Which Republican Candidate Should Biden Be Most Afraid Of?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): It’s finally official: President Biden is running for reelection. After months of teasing a potential bid for a second term, he dropped a prerecorded video on April 25 saying that his 2024 campaign has officially begun.

In that announcement, Biden started to make his own pitch for another four years. “The question we are facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer,” he said in the video. And while he didn’t name any rivals, pictures of Republican opponents — like former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — flashed on the screen as he spoke.

Without a serious primary challenger (yet, anyway), potential GOP opponents are clearly on Biden’s mind. But the Republican primary is just getting off the ground. So let’s talk about which potential GOP candidate would be Biden’s most formidable opponent. Which Republican, even if they haven’t officially announced yet — looking at you, DeSantis — has the best chance of beating Biden, based on what we know now?

kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, politics reporter): Here’s my hot take for 2024: Biden has a better shot against some of the front-runners like Trump and DeSantis than against one of the currently-less-hot candidates. He’s an incumbent candidate whose approval rating is nothing to write home about, even among Democrats. There’s a serious risk of Democrats feeling apathetic about this election, especially if the candidate is someone they assume Biden will beat.

But if Trump or DeSantis is the nominee, the prospect of one of those candidates winning could be enough to scare Democrats into showing up at the polls. For better or worse, polarization means our elections are as much about whom voters don’t want as much as they are about whom they do want: One survey found that as many as one-third of voters in 2020 said they were voting against a candidate rather than for the one they chose. Biden may benefit if he’s running against someone whom Democrats view as a threat.

ameliatd: 🔥 take, Kaleigh! What do you think, Geoffrey and Nathaniel?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Oh, interesting, Kaleigh! I was thinking about this question in terms of Trump versus DeSantis. But that’s probably too closed-minded of me. Although it would be a pretty huge upset for someone polling as low as former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley or former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to win the GOP nomination, it’s very possible they would be stronger general-election candidates than either Trump or DeSantis because they are more temperamentally moderate.

kaleigh: Right, and I think a more moderate candidate comes with a dual risk: Democratic voters will either think Biden can beat a moderate, or they’re OK with the possibility that he won’t.

nrakich: In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that, of the candidates in the race right now, Haley would be the strongest general-election candidate. There is credible daylight between her and Trump(ism) on issues like election denialism (she criticized him after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol). And fairly or not, the fact that she’s a woman of color would likely make her seem more moderate. Political science research tells us that Republican women, especially women of color, are perceived as more moderate than conservative, which can be a problem in primaries but a potential help in general elections.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): That all makes sense to me. However, while it’s early, there is only a small chance that someone besides Trump or DeSantis wins the GOP presidential nomination. We know early primary polls are actually fairly predictive, so to have those two candidates so far ahead of the rest of the field at this point makes it hard — though not impossible — to see anyone else facing Biden. So the question, to Nathaniel’s point, is mostly about which of those two has a better chance of defeating Biden. 

ameliatd: OK, so if we’re talking about which candidate with a realistic shot of actually being the nominee has the best chance of beating Biden — who is it? Trump or DeSantis? And yes, I know DeSantis isn’t officially in the race yet — but let’s assume he is.

nrakich: I think it’s DeSantis. He managed to win reelection in Florida last year by 20 points! That was very impressive; Florida has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of only R+7. And yes, I know he was running against a flawed candidate in Democratic former Rep. Charlie Crist, but that’s likely only part of the story.

In addition, virtually all evidence indicates that Trump is a big electoral drag on his own, and for the GOP. He won in 2016 only by the skin of his teeth, and that was against a historically unpopular Democratic candidate in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

And then, of course, he lost in 2020 to Biden, who will likely be his (or DeSantis’s) opponent again in 2024. And the candidates he endorsed did really poorly in the 2022 general election, too. An analysis from The Economist estimated that they did 5 percentage points worse than a non-Trump-endorsed candidate would have. 

geoffrey.skelley: I tend to agree that DeSantis is a somewhat better bet against Biden than Trump. He’s not as well-known as Trump and he tends to have a better net favorability rating among Republicans than the former president in most polls, usually because fewer Republicans have a negative opinion of DeSantis. If he can maintain that favorability edge even as he becomes better-known, DeSantis could wind up doing a better job of retaining most Republican support in the general election, whereas Trump’s controversial record could result in him losing a small number of Republicans to Biden — and in a close election, that could matter.

Additionally, Trump polls quite poorly among independents, so DeSantis could be a chance for the GOP to get a fresh start with this group. I’m not sure how much better than Trump he could do — to Kaleigh’s earlier point, high levels of polarization have made this a game of inches when it comes to substantially shifting the electorate toward one party or the other. But I do think DeSantis is likely to perform better than Trump.

kaleigh: Totally. The reality is that Biden beat Trump once before, and I’m not convinced anything has shifted in Trump’s favor since then. In fact, I think things look worse for Trump. Jan. 6 poured a lot of cold water on the MAGA movement, and the scandals that have followed (the multiple investigations, the indictment, the mishandled classified documents), while temporarily boosting good will for Trump among Republicans, may make GOP voters ultimately see him as too much of a liability.

nrakich: I do want to reemphasize Geoffrey’s point about polarization, though. When we’re talking about which candidate is more “electable,” chances are their advantage is only a couple percentage points. Though, in a close election, that could matter …

ameliatd: But, OK — what happens to Trump’s enthusiastic fan base within the GOP if DeSantis wins? Is it possible they just don’t turn out for DeSantis?

geoffrey.skelley: DeSantis is very Trumpy. I don’t think they’re going to have much trouble turning out for him against Biden. Granted, we don’t know what Trump would do if he lost the GOP nomination — he might hold a serious grudge and try to actively undermine his party’s campaign.

kaleigh: A lot of Trump’s loyalists would likely pivot and rally behind DeSantis. He has enough of the anti-woke bona fides to scratch that itch for the MAGA base. But I think some will drop off. Trump inspired a meaningful number of nonvoters to turn out to the polls for the first time in years, and many of those voters may fall back out of the electorate if the GOP candidate lacks the fiery charisma of Trump. 

And on the flip side, Geoff, if Trump rallies behind DeSantis (not his typical M.O. but he’s nothing if not surprising), that could be all the boost DeSantis needs to secure the base after the primary.

nrakich: Yeah, despite Trump’s attacks on DeSantis, Trump primary voters so far still have a strongly positive opinion of the Florida governor. According to Morning Consult, 47 percent of Trump voters identified DeSantis as their second choice for president. Only 27 percent identified a different candidate, and the actual “never-DeSantis” crowd is probably even smaller than that. 

Also, just in general, the idea that dissatisfied primary voters don’t end up voting for their party’s nominee in the end is overrated. Almost all of them will end up voting for the GOP nominee just to stop Biden. For example, in the 2008 exit polls, 89 percent of Democrats said they voted for former President Barack Obama even after his bruising primary fight with Clinton that year. That number (around 90 percent) is pretty typical in terms of same-party vote share.

ameliatd: But what happens if DeSantis goes so far right in the primary that he’s in basically the same position as Trump with independents? I am going to force one of you to take Trump seriously as a contender against Biden!

geoffrey.skelley: Oh, it’s not that we don’t take Trump seriously. He could very well defeat Biden. I just think there’s good reason to see DeSantis as having a higher ceiling than Trump in a general election.

nrakich: Yeah, Amelia, I do think that could happen. DeSantis isn’t even in the race yet. I’m just talking about where things stand right now. But I do think DeSantis would have to do a lot of extreme stuff to develop a brand as toxic with independents as Trump’s.

That said, he has been working overtime to develop that uber-conservative record. The type of six-week abortion ban that he recently signed into law, for example, is unpopular nationwide. (According to a recent Fox News poll, 52 percent of Americans would oppose a six-week abortion ban in their state, and only 44 percent would support it.) And if abortion remains as big an issue in 2024 as it was in 2022, that could put him behind the eight ball.

kaleigh: Yeah, I think we’re all trying to choose between three not-particularly-stellar candidates, and this early in the game, there’s a case to be made for Trump, Biden or DeSantis coming out on top.

ameliatd: OK, so let’s talk about Trump. What would have to happen for him to be a stronger contender against Biden than DeSantis? Because Nathaniel’s right — it’s early, and DeSantis is unproven on the national stage.

geoffrey.skelley: DeSantis certainly does have plenty of potential negatives. He may go so far to the right with an eye on the primary that he’ll be vulnerable in a general election. So even if he might be a better pick for the GOP than Trump, the differences here are not necessarily that large.

And some might turn to the polls to argue Trump is stronger. I took an average of general election polls of registered or likely voters in April, and on average Trump’s margin against Biden was a couple of points better than DeSantis’s. However, we also know that Trump has basically universal name recognition, whereas DeSantis is well known but not to the extent Trump is. As a result, surveys asking about the Florida governor tend to have more undecideds, which may be aiding Trump in this comparison.

Moreover, while primary polls conducted in the first half of the year before the election have some predictive power, general election polls at this point are not worth very much. It’s not usually until the spring of the election year that general election polls start to have meaningful explanatory power for the eventual November outcome, which makes sense: That’s about the time we start to get a firmer idea of what the general election matchup could look like. And given the small margins in most recent elections, even minor swings closer to November could matter, so there’s still a long way to go.

kaleigh: Part of it could come down to the campaign itself. Biden is 80. He’ll turn 81 late this year. He’s not the same candidate he was in 2020. If his campaign isn’t energetic enough, it could prompt voters to stay home or even feel willing to give Trump another shot, especially if Trump is campaigning well and avoiding some of the bigger gaffes of past elections. Again, we’re talking about slim margins here that could make the difference.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, to Kaleigh’s point, there are also a bunch of unknowns, like the state of the economy, scandals, war and other factors that could influence the trajectory of the general election later.

nrakich: Yes, Kaleigh, I think that’s a key point. According to a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from February, 68 percent of registered voters said Biden is too old to start another term as president. But Trump himself is 76! Meanwhile, DeSantis is only 44 years old, he has a young family, etc. I know this is super pundit-y, but given how unpredictive the early polls are at this stage, I think it’s as good a theory as any: The age contrast between DeSantis and Biden could benefit DeSantis in a general election.

geoffrey.skelley: That seems possible, Nathaniel, although Biden could come out firing in a debate with the line Ronald Reagan used in 1984 against Walter Mondale (who was in his mid-50s but still 17 years younger than Reagan): “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

kaleigh: A classic debate zinger!

geoffrey.skelley: Reagan was the last president to face serious questions about his age and mental acuity, so the comparison to Biden seems apt.

kaleigh: And, compared to 80-year-old Biden and 76-year-old Trump, Reagan was a spry 73 at the time!

ameliatd: So it sounds like one big question mark here is Biden himself. And he’ll have to run a very different campaign than he did in 2020 — simply because we were deeply in the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic then, and nobody could campaign. But what do Republican voters think? Do they view one candidate as more electable than the other?

nrakich: Yes, Amelia, so far, Republican voters think Trump is more electable than DeSantis! According to Morning Consult, 54 percent of potential GOP primary voters think Trump has the best chance of beating Biden, while only 25 percent said DeSantis. I don’t know if that’s because of name recognition, or because many Republican voters still believe Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, or some other reason, but it’s definitely the opposite of what I would have expected.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Nathaniel. It’s also not clear how much electability even matters to Republican voters. Polls have varied, but a March survey from CNN found that 59 percent of Republicans and independents who leaned Republican said they preferred a candidate who agreed with them on the issues, compared with 41 percent who preferred one who had a strong chance of defeating Biden. Meanwhile, 63 percent of Republican adults told YouGov/The Economist in mid-April that agreeing with a candidate on the issues was more important than their chances in the general election; only 23 percent said the latter was more critical. 

However, another mid-April poll from Impact Research and Fabrizio, Lee & Associates on behalf of the Wall Street Journal found 51 percent preferred a candidate with the best chance of winning the general even if they disagreed on some issues versus 44 percent who wanted to agree with the candidate on everything even if the candidate would have a tougher time winning in November. The wording and results in these polls differ to some extent, but regardless, there definitely isn’t a huge majority of Republicans who are prioritizing winning over the issues.

nrakich: An interesting strategy from a party that is in real danger of losing four of the last five presidential elections!

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