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.
Breaking down the electorate
Looking at how voters currently divide in a hypothetical matchup between Biden and Trump, and which politician they say is a bigger factor in their vote, allows us to divide the potential electorate into four blocs.
The two biggest groups both say they’re largely motivated by their feelings toward Trump:
- Pro-Trump voters – those who say they’d back Trump largely out of support for him – make up 29% of the potential electorate. This group holds almost universally positive views of Trump. More than 9 in 10 view Trump favorably, and 9 in 10 say that he’d be a better choice than any Democratic nominee. Seventy percent say that none of the criminal charges facing him have any relevance to hit fitness for office, even if true.
- Anti-Trump voters – Biden voters who are motivated largely by antipathy for Trump – make up another 30% of the potential electorate. While more than three-quarters approve of Biden’s job performance overall and say he cares about people like them, many also express serious misgivings about him. Fewer than half of this group credit him with helping to improve the economy, say he inspires confidence, or feel he has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president. Among those who are potential Democratic primary voters, three-quarters say they’d rather have someone else as their nominee. But they are fully united in their mistrust of Trump: 98% have an unfavorable view of the Republican, and 99% say that Trump faces charges that, if true, should disqualify him for the presidency.
The remaining third of the electorate, voters who say they’re motivated more by their opinions of Biden, look somewhat different:
- Anti-Biden voters (18% of the potential electorate), who say they’d support Trump largely out of distaste for Biden, have far more mixed views of the Republican former president. Forty percent view Trump unfavorably and one-quarter say he faces potentially disqualifying criminal charges. While 89% in this group agree that any Republican would be better than Biden, just 64% say Trump would be better than any Democrat. Compared to pro-Trump voters, this group is modestly younger – just over half are younger than age 50 – as well as more likely to hold a college degree and less likely to say they’re extremely motivated to vote in next year’s election.
- Pro-Biden voters (16% of the potential electorate), who say they’re backing Biden’s bid for reelection on its own terms, are overwhelmingly positive toward Biden’s job performance. They’re relatively convinced of his current competence and sharpness – although even in this group, about 4 in 10 say they’re seriously concerned about how his age might affect his standing in a general election and his ability to serve out a second full term. They’re also the only group of voters to express broadly positive views about the current state of the US, with about 70% saying that things in the country are currently going well. Compared to the anti-Trump group, this bloc is older (35% are age 65 or older), more likely to identify as Democrats and less likely to have a college degree. This group also includes more voters of color (45% vs. 36% among the anti-Trump Biden backers).
Would another Republican fare differently?
Despite Trump’s status as a polarizing figure, the latest CNN poll finds that hypothetical matchups between Biden and other top GOP contenders are similarly deadlocked, although Biden runs several points behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Many voters are also driven by broader antipathy toward the party they oppose, although the strength of that force varies: while more than three-quarters of pro-Biden voters say that Biden would be a better choice than any Republican nominee for president, only a smaller 63% of anti-Trump voters say the same. Nearly 1 in 5 anti-Trump voters say they’d back Haley (18%) or former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (19%) over Biden.
The CNN Poll was conducted by SSRS from August 25-31 among a random national sample of 1,503 adults drawn from a probability-based panel, including 1,259 registered voters. The survey included an oversample to reach a total of 898 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents; this group has been weighted to its proper size within the population. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 points; among registered voters, the margin of sampling error is 3.6 points.