President Biden is seeing warning signs with independent voters nearly a year out from Election Day, with new polls suggesting he’s losing support from a crucial group poised to decide who will next serve in the White House.
Independent voters reported a lackluster 36 percent approval rating of Biden in an NBC News poll taken in mid-September, and 3 in 5 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they want a nominee other than Biden.
The numbers could mean trouble for Biden in the general election, especially if it’s a rematch against former President Trump.
“There are going to be a fair number of cross-pressured voters — including many people who consider themselves independents — who hold a negative view of Biden and Trump. These are the folks who are going to decide the election,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Trump’s support among likely Republican primary voters, meanwhile, has seen a continued surge despite facing a myriad of legal troubles, but that’s a different matter among voters who are not staunchly GOP.
Trump led the GOP presidential field with 67 percent of Republicans, but that number dwindles to 47 percent when it comes to those who lean Republican — a 20-point disconnect — a recent Quinnipiac University poll found. In August, that gap was 17 percent, with 62 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of GOP-leaning voters.
Among independents, Biden earned a 36 percent approval rating on his job handling in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Asked to look back on Trump’s job handling, 47 percent of that group said they approved of the former president — and the pollsters note that comparison with Biden could be a factor in Trump’s retrospective rating.
Persistent concerns about Biden’s age also permeate the polling, while voters don’t appear as worried about Trump’s. At 80, Biden is the oldest sitting president, and 80 percent of independents in the Post-ABC poll said Biden is too old for another term. By contrast, 58 percent of independents said the same of Trump, who at 77 is only a few years younger.
In 2020, Biden led Trump by nearly 10 points with independents. Fifty-two percent of independent voters supported Biden, compared to 43 percent supporting Trump, according to Pew Research Center. Independents nearly split their vote in 2016, with 43 percent supporting Trump and 42 percent supporting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s lead over Trump with the independent voting bloc in 2020 was essential to his success in winning back swing states Clinton had lost.
Losing those gains would be a major issue for Biden’s campaign, which has been focused on reminding voters of Republicans’ far-right stances on issues like reproductive rights, as well as certain legislative victories for Biden that were attractive to independents.
The infrastructure law and the CHIPS and Science Act both passed with a bipartisan vote and tackle issues — manufacturing and building in the U.S. and competition with China — that are important to voters on both sides of the aisle.
Democratic strategist Eddie Vale underscored that independents will likely be key in the upcoming race — but if the election comes down to a Biden-Trump rematch of 2020, Biden “has a good track record to keep independents in his column.”
“We [saw] from Biden’s last race, and the midterms as well, that independents are sticking with him,” Vale said.
Overall, Biden has faced dismal approval ratings going into the election year. Biden surrogates often point to his ability to defy the odds, like when he turned around the 2020 Democratic primary and went on to win the nomination. His campaign, too, does not appear concerned by the consistently bad polling numbers over the past few months.
A source familiar with the campaign’s thinking said that once the campaign gears up more, it will be able to message wins to independent voters and get that bloc to give Biden more credit.
“They will message these wins directly to independents as the campaign gears up. I don’t doubt that they will get this right and be fine,” the source said.
Some pollsters also argued that the Post-ABC poll, which found Biden was trailing Trump by 10 percentage points, is a one-off “outlier.” Sabato called it “a ridiculous outlier” and Matt Barreto, a Democratic and Latino pollster, said it’s a “big outlier poll” that should be ignored.
Another Democratic operative chalked up recent polling to the focus on the Republican presidential primary, saying once that is settled, Biden’s numbers will improve with blocs like independents.
“Voters are watching the circus of a Republican primary but aren’t thinking about the general election. Once we are closer to November 2024 and it’s a head-to-head matchup, President Biden’s long record of wins is going to stand in stark contrast,” said Andrea Riccio, Democratic strategist and founder of Velocity Partners.
“Biden’s once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure to build roads, fix bridges and create American jobs will be one of the key accomplishments that sways independents,” she added.