polling lead in key swing states including Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia. But the election is more than seven months away.

Optimistic Democrats will argue that Trump is hovering where he’s always been, and his polling advantage is a result of Biden’s soft support. But that glosses over the president’s challenge in the race and the uphill climb to avoid the same fate as other unpopular incumbents who lost re-election including President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Trump in 2020. 

While Biden may still ultimately win the race, it’s hard to see him with a fundamental advantage, as our current race ratings reflect. 

Inside Elections is changing Michigan (and its 15 Electoral College votes) from Tilt Democratic to Toss-Up. With that change, the GOP nominee is favored to win 235 Electoral College votes compared to 232 for the Democratic nominee, leaving both short of the 270 needed to win. That leaves five states and 71 Electoral College votes in Toss-up, including Arizona (11), Georgia (16), Michigan (15), Pennsylvania (19), and Wisconsin (10).

Since ratings are a combination of where a race is and where it’s most likely to end up, states such as Nevada remain in Tilt Democratic for now. Even though it appears Trump currently has a lead, Republicans haven’t won the Silver State in a presidential race since President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. But Trump doesn’t need to win Nevada in order to get to the White House. 

On the other hand, Biden is at risk of losing Georgia, despite his narrow 2020 win and Democratic success in recent Senate races. Biden is the only Democrat to win the Peach State since Democrat Bill Clinton’s victory with 43.5 percent in 1992. But Biden doesn’t need Georgia for a re-election.

As the general election comes into focus, Democrats are counting on the contrast to boost Biden’s standing among base Democrats and independents. It’s a plausible path to victory, but if the race doesn’t start to take that shape before too long, it could be a difficult hole for Biden to climb out of.