The Race For The White House And Congress One Year Out
Welcome to November.
While federal policymakers will be focused this month on how to address a fast-unfolding crisis in the Middle East, ongoing turmoil in Eastern Europe, and the expiring fiscal year 2024 continuing resolution — federal government funding runs out on November 17! — they are also ever-preoccupied with another looming milestone that’s now just 12 months away: the 2024 presidential and congressional elections.
What do early polls tell us about how who may win the White House and Congress? And how reliable are early polls, anyway?
Let’s take a look.
The Race For The White House
Last week, President Joe Biden attracted a new challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination when Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) announced a White House bid.
While that news is significant because it is rare for a sitting president to be challenged by someone from his own party (especially a sitting congressman), President Biden, by all indicators, is still the presumptive Democratic nominee. And while primary candidates like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) seem to be gaining some steam on the Republican side of the ledger, former President Donald Trump is still the person most likely to be the GOP’s standard-bearer.
So let’s start from the premise that the November 2024 general election for president will be a rematch of 2020.
According to the campaigns and elections data analysis site FiveThirtyEight, former President Trump is ahead in a two-way matchup between him and President Biden. In the last 11 polls asking voters whom they prefer, Donald Trump came out ahead in eight while President Biden was the leader in just one. In the remaining two polls, the two men were statically tied.
Now, as anyone who has taken U.S. high school civics knows, the race for the White House is not decided by the national popular vote. A candidate must win 270 electoral votes to become commander in chief. According to another campaigns and elections site, the aptly named 270ToWin, the Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — is likely to win 241 electoral votes fairly easily based simply on the partisan makeup of “true blue” states like California and Maryland. The GOP nominee — again, not matter who it is — is likely to win 235 votes from “reliably red” states.
That leaves 62 electoral votes that are up for grabs. As of now, 270ToWin has five states in the toss up column:
Arizona, with 11 electoral votes;
Georgia, with 16 electoral votes;
Nevada, with 6 electoral votes;
Pennsylvania, with 19 electoral votes; and
Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes.
Once primary season is over, expect the nominees to spent lots of time in these battlegrounds.
In addition to head-to-head matchup polls like the ones that FiveThirtyEight highlights, when there is an incumbent running for reelection another barometer political analysts use to gauge the likely outcome of a presidential election is current presidential approval.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s average of presidential approval polls, only about 40 percent of Americans approve of the job President Biden is doing. More than half, 53.8 percent, as of this morning, disapprove. History indicates that this should be a discouraging sign for the Biden White House. The last president to be reelected with an average approval hanging around 40 percent in an election year was Harry Truman in 1948.
For both President Biden and former President Trump there may be another threat lurking too: a third-party candidate.
Robert F. Kennedy is now running as an independent and the organization No Labels is threatening to spend tens of millions of dollars on a third-party candidate if Joe Biden and Donald Trump are their parties’ respective nominees. According to The Washington Post, in polls that include Kennedy in a three-way race, the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy earns as much as 16 percent of the vote.
That level of support is more than enough to be a spoiler for either the Republican or Democratic standard-bearer. (Ralph Nader, anyone?) Indeed, The Post said, “You have to go back further than  to find third-party candidates polling better than the current crop does at this early juncture. Perot in 1992 sometimes actually polled as the leader, before taking 19 percent in the general election. Before that, John Anderson in 1980 polled as high as the mid-20s before ultimately taking a little less than 7 percent.”
In short: there are still a few variables that make predicting a Trump-Biden rematch difficult, but 12 months is an eternity in politics.
Now, what about Congress?
Who Will Control The House And Senate In 2025?
As loyal readers know, Democrats narrowly hold the Senate while Republicans have a very slim margin in the House of Representatives. Both chambers are up for grabs in next year’s election.
One indicator of how confident incumbent lawmakers feel about their party’s chance to hold one or both chambers of Congress is the volume of retirements from Congress. The more certain a lawmaker feels their party will be in the majority after the next election cycle, the more likely they are to run for office again.
Of course, confidence is not the only reason a lawmaker chooses to stay or go, but it is a factor. In 2009, American Prospect writer Tim Fernholz noted 20 Democrats retired from the lower chamber of Congress because it was looking like Republicans might run away with control of the U.S. House. In 2008, 28 GOP House members opted to retire instead of watching the Democrats expand their majority.
Using this metric as an indicator, it seems Democrats are in a bit of trouble. Fourteen Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives already have said they will not run for reelection in 2024. That number compares to just 5 Republican House members. In the Senate, 4 Democrats and 2 Republicans are not running for another term.
Two other early indicators of which party may win control of the House and Senate are the generic congressional ballot and voters’ general enthusiasm about voting. A generic congressional ballot survey simply asks potential voters whether they would rather vote for a Democrat or a Republican for the U.S. House. There is no specific person or candidate tied to the question.
FiveThirtyEight is tracking this metric, and, at this point, the results are all over the place. In the six latest generic congressional ballot polls, Democrats come out ahead in 3 and Republicans also win in 3.
And what about voter enthusiasm? We have not yet seen many polls gauging this question, which simply asks a potential voter whether they are excited or eager to vote. Here is what a recent NBC News survey found, however:
In general, about two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) are eager to vote;
Republicans are more excited (75 percent) than Democrats (68 percent) to vote;
Older Americans (87 percent of those 65 and older) are more eager than younger Americans (38 percent of voters aged 18 to 34) to vote; and
Minority voters (53 percent of Black voters and 51 percent of Latino voters) are less excited to go to the polls than white voters (73 percent).
NBC News said, “Yes, it’s still early in the cycle. … But the current election-interest percentages for young voters, Black voters and Latino voters are all down from what our poll showed at similar points in the 2008, 2012, 2016 and (especially) 2020 cycles.”
In other words: Enthusiasm is down from previous elections when Democrats did well, especially with demographics that generally tend to vote more heavily for Democratic candidates.
But, as NBC noted, it’s still early days. So, do any of these surveys really matter?
How Reliable Are Early Polls?
Polling one year before an election should be taken with a grain of salt. As we have seen in just the past few weeks — and as we certainly saw in March 2020 — global crises can emerge that can have a significant effect on the election.
But that does not mean these polls are meaningless. Here is what an NBC News analysis found in November 2019:
Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then-Sen. Kamala Harris, (D-Calif.), and Pete Buttigieg all held comfortable leads over then-President Trump in hypothetical 2020 matchups;
Biden did the best against President Trump, beating him by an average of 10 points in early polls; and
Polling averages in the individual states most likely to determine who would win the electoral college favored Democrats.
Joe Biden ended up winning both the electoral college and the popular vote, but the popular vote margin was only 4.4 percent compared to the 10-percentage point advantage he had over Donald Trump in an analysis of November 2019 polls.
All to say: the race for the White House is still very much up for grabs. And, regardless of who is ahead, polling, whether now or next November, “should never drive whether you turn out or who you vote for,” says political analyst Josh Douglas.
But expect both parties to try to drive up voter enthusiasm over the next 12 months.