A new national poll turns post-debate conventional wisdom on its head

It has been less than a week since President Biden walked out onto the stage of the first presidential debate in Atlanta and upended his political legacy.

Biden’s performance Thursday reinforced the biggest concern voters have expressed about his candidacy: his age. He moved slowly, spoke softly and had trouble articulating his thoughts. More than once he lost his train of thought entirely.

It was an earthquake. Democrats, desperate to block former president Donald Trump’s return to the White House, began openly discussing how to replace Biden as their party’s nominee. Political observers and pundits were happy to entertain alternative scenarios. Polls were consulted and vibes checked. Private phone calls and public interviews all pointed in the same direction: Something needed to change.

There was also general agreement on what that change might look like. While Vice President Harris has often polled at or near Biden, much of the conventional wisdom centered on the idea that Democrats should come together at the party’s upcoming convention and identify someone else to be the nominee — someone perceived as more obviously electable than Biden or Harris. There was a great deal of insistence that this was the only way to ensure that Trump wouldn’t be reelected.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, CNN released new polling that is distinctly at odds with those arguments.

We should be very cautious about reading too much into one poll. That’s always true, and certainly in a moment when things are so unsettled. But the CNN poll, conducted by SSRS, is worth considering seriously for a few reasons. First, it was conducted entirely after the debate. Second, it is a quality, well-regarded poll. And third, its findings are less useful in establishing certainty about how the party might move forward than they are in demonstrating that any such certainty is unwarranted.

CNN’s last national poll was in April, when Trump had a six-point lead in a head-to-head matchup against Biden. In the new poll, Trump has … a six-point lead. In fact, the top-line numbers are exactly the same as they were two months before.

What’s more, there aren’t significant shifts in the favorability of either candidate. Biden and Trump are each viewed more favorably by members of their parties than they were in April.

One shift CNN found in the new poll, though, was that Americans, including Democrats, are now more likely to say that someone else has a better chance of beating Trump than does Biden. But the last time CNN asked the question, in January, Democrats already said someone else would be a better bet.

It’s a shift of degree more than viewpoint, a doubling of the difference between the two.

So who might that someone else be? CNN offered respondents a battery of options, including Harris, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). The candidate who runs the best against Trump?

Harris, who trails by two points.

The other candidates trail by four to six points, in a poll with a margin of sampling error that is 3.7 points. No clear leader — but the idea that Harris runs worse than other candidates is simply not supported by the data.

In fact, across demographic groups, Harris outperforms Biden. On the chart below, the dots shown to the left on a given blue line indicate the candidate who fares better against Trump. Notice that the solid circles — those indicating Harris’s margins against Trump — sit consistently to the left. The exception is among men, among whom both candidates do about as well.

Harris does noticeably better with women, independents and non-White voters. Those groups and younger voters are also more likely to view Harris favorably than they are to view Biden favorably (among respondents who had an opinion of the candidates).

This is a weird, complicated situation, so it’s worth putting a fine point on a few things.

For one thing, just because people are wary of Biden doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. CNN’s poll found the same dynamic at play that many other polls have found: Biden’s support is primarily made up of people who support him because they oppose Trump.

If you are planning to vote to block Trump’s election, that you view Biden more negatively or are more supportive of someone replacing him doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t going to vote for him anyway. Hence Biden doing as well against Trump now as he did two months ago.

It is also true that measuring whether other candidates might do better against Trump is extremely tricky. Harris’s two-point gap is not significantly different from Whitmer’s five-point one. Perhaps Whitmer would be a better candidate than Harris and more easily surge past Trump. This poll can’t tell us that — but no poll really could. What this poll does suggest is, instead, that the idea Harris is disadvantaged relative to other candidates has little merit.

The final consideration is the one we began with: This is one poll. It’s a good one, in polling terms, but different pollsters talking to different people can yield different results. It may still be the case that Biden collapses; it is still the case that he is walking a much narrower tightrope than he was a week ago. But this poll doesn’t reinforce the idea that he is necessarily doomed.

Nor does it bolster the idea that slotting in, say, Newsom will mean puppies and sunshine for Democrats until early November.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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