The debate was so bad that Biden is now polling at his worst

The polls are in: President Joe Biden’s debate face-plant has put him in his worst electoral shape of the 2024 election.

More voters now than ever say they have an unfavorable opinion of the president, think he’s too old for the job and want someone else leading the Democratic ticket this fall.

No incumbent president has had an approval rating this low at this stage of the election since George H.W. Bush more than three decades ago — and, other than Biden’s 2024 opponent, former President Donald Trump, no incumbent has trailed this far behind in the horse race polling since Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid 44 years ago.

The latest numbers have added to the pressure on Biden to mount a quick comeback — or drop out of the race before his party officially designates a nominee. A string of rigorous-but-fast-twitch polls show a post-debate slide for Biden — who was already struggling to break out from behind Trump. Three of them, including a New York Times/Siena College survey released Wednesday afternoon, showed Trump with a 6-point lead among likely voters.

Given Republicans’ advantage in the Electoral College, that kind of national margin would likely equate to a decisive Trump victory.

The New York Times/Siena College poll showed Trump leading Biden among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent, up from a 3-point lead before the debate. That’s a real — but not overwhelming — shift that lines up with the other polling conducted in the wake of Biden’s debate with Trump. A few other recent polls show eroding numbers for Biden but with slightly smaller margins.

Each poll differs slightly from the others, including in methodology. But taken together they paint a bleak portrait: The incumbent president who has struggled for months to close a persistent polling gap has now fallen further behind.

Already reviled by Republicans, Biden’s small drop appears to come mostly from self-identified Democrats and independents. Typically, these would be the easiest voters for Biden to win back. But his broader liabilities make that difficult.

Here’s what to know about Biden’s post-debate polling:

The polls haven’t moved that much, but it’s an important shift

Quantifying the magnitude of Trump’s post-debate bounce and Biden’s slide is more complicated than it might seem.

Some of the new polls, like CNN’s and The Wall Street Journal’s, are from outlets whose most recent trendlines date back months, meaning changes in the numbers might reflect a lot more than just the debate. And the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics averages — which are intentionally slower-moving measurements — still include pre-debate polls.

Those high-quality polls are most useful in understanding the current state of the race, and they show a solid Trump lead.

The Wall Street Journal hadn’t polled the race since February, but Trump’s 6-point lead in the post-debate survey was up from a 2-point advantage in the previous poll.

And while CNN’s Trump +6 poll was unchanged from the previous survey in April, it underscores that even in the best-case scenario, the debate was a missed opportunity.

Five pollsters who had a pre-debate poll in the month of June have also conducted a survey since the debate, allowing us to understand the debate’s effects, and four of them show Trump gaining on the margin — but none by more than a 4-point swing.

Those aren’t the kinds of massive swings that have sometimes occurred after major events in past elections, but they’re significant.

After all, it’s not unusual for polling to shift against the candidate widely seen as the “loser” of a televised debate — both because the debate is fresh on voters’ minds and because that candidate’s supporters are less likely to respond to polls after a poor performance.

Ever since the debate, the Biden campaign has warned the media — and skittish Democrats — that a spate of bad polling was on the way, pointing to history and political science research that “non-response bias” — changes in response patterns that cause dips in a candidate’s support after a bad debate because fewer of that candidate’s voters respond to pollsters — would overstate the lasting damage for Biden.

But, notably, that may not be happening in this case. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote that self-identified Democrats and Republicans answered the new survey at roughly equal rates. That’s just one poll, but it suggests that the small dip for Biden is not an artifact of trying to poll in the immediate wake of a major news event.

Biden’s position in the polls is even worse when you consider how hard it is to gain ground in this election

Voters are familiar with both candidates in the rematch of the 2020 election, and Biden and Trump have been neck-and-neck in the polling for months, with only small changes.

So even as surveys show voters consider Trump the victor of last week’s debate by a three-to-one margin, major changes in the race were always unlikely thanks to intense polarization.

Since launching in March, FiveThirtyEight’s Biden-Trump polling average has traded within an extremely narrow band: from Trump +2.4 points, to Biden +0.3 points. (It currently stands at Trump +2.3 points, just a hair off his high-water mark.)

Biden had taken the slightest of leads in the weeks after Trump’s criminal conviction in May, but that bounce has quickly been erased since the debate. It’s left Biden in a hole larger than all but two incumbents dating back to 1980: Carter and Trump, who were both defeated for reelection.

The Biden campaign has been eager to seize on results showing only a modest decline in the president’s standing since the debate. In an effort to pre-but the New York Times/Siena poll on Wednesday, a memo from top campaign officials to staffers highlighted those smaller shifts and warned that “it will take a few weeks” to determine how the debate affected the race.

But that also obscures a basic reality: Biden was narrowly losing before the debate, and he’s losing by an even greater margin now.

That’s a particularly rough situation for a candidate who has had little success making up ground in the polls — even after pouring nearly $115 million into advertising to date, according to AdImpact.

In a race likely to be determined by the smallest of margins, Biden needed an event that could break through the noise and shake things up. He challenged Trump to debate and helped set its rules of engagement. Tens of millions of Americans tuned in. And the gambit backfired.

A Biden recovery might be particularly difficult

Debate bounces and sags often prove fleeting. But there are hints buried within the new polls that suggest the damage to Biden’s candidacy might be more lasting.

Biden is now less popular than Trump — 37 percent of likely voters in the New York Times/Siena poll view Biden favorably, compared with 43 percent for Trump — a significant reversal from the 2020 election, when Biden held a sizable edge in image rating. And across the board, polls show increases in the percentage of voters who say he’s too old to run for a second term, including 80 percent in a new Wall Street Journal survey — including a staggering three in four Democrats.

That kind of fundamentally negative view of a candidate can be particularly hard to overcome, especially when a sizable majority of your own party believes you’re too old to run again.

And significantly more voters now regard Biden as a risk for the next four years than see Trump as posing an equal danger — despite Biden’s assertions that a second Trump presidency would foment “chaos” in the country. In the New York Times/Siena College poll, only 37 percent said Biden was a “safe choice” as president, while 61 percent called him a “risky choice.” When it comes to Trump, 43 percent said he’s a “safe choice,” and 55 percent said he’s a “risky choice.”

Of course, the most heated final phase of the race has not yet arrived. The final four months of the campaign do offer a number of significant events for Biden to reverse the momentum, starting with Friday’s interview with ABC News and continuing through both party conventions this summer.

But for Democrats hoping a Biden comeback was forthcoming, the polls offer numerous warning signs from the horse race to other damning perceptions of Biden’s fitness for the job.

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