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Why a 2024 Trump-Biden rematch might be more of a referendum on Trump than Biden

Updated: Oct 10, 2023




Presidential reelection bids tend to revolve around the incumbent’s performance in office. But a potential rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump could upend that dynamic, polling suggests, with most voters saying their decisions would come down largely to their feelings about Trump.


In the latest CNN poll, which finds registered voters deadlocked in a hypothetical contest between Biden and Trump, 62% of those backing Trump said they saw their choice mainly as a show of support for him, with a similar 64% of those backing Biden saying they viewed their choice largely as a vote against Trump. Only about a third on either side treated the decision as primarily a referendum on the sitting president.


Despite Trump’s commanding lead in Republican primary polls, it’s too early to know whether he’ll end up as his party’s nominee, let alone to predict the particular contours of a general election between him and Biden.


If the numbers from the latest CNN poll hold, however, they’d represent a break in precedent. In CNN’s exit poll following the last presidential election, when Trump was the sitting incumbent and Biden the challenger, 54% of voters cited Trump as the bigger factor in their vote. In CNN’s final pre-election poll of 2012, about 60% of likely voters said their decision had more to do with their feelings toward incumbent President Barack Obama than his challenger, Mitt Romney; in the fall of 2004, roughly 65% of likely voters saw their votes as having more to do with incumbent President George W. Bush than his opponent, John Kerry.


The contrast suggests something about both Biden’s and Trump’s standings as candidates. Voters who say they’d choose Biden are less than fully convinced by his policy record or his leadership – only a little more than half of his own supporters credit him with improving the country’s economic conditions, and only 56% view him as inspiring confidence, but that’s overshadowed by their near-universal agreement that at least one of the array of criminal charges facing Trump, if true, would disqualify him for office. Trump’s supporters, meanwhile, nearly all disapprove of Biden’s job performance, but they hold broadly positive views of Trump, and 63% view the charges against the former president largely as evidence of political abuse by the justice system.


An election in which Trump served as the main focal point could also echo the pattern seen in last year’s midterms. Traditionally, midterm elections are often driven by a backlash against the party in power. Last year, however, that force was seemingly mitigated by voters’ discontent with GOP-driven policies like the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. And even out of office and off the ballot, Trump himself played a significant role in driving opposition. In CNN’s exit polling, 44% of voters nationally said that Trump played a factor in their vote, only modestly lower than the 51% who said the same about Biden, the sitting president, in a separate question.





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