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What recent elections and polls tell us about 2024

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Check your calendars, folks. We are less than a year out from the next presidential election and just two months away from the Iowa caucuses. And a lot of things happened in this past week that tell us a lot about the political climate heading into what is shaping up to be, at this moment, a 2024 rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Elections in Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere showed slightly surprising Democratic strength and the enduring power of abortion as a campaign issue.

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KAMALA HARRIS: We are here with the wind in our back because, did anyone notice what happened on Tuesday?

DETROW: In Miami, five Republican candidates met for a debate. But once again, Republican front-runner Donald Trump did not bother to attend. Instead, he held a rally nearby.

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DONALD TRUMP: I'm thrilled to be here in the heart of Miami with thousands of proud, hardworking, God-fearing American patriots. That's what you are.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: But at the same time, Trump's testimony in a New York civil trial showed just how legally vulnerable he is right now. And hovering above all of it - a series of polls indicating that Biden is unpopular and struggling against Trump a year out. So for our Sunday cover story, we are going to talk through all of this and more with two of my buds from the NPR politics team, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro - hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: And White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So, Domenico, from all of the things I just mentioned, what is the most important? What is the least important?

MONTANARO: Oh, my goodness. Most important to least important is kind of tough to say because they're all important, and they're all not important in a lot of different ways when it comes to politics. You know, I mean, look, we have the elections on Tuesday. Democrats are certainly going to take a little bit of a sigh of relief at that. They're going to feel like abortion rights is still an issue that they really have - using as the wind at their backs, I expect. One Democratic strategist I talked to this week said that they're going to try as hard as they can to put abortion on every single ballot in the 2024 presidential election states, and they're going to need it because they know that President Biden is vulnerable.

DETROW: Yeah.

MONTANARO: As those polls did show in those swing states, he is vulnerable. Everyone, unprompted, brings up his age, no doubt about it.

DETROW: Yep.

MONTANARO: We are still a year out, though, and we need to make that caveat understood because this coalition that Biden has is really, as one strategist said, an anti-Trump coalition that's going to need time to recoalesce.

KHALID: If I could just jump on one thing Domenico said there about abortion, abortion is really, I think, potentially the saving issue for Joe Biden heading into 2024. I was just out in Arizona the other week, and they are currently gathering signatures to put a ballot initiative on the ballot for 2024 that would create a constitutional right for abortion. And the people I met, a number of them said that they do not align with the Democratic Party. They were signing on to this ballot initiative, and, you know, they're motivated more by this issue than they are by Joe Biden.

DETROW: Right.

KHALID: And that's what Democrats are hoping for, that voters will show up to vote for an issue like this and, while they're out there, you know, potentially cast a vote for Biden as well.

DETROW: I mean, it passed by such a wide margin in Ohio, a state that has moved so far even from the time we all started covering this from NPR - even in that, in politics, relatively short period of time, Ohio has just shifted so far to the right and yet such a big win. But, Asma, I really want to hear from you how the White House and the Biden campaign is thinking of all of this. We heard Vice President Harris a moment ago. That was from a quick political appearance in South Carolina that you traveled to...

KHALID: Yep. That's right.

DETROW: ...With the vice president saying, the wind is at our backs. But you also have a series of polls from national news outlets that are pretty decent at polling showing Biden struggling in hypothetical head-to-head matchups with Trump, who is a candidate who comes into the race with dozens and dozens of serious criminal charges. How are they making sense of this moment, and what are they trying to argue?

KHALID: The White House position is essentially that polls don't vote; voters vote. And so they point to what happened on Tuesday as evidence that ultimately the - you know, the final poll, they say, is what happens on Election Day. So they feel very positive, not just about what happened in Ohio, but they say even look at the Kentucky governor's race...

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: ...Where Democratic Governor Andy Beshear was able to win a second term. So right now, they see that. They see the election results from the 2022 midterms, where Democrats also did potentially better than some of the, you know, pundits had expected, and they see that all as positive signs. What you're talking about, though, in the polls - look, I think that is important. What you keep hearing the White House do, though, is essentially dismiss those polls.

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: They don't take them seriously. I will say, as someone who looks at a lot of polling and also spends a lot of time talking to voters, those concerns that you see in the polls are real.

DETROW: Right.

KHALID: I can't tell you the amount of times I hear from voters concerns about the president's age or the economy.

DETROW: It must not be a comfortable feeling to be somebody in Joe Biden's campaign, seeing data that shows voters trust a person facing multiple criminal charges who spent the last three years trying to overturn a presidential election. They say, actually, I trust that guy more with the economy. I trust that guy more with other key issues.

KHALID: The economy is a perfect example of where I think the White House has been frustrated because they've had this Bidenomics messaging that they've been trying to take out on the road and campaign on. And fundamentally, voters don't seem to be swayed that much ever since they've been out trying to pitch the economic winds that you've seen of this administration. And the reason why, Scott, is that, yes, the economy is doing better by some metrics. But what I hear from voters consistently is they are still frustrated by high prices. And while inflation has dipped, people are still paying more today than they were for a number of goods before the pandemic set in, before Joe Biden entered the Oval Office. That is their frustration. And those are, like, intangible frustrations. I don't really know what the White House can do on this economics question, but I will also say the analysts I talk to say they have to keep trying. You can't ignore the economy and expect to win reelection.

MONTANARO: But there are a lot of Democrats who are saying that they feel like the president should talk about the economy in a different way, even if that's just promoting some of the things that they've done to improve some aspects of the economy. But I will just say the thing that I think happened this week that may be more important than any of the other things that we've been talking about so far is the potential for these third-party candidates...

KHALID: Yes.

DETROW: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...To start running. We're talking about somebody like Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who stepped aside from running for reelection in a red state. Not only...

DETROW: And ambiguously said he's going to explore some options.

MONTANARO: Right. And I was going to say, not only does that imperil Democrats' chances of holding onto the Senate, which they only have a one-seat majority currently. But you look at someone like Manchin. You look at someone like Jill Stein, who, you know, announced that she's going to run for the Green Party nomination. You look at somebody like Cornel West, who's thinking about running as well, and RFK Jr., who's already in the race.

DETROW: Yeah.

MONTANARO: And when we think about these kinds of people and you think about the anti-Trump coalition that Biden built up in 2020, you're talking about moderate voters - Manchin; Black voters - Cornel West; young voters and people who care about the environment - Jill Stein - because when she ran this week, she started talking about a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. And that's something that's really split the Democratic Party, with young voters being less likely to support Israel.

DETROW: And that is another thing. Asma, I want to ask you about this because you went to work at the White House this week after a big pro-Palestinian protest in front of the White House. And there are so many younger voters in particular, voters who tend to vote Democrat in particular, who feel so strongly about this issue. You see Biden, you know, talking about the need for humanitarian pauses, talking about the need to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible but, by and large, standing with Israel in this moment, saying Israel has a right to respond. And, of course, the U.S. is such a big military backer of Israel. How politically risky is this for Biden if you look at how angry people who are a key part of his base really are right now?

KHALID: I don't know that we know the answer to what this may mean politically, Scott. I think there's two things to consider. One is there is no doubt a sizable population of young voters, some of - many of them voters of color, who are not on board with the Biden administration's current foreign policy in Israel. You see that in survey after survey. What I will say is the White House says that elections are a long time away from today. People don't tend to always vote on foreign policy, and they don't tend to vote on one issue. I think that is true. At the same time, there are definitely big, big alarm bells in a state like Michigan...

DETROW: Yes.

KHALID: ...A state that has a sizable Arab American population, a sizable Muslim population. You hear this. You see this in polls. I have heard this in interviews as well, Scott. People are deeply frustrated with the Biden administration. And they are saying, hey, I'll look at one of those third parties. I don't want to give Biden another chance. And losing Michigan, a state that - what? - Hillary Clinton lost by 10,000 votes to Donald Trump in 2016...

DETROW: Yeah.

KHALID: ...That's not an ideal position for Democrats to be in.

DETROW: Yeah.

MONTANARO: It's a tough balance because there's a lot of Jewish voters, too.

KHALID: Yes.

MONTANARO: And that is a huge part of the Democratic coalition. This is a hard thing to really solve politically because there are - this is one of those issues that is dividing a piece of the Democratic base that is very important, and it's not one that you're going to be able to find a wiggly...

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...Political mushy position that's going to satisfy everybody.

KHALID: Though can I say one thing? I don't know that the policy will shift in any way to essentially satisfy everyone.

DETROW: Right.

KHALID: But I was out with the vice president, Vice President Harris, and she actually spoke to this issue of the protests in a way that I thought was more nuanced than a number of the comments that we've heard thus far from administration officials. She fundamentally said protests - protesters have a right to do what they do. We should listen to their voice and that this isn't a binary calculation. And I do think if the administration can thread the needle a little bit more and offer some nuance, that will potentially at least speak to some of the concerns that these young voters have.

DETROW: Last question for both of you - this far out from the election, what's the most important thing that you're thinking about that can affect votes down the line happening in the near future? What's the biggest factor out there that's going to affect things?

MONTANARO: Well, there are a lot of things that can change, and I think that's an important thing for people to keep in mind. We're at a volatile point in American politics generally. The economy is a volatile situation because you have some good signs of the economy. But other difficult signs like grocery prices, gas prices - those things going up or down are really going to have a huge effect on whether Biden wins or loses and, of course, how he's handling things abroad, especially with Israel and Hamas right now, which is such a fundamentally, you know, passionate, you know, difficult place and position for a lot of people and for Biden to have to try to weave a needle to keep his base together.

DETROW: That's Domenico Montanaro and Asma Khalid. You can hear both of them in my old neighborhood, the NPR Politics Podcast, every weekday. Thanks to both of you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

KHALID: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATE BOLLINGER SONG, "JE REVERAI A TOI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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