Trump is overperforming, but there’s a way back for Biden

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The writer is a pollster, political consultant and author

The reason Donald Trump is currently overperforming as an anti-system, anti-immigrant candidate is that Joe Biden hasn’t realised yet the rules of the next US presidential election. 

The 2024 race is being shaped by three exceptional factors. First, the inflation produced by the economy restarting after the pandemic, supply chain problems, rising energy prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the high cost of food. Second, heightened anger at profiteering by big companies and increasingly visible monopolies. And third, surging levels of migration caused by wars, political unrest and extreme weather.     

Trump gets it. At rallies during the autumn he promised to launch the “largest domestic deportation operation in American history” and to secure the border.

But it is inflation, more than any other factor, that concentrates the mind. My research in the US, UK and Europe shows that what matters to people is how long they have been struggling to pay their bills, not the trend line on macro inflation or whether your country is doing better than others. Energy and petrol prices are impossible, and high food prices leave your kids hungry. 

A recent survey of the battleground states by Democracy Corps and PSG Consulting showed that 64 per cent of those polled chose inflation and the cost of living as their top concern, almost 30 points higher than the next problem. 

Citizens have lived with more than two years of wages not keeping up with prices. That is why the percentage rating the economy as “poor” is rising to its highest level this year.

Next, consider anger about profiteering and the public’s growing distrust of big corporations and their influence over the political class. As people struggle financially, they ask why the oil companies or big retail chains are not helping with lower prices. They watched in the last few years as four companies gained more than 75 per cent market share for infant formula, baby foods, beef processing, pasta, cereal and soda.

Voters ask why the government isn’t doing more and assume the big companies are buying off the politicians.

The third exceptional factor is the vast increase in migration and border crossings. The battleground survey asked voters what would concern them were Biden to be re-elected president. Soaring to the top of the list were images of “the border being wide open to millions of impoverished immigrants, many are criminals and drug dealers who are overwhelming America’s cities”.  

So, Trump will overperform as long as almost 60 per cent of voters choose him and the Republicans over Biden and the Democrats on “your wages and salary keeping up with the cost of living”, handling “crime” and the “border”. And those are three of the top four issues facing the country.

That can change, but the starting point for Biden is ditching “Bidenomics.” His description of it gets fewer positive reactions than the percentage planning to vote for him. 

But, as I said, inflation concentrates the mind. Biden should talk almost exclusively about high prices and what he has been doing to help with high drug costs and healthcare premiums, getting cheaper energy and the monthly expanded child tax credit. And if he tells people he wants to do more, they will listen. Americans want help and want to know that the White House will deliver change. 

When voters hear the Inflation Reduction Act is here “to save you money”, that message is welcomed by 52 per cent of voters — seven points above Biden’s vote.

The Biden administration is also well placed to talk about profiteering and what it has done to shift power from Wall Street and big corporations. Its appointments to regulatory agencies have made it clear workers have a right to organise, have brought a fresh antitrust lawsuit against Amazon and have issued new guidelines for mergers. 

And messaging on the economy that begins with the contention that “economic power is concentrated in the hands of big banks” and insists Biden has “an agenda to shift power away from corporate giants and corporate executives” is welcomed by 53 per cent of voters. 

Such an approach engages with the exceptional factors at work in this election. What’s more, Trump and the Republicans don’t actually have a policy offer beyond their attacks on the president.

Of course, Biden also has to say that there is a “crisis” at the border and offer credible policies to get it under control. If he does that, stay tuned to see whether Trump continues to overperform. 

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