WASHINGTON (AP) — Surrounded by dozens of Democratic donors at a glass art gallery space in Chicago last week, President Joe Biden urged them to look beyond negative poll numbers and feel assured their donations were not being wasted.
Then Biden joked to the crowd: “I could still screw up.”
The attendees at his campaign fundraiser laughed. Yet many Democrats are fearful there is a serious disconnect between the popularity of Biden’s agenda and the man himself, as the president’s approval ratings remain stubbornly low and voters continue to register concerns about his age.
Some of those worries were tempered by the results of Tuesday’s election, when Democrats romped to victory in Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Inside the White House, the Democrats’ big night was a bright spot in an otherwise dim week as it grapples with the response to two wars and tries to minimize the president’s flagging poll numbers. Just 38% of adults approve of Biden’s job performance, according to a November Associated Press-NORC poll.
But few outsiders are confident that the off-year wins will necessarily lead to Biden’s reelection or broader Democratic success next year.
Nowhere is that disconnect more apparent than Ohio, where a Democrat-backed measure to establish a constitutional right to abortion prevailed by 13% last Tuesday. While it was once the nation’s premier swing state, Ohio was carried easily by Donald Trump in the last two elections. And Ohio Democrats don’t expect Biden to compete in the state next year.
“This ain’t the yellow brick road to the presidency just because Ohio pushed back against Republican overreach,” said Nina Turner, an Ohio-based progressive leader who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ national campaign co-chair in 2020.
Turner warned that Biden is losing support among young voters, especially from communities of color. The president’s supporters are “delusional,” she said, if they think he’s in a strong position heading into 2024.
“The people in the bubble — I call them the brunch bunch — can continue to spin this. They do that at their own peril,” she said. “What is happening on the streets is a lot different.”
Former Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said the idea that Tuesday’s victories would translate into electoral successes for Biden next year was “wishful thinking.” He said he’s worried that Biden is faring far worse than a generic Democrat would against Trump, although major Democrats have so far declined to challenge Biden.
“I think I’d be stupid not to be somewhat concerned,” Yarmuth said. Noting Biden’s increasingly aggressive posture against his predecessor, Yarmuth added: “I think that’s an indication that he realizes that he’s got to knock Trump down, not just tout his own record.”
Still, Biden’s team argues that Tuesday’s results only validated the broad popularity of issues that will be core to the president’s reelection campaign, such as abortion rights, democracy and legislative accomplishments including Biden’s nearly two-year-old infrastructure law.
“We’ve heard the press and pundits count Joe Biden out time and time again, but we know that he always proves them wrong,” Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, told reporters last week. “If we want a real window into where voters actually are, we know the best way to measure that is to see how they’re actually voting.”
Indeed, that has been the mantra from Biden’s broader orbit since Tuesday night: Polls don’t matter, but voters do.
In the Biden campaign’s view, the off-year election results are more analogous than current polling to the resources, investment and direct communication with voters that will go into the elections next year. To Biden aides, the results validated the strategy of sharpening the contrast with “MAGA Republicans” that helped Democrats outperform expectations in 2022. Biden watched Tuesday’s returns with interest and wanted to swiftly call the winning Democrats to congratulate them.
In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear defeated Republican Daniel Cameron, overcoming the state’s increasingly conservative bent, by highlighting local issues and hammering Cameron on his support of Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban.
Cameron’s campaign tried repeatedly to tie Beshear to Biden, focusing heavily on inflation — a vulnerable point for the White House — and running commercials featuring a photo of both Democrats together. Beshear, meanwhile, often talked about the millions of dollars in federal aid that came to Kentucky for infrastructure and for COVID-19 relief. He also has his own political brand in Kentucky and is the son of a former two-term governor.
At the Chicago fundraiser, Biden noted that Beshear won reelection while “running on all the programs that were Biden initiatives.”
Beshear kept some distance from Biden the day after he won. Asked Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press if he wants Biden to be the Democratic nominee next year, he replied: “I think President Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee in 2024.”
When asked if he is concerned about Biden’s age and poll numbers, Beshear replied: “He’s going to be the nominee. And I’m pretty sure that this is going to be a rematch from before. So it’s just going to be a choice between the two for people.”
In Pennsylvania, Democrat Dan McCaffery won election to the state’s Supreme Court on a campaign centered on abortion and other rights. And Virginia Democrats took full control of the statehouse and dealt Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin a public setback by making abortion access a focus of legislative campaigns.
Jim Messina, who managed Barack Obama’s successful reelection against Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, said the Biden campaign does not need to change its tactics. Obama also struggled with low approval ratings the year before he won a second term.
“They need it to become a choice pretty soon between them and Trump,” Messina said. ”Right now, the Republican primary is kind of allowing people to think, ‘Well, it could be Nikki Haley, it could be someone else.’ Our election got much easier once Romney got the nomination.”
For now, the Biden campaign should continue to reinforce the president’s record with voters rather than focusing wholly on Trump, Messina said.
“The easiest way to build the poll numbers would be to go kick the hell out of Trump and make it a two-person race. I think that’s sort of sugar candy. It’s a nice rush,” he said. But “you’re supposed to be on a diet. And your diet is telling the economic narrative. And then you get to Trump in the general and then you whale away on him.”
The Biden campaign has already laid that groundwork, particularly with a 16-week, $25 million advertising blitz that began in September in battleground states that seeks to educate voters on Biden’s accomplishments while reinforcing what the Biden campaign calls the “messaging contrast that will be core to this election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who co-chaired Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2020 but now supports Biden, said the president needs a stronger economic message focused on domestic issues — not global affairs — heading into 2024. He noted that many voters are dissatisfied with Biden’s leadership on the economy. The November AP-NORC poll found Biden’s approval on the economy was just 33%.
“I believe that we should rally around the president for reelection, but we should be clear-eyed that it’s going to be a very hard fight,” Khanna said. “People are anxious about the future.”
In Pennsylvania, where Biden was born and spent part of his childhood, former Gov. Ed Rendell said the persistent concerns about Biden’s age from voters in both parties represent a serious challenge.
Rendell is hopeful, however, that Biden will benefit from a matchup against Trump, who faces four criminal indictments and is also unpopular with much of the American public. He suggested that the president would not fare so well against another Republican nominee.
“He is old, he does stumble a little bit,” Rendell said of Biden. “I pray every night for the health of two people: Joe Biden and Donald Trump.”
AP White House Correspondent Zeke Miller, AP Director of Public Opinion Research Emily Swanson in Washington and AP writer Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.