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Biden Shores Up Democratic Support, but Faces Tight Race Against Trump

President Biden is heading into the 2024 presidential contest on firmer footing than a year ago, with his approval rating inching upward and once-doubtful Democrats falling into line behind his re-election bid, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll.

Mr. Biden appears to have escaped the political danger zone he resided in last year, when nearly two-thirds of his party wanted a different nominee. Now, Democrats have broadly accepted him as their standard-bearer, even if half would prefer someone else.

Still, warning signs abound for the president: Despite his improved standing and a friendlier national environment, Mr. Biden remains broadly unpopular among a voting public that is pessimistic about the country’s future, and his approval rating is a mere 39 percent.

Perhaps most worryingly for Democrats, the poll found Mr. Biden in a neck-and-neck race with former President Donald J. Trump, who held a commanding lead among likely Republican primary voters even as he faces two criminal indictments and more potential charges on the horizon. Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump were tied at 43 percent apiece in a hypothetical rematch in 2024, according to the poll.

Mr. Biden has been buoyed by voters’ feelings of fear and distaste toward Mr. Trump. Well over a year before the election, 16 percent of those polled had unfavorable views of both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, a segment with which Mr. Biden had a narrow lead.

“Donald Trump is not a Republican, he’s a criminal,” said John Wittman, 42, a heating and air conditioning contractor from Phoenix. A Republican, he said that even though he believed Mr. Biden’s economic stewardship had hurt the country, “I will vote for anyone on the planet that seems halfway capable of doing the job, including Joe Biden, over Donald Trump.”

To borrow an old political cliché, the poll shows that Mr. Biden’s support among Democrats is a mile wide and an inch deep. About 30 percent of voters who said they planned to vote for Mr. Biden in November 2024 said they hoped Democrats would nominate someone else. Just 20 percent of Democrats said they would be enthusiastic if Mr. Biden were the party’s 2024 presidential nominee; another 51 percent said they would be satisfied but not enthusiastic.

A higher share of Democrats, 26 percent, expressed enthusiasm for the notion of Vice President Kamala Harris as the nominee in 2024.

Mr. Biden had the backing of 64 percent of Democrats who planned to participate in their party’s primary, an indicator of soft support for an incumbent president. Thirteen percent preferred Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and 10 percent chose Marianne Williamson.

Among Democratic poll respondents who have a record of voting in a primary before, Mr. Biden enjoyed a far wider lead — 74 percent to 8 percent. He was ahead by 92 percent to 4 percent among those who voted in a Democratic primary in 2022.

The lack of fervor about Mr. Biden helps explain the relatively weak showing among small donors in a quarterly fund-raising report his campaign released two weeks ago.

A common view toward Mr. Biden is illustrated in voters like Melody Marquess, 54, a retiree and left-leaning independent from Tyler, Texas. Ms. Marquess, who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 as “the lesser of two evils,” was not happy about his handling of the pandemic, blaming him for inflation and a tight labor market. Still, she said she would again vote for Mr. Biden, who is 80 years old, over Mr. Trump, who is 77.

“I’m sorry, but both of them, to me, are too old,” she said. “Joe Biden to me seems less mentally capable, age-wise. But Trump is just evil. He’s done horrible things.”

Mr. Biden has recovered significantly from last summer. At the time, Democratic grumbling about his likely re-election bid had mounted, and a Times/Siena poll found that 64 percent of Democrats said they did not want the party to renominate him — including 94 percent of Democrats under the age of 30. Now only half of all Democrats said they did not want Mr. Biden to be the nominee in 2024.

The party’s enthusiasm about him began to tick up last fall after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, better-than-expected results in the midterm elections, a string of policy victories for Mr. Biden and improvements in the economy as inflation slowed.

“Joe is Joe. He’s always kept his word. He’s done well for the country,” said David Scoggin, 61, a retired police officer from Moulton, Ala., who said he was enthusiastic about Mr. Biden’s being the nominee next year. “If he had Congress and a Senate that would work with him, he could do a lot more.”

Mamiya Langham, 38, a government analyst from Atlanta who described herself as a political progressive not aligned with a party, said Mr. Biden’s tax policy had been skewed to favor the wealthy while the middle class paid more than its fair share.

“We’re kind of smushed in the middle, and we’re taking on the brunt of the taxes for everybody,” she said.

Ms. Langham would vote for Mr. Biden again, she added, but without much gusto.

“It’s basically like I don’t have another choice, because I don’t feel comfortable not voting,” she said.

Deep pessimism persists, even among some Democrats who back Mr. Biden. Among those who want to see Mr. Biden as the party’s nominee next year, 14 percent said the country’s problems were so bad that the nation was at risk of failing.

Despite that, Mr. Biden is leading Mr. Trump among the same groups that helped solidify his victory in 2020: women, suburban voters, college-educated white voters and Black voters. But he seems to show early signs of potential vulnerability with Hispanic voters, who have shifted toward Republicans in recent elections.

Mr. Biden’s approval rating of 39 percent is historically poor for an incumbent president seeking re-election, but it has risen from 33 percent last July. The latest poll found that 23 percent of registered voters thought the country was on the right track — a low number for Mr. Biden, but better than the 13 percent of Americans who believed the same a year ago. More Americans than a year ago now think the economy is in excellent or good shape: 20 percent, compared with 10 percent in 2022.

Ashlyn Cowan, 27, a research scientist from Nashville, said she wished Mr. Biden had been more aggressive about canceling student loan debt. Even before the Supreme Court’s ruling last month overturning Mr. Biden’s attempt to forgive up to $20,000 per borrower, Ms. Cowan said she had found him to be unenthusiastic about the issue.

Nevertheless, Ms. Cowan said she would back Mr. Biden in a race against Mr. Trump.

“You have Trump that has shown characteristics that I am staunchly against, and Biden just not being the greatest person to do the job,” she said. “Ultimately, Biden is not going to harm the country as much as I believe Trump would.”

Democrats who did not want Biden to be the nominee last July were primarily focused on his age and job performance. While Mr. Biden’s age remains the leading point of discontent for Democrats who would prefer someone else to be the nominee — 39 percent cited that concern in an open-ended question — just 20 percent said Mr. Biden’s job performance was their chief worry. Another 14 percent said they would prefer someone new.

“Some of his glitches on TV, what they catch on TV, just has me worried about the president,” said Daryl Coleman, 52, a retiree in Cleveland, Ala.

Mr. Coleman, a Democrat, said he would be compelled to vote for Mr. Biden in a rematch against Mr. Trump. “If he’s the only Democrat running, if he beats everybody out, then I have no other choice but to go with Joe Biden,” he said.

The New York Times/Siena College poll of 1,329 registered voters nationwide, including an oversample of 818 registered Republican voters, was conducted by telephone using live operators from July 23 to 27, 2023. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.67 percentage points for all registered voters. Cross-tabs and methodology are available here.

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