President Joe Biden on July 20, 2023. Credit: Star Shooter/MediaPunch /IPX

What the polls really show

We at the Washington Monthly, Michael Podhorzer and Robert J. Shapiro in particular, have tried hard to inoculate you from “Mad Poll Disease,” a condition marked by total panic over early polls that have Donald Trump beating Joe Biden.

After the freakout following Sunday’s series of battleground state polls from The New York TimesI’m guessing our medicine hasn’t widely kicked in yet.

While I would also counsel against panic, there is a lot to say about the recent trove of poll data. But first, here’s what leading the Monthly website:

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Podhorzer and Shapiro made the case that because the precise turnout demographics cannot be known in advance, and because voter views of incumbent presidents often improve over the course of the fourth year in office, early presidential trial heat polls are historically poor predictors of final outcomes.

All that still holds.

Yet several polls, in line with the NYT results, show a generational divide within the Democratic Party over Middle East policy that may complicate Biden’s re-election strategy.

In 2020, according to the data firm Catalist, voters aged 18-29 supported Biden over Trump 60-37%, and voters 65+ supported Trump over Biden 51-48%.

But partisan leanings have little bearing on generational views of the Middle East crisis. Last month’s Quinnipiac poll found a scant 21% of voters under 35 approve of Biden’s “policy towards Israel.” Nearly three times as many of senior citizens (60%) say the same.

Asked by Quinnipiac if they sympathized more with Israelis or Palestinians, voters under 35 were the only generational cohort with sympathy for Israelis registering below 50% (albeit still a plurality at 41%).

Similarly, a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll asked if the U.S. government should “publicly support Israel.”Among voters 45 and over, 78% said yes. But for voters under 45, just 48% said yes.

That helps explain why Gallup polling of Biden’s job approval, taken over a three-week period in October, showed a steep drop of support among Democrats since September, from 86% to 75%. Gallup reported, “Democrats’ approval of Biden fell sharply in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and Biden’s promise of full support for Israel on the same day.”

And it also helps explain the new NYT battleground polls. In 2020, Biden won Nevada by 2.4 percentage points, with the help of a 23-point margin among voters under 30, and 10-point margin with voters between 30 and 44. But in the NYT Nevada poll, Trump wins by a whopping 11 points, buoyed by a 21-point romp among the 30-44 crowd, and by holding Biden to a 3-point lead with the youngest voters. (Biden gains a bit of ground among senior citizens, narrowing his deficit from 7 to 4 points.)

Before we go any further, let’s get a booster shot of Mad Poll Disease vaccine.

The NYT data isn’t the only set of swing state trial heat poll data sampled since the October 7 Hamas attack. For example, in Bloomberg/Morning ConsultBiden leads Nevada by 3 (but trails in other swing states). Another Nevada poll from the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows a Biden-Trump tie.

Moreover, we are not seeing a big shift in national Trump-versus-Biden polls since October 7. The Real Clear Politics national average was Trump up 1 on October 7, and Trump up 0.9 today.

(Yes I know there is no national election. But the national electorate is sampled far more frequently than the swing states. National polls give us more data with which to assess impacts of news events, making it harder for one poll to provoke outsized reaction.)

Movement among generational subsamples is not consistent between polls, but notably, Quinnipiac’s late October poll shows Biden’s margin among the under 35 crowd collapsing since September, from 18 to 2 points. At the same time, Biden expanded his lead among seniors, from 6 to 18 points. And Biden’s overall lead of 1 point was unchanged.

Quinnipiac’s poll is the not only poll we should look at, but those crosstabs exemplify that we don’t know, and can’t know, at this juncture how the Middle East crisis will affect the electorate across all demographics.

Nevertheless, it does appear that the Israel-Gaza war is damaging the relationship Biden has with young voters. But does that argue for replacing Biden as the Democratic Party’s nominee?

No. The issue is not Biden. The issue is the issuethe Israel-Palestine issue which, in the aftermath of October 7, is dividing America along generational lines.

Many younger Americans—who have little to no memory of 9/11, have minimal experience with extended periods of Middle East violence, and have only seen right-wing Israeli governments—viewed October 7 through a different lens then many older Americans.

No mythical unicorn Democrat exists who can replace Biden and easily unite young and old voters on this enormously complex problem that no one has been able to solve for decades.

There’s no politically safe policy or rhetorical posture. Any distancing from Israel risks a loss of older voters, just as a close alliance with Israel risks a loss of younger voters. If Biden dropped out tomorrow, this would still be true.

This is not to say all is lost for Democrats, far from it.

The Democratic Party is not the only one with internal divisions. The state of Middle East one year from now is unknown, let alone public opinion of Biden’s handling of it. The American economy is still more likely to ultimately influence voter behavior than international crises.

The latest polls can’t tell us the future. They can tell us that in the present a fresh generational divide has opened up which will be tricky for Democratic politicians to navigate, no matter their age.

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.