Race Is Dead Heat, Despite Dem Panic

Race Is Dead Heat, Despite Dem Panic


Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

We are at one of those junctures in the long path to the November general election in which Democratic fears — bordering on incipient panic — about Joe Biden’s reelection prospects have flared up. The most recent incendiary material was the offhand comment by Republican special counsel Robert Hur that Biden is “a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” and “diminished faculties in advancing age” in the course of adjudging the president’s handling of classified documents as legally acceptable. But even as questions swirl about the incumbent’s fitness to serve, alongside far-fetched schemes for putting him on the political equivalent of an ice floe, the polls show Biden doing as well as ever.

In head-to-head national matchups with Donald Trump, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows the Republican leading Biden by 1.9 percent (46.1 percent to 44.2 percent). Trump’s lead is actually down from 4.3 percent on January 26. The limited number of polls testing the two men in battleground states also show a close and stable contest, though Trump holds the advantage in most of them (according to the RCP averages, Trump is up modestly in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and North Carolina, while the two are basically tied in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).

In most states, of course, the actual contest isn’t going to be a zero-sum choice between the two major-party candidates, but a multicandidate affair. One reason it’s hard to take an accurate snapshot of the presidential race is that we don’t know how many candidates will be on the ballot in any given state. There are two especially complicated factors: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s efforts to appear on ballots as an independent (or perhaps as the Libertarian Party nominee), and uncertainty about whether the nonpartisan group No Labels (which claims ballot access in 16 states) will sponsor a ticket — and if so, who will be on it.

But a review of three-way (Biden vs. Trump vs. Kennedy) and five-way (Biden v. Trump vs. Kennedy vs. Cornel West vs. Jill Stein) polling gives some indication of how a broader field might affect the outcome even if no non-major-party candidate wins an electoral vote (which none have done since 1968). In the RCP averages for three-way polls, Trump’s lead is 4.6 percent (Trump: 39.8 percent; Biden: 35.3 percent; Kennedy: 15.8 percent). It’s worth noting that assessments of Kennedy’s vote vary significantly: The latest three-way poll from Reuters-Ipsos showed the anti-vaxx activist with the famous name at 8 percent, but the most recent from Harvard-Harris put him at 21 percent.

It’s also hard to compare two-way and three-way polls since a much smaller array of pollsters conducts the latter. But the January Reuters-Ipsos survey showed Trump up by 5 percent in a two-way race and 6 percent in a three-way race. At about the same time, Harvard-Harris gave Trump a seven-point lead in a two-way race and an eight-point lead in a three-way race. All in all, the data confirm the conventional wisdom that at this point Kennedy is having little net effect on the major-party competition, drawing evenly from both columns.

There’s a bit more evidence that a robust five-way race might help Trump, which isn’t surprising when you consider that two of the three non-major-party candidates (Cornel West and Jill Stein) are decidedly left-leaning. In the five-way RCP averages, Trump leads Biden by 4.7 percent (Trump: 41.5 percent; Biden: 36.8 percent; Kennedy: 13.8 percent; West: 2.3 percent; Stein: 2.3 percent). But hardly anyone is testing a six-way race with a libertarian candidate who (assuming it’s not RFK Jr.) is likely to pull a few more votes from the Trump column than the Biden column. And a seven-way race with a yet-to-be-identified No Labels candidate is absolutely impossible to assess at this point.

Polls aside, the fact remains that Trump won in 2016 when non-major-party voting was high and lost in 2020 when it dropped from 6.1 percent of the total to 1.9 percent. If you think of his MAGA base as a highly motivated minority of the electorate, it would make sense that he will need some help (either from minor candidates or from the Electoral College system) in winning back the White House. But we have a long and potentially volatile year of campaigning (and possibly legal developments and health scares) still ahead of us.


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