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Biden and Harris Poll About the Same Versus Trump

by California Digital News

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

One very central dynamic in the recent saga of Democratic anxiety over Joe Biden’s chances against Donald Trump, given the weaknesses he displayed in his first 2024 debate, has been the role of his understudy, Vice-President Kamala Harris. My colleague Gabriel Debenedetti explained the problem nearly two years ago as the “Kamala Harris conundrum”:

Top party donors have privately worried to close Obama allies that they’re skeptical of Harris’s prospects as a presidential candidate, citing the implosion of her 2020 campaign and her struggles as VP. Jockeying from other potential competitors, like frenemy Gavin Newsom, suggests that few would defer to her if Biden retired. Yet Harris’s strength among the party’s most influential voters nonetheless puts her in clear pole position.

The widely shared perception that Harris is too unpopular to pick up the party banner if Biden dropped it, but too well-positioned to be pushed aside without huge collateral damage, was a major part of the mindset of political observers when evaluating Democratic options after the debate. But now fresher evidence of Harris’s public standing shows she’s just as viable as many of the candidates floated in fantasy scenarios about an “open convention,” “mini-primary,” or smoke-filled room that would sweep away both parts of the Biden-Harris ticket.

For a good while now, Harris’s job-approval numbers have been converging with Biden’s after trailing them initially. These indicate dismal popularity among voters generally, but not in a way that makes her an unacceptable replacement candidate should she be pressed into service in an emergency. As of now, her job-approval ratio in the FiveThirtyEight averages is 37.1 percent approve to 51.2 percent disapprove. Biden’s is 37.4 percent approve to 56.8 percent disapprove. In the favorability ratios tracked by RealClearPolitics, Harris is at 38.3 favorable to 54.6 percent unfavorable, while Biden is at 39.4 percent favorable to 56.9 percent unfavorable. There’s just not a great deal of difference other than slightly lower disapproval/unfavorable numbers for the veep.

On the crucial measurement of viability as a general-election candidate against Trump, there wasn’t much credible polling prior to the post-debate crisis. An Emerson survey in February 2024 showed Harris trailing Trump by 3 percent (43 percent to 46 percent), which was a better showing than Gavin Newsom (down ten points, 36 percent to 46 percent) or Gretchen Whitmer (down 12 points, 33 percent to 45 percent).

After the debate, though, there was a sudden cascade of polling matching Democratic alternatives against Trump, and while Harris’s strength varied, she consistently did as well as or better than the fantasy alternatives. The first cookie on the plate was a one-day June 28 survey from Data for Progress, which showed virtually indistinguishable polling against Trump by Biden, Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Gavin Newsom, J.B. Pritzker, Josh Shapiro, and Gretchen Whitmer. All of them trailed Trump by 2 to 3 percent among likely voters.

Then two national polls released on July 2 showed Harris doing better than other feasible Biden alternatives. Reuters/Ipsos (which showed Biden and Trump tied) had Harris within a point of Trump, while Newsom trailed by three points, Andy Beshear by four, Whitmer by five, and Pritzker by six points. Similarly, CNN showed Harris trailing Trump by just two points; Pete Buttigieg trailing by four points; and Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer trailing him by five points.

Emerson came back with a new poll on July 9 that wasn’t as sunny as some for Democrats generally (every tested name trailed Trump, with Biden down by three points). But again, Harris (down by six points) did better than Newsom (down eight points); Buttigieg and Whitmer (down ten points); and Shapiro (down 12 points).

There’s been some talk that Harris might help Democrats with base constituencies that are sour about Biden. There’s not much publicly available evidence testing that hypothesis, though the crosstabs in the latest CNN poll do show Harris doing modestly better than Biden among people of color, voters under the age of 35, and women.

The bottom line is that one element of the “Kamala Harris conundrum” needs to be revised. There should be no real drop-off in support if Biden (against current expectations) steps aside in favor of his vice-president (the only really feasible “replacement” scenario at this point). She probably has a higher ceiling of support than Biden as well, but in any event, she would have a fresh opportunity to make a strong first or second impression on many Americans who otherwise know little about her.

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