CNN Poll: Trump narrowly leads Biden in general election rematch

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump AP

With presidential primaries underway and a 2020 general election rematch seemingly the most likely outcome, a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS shows former President Donald Trump narrowly ahead of President Joe Biden in what’s shaping up to be a close contest nationally.

The poll highlights voters’ conflicted feelings about the leading candidates. Broad majorities of Democrats and Republicans say they’d be satisfied if their party’s candidate won such a rematch. Still, a sizable minority of voters express a desire for another option if Biden and Trump are the nominees.

Overall, 49% of registered voters say they would back Trump if an election between the two were held today, while 45% support Biden and 5% say they’d vote for someone else. Those numbers are identical to CNN polling on the contest in the fall, and the demographic dynamics of the contest appear to be steady – with a wide education gap among the most notable demographic divides, and smaller differences by age or race than in other recent presidential elections.

Biden’s support among traditionally Democratic-leaning blocs such as younger voters and voters of color has not grown since the fall: Voters younger than 35 remain about evenly split, 49% back Biden and 46% Trump, while voters of color break 57% Biden to 35% Trump.

Most voters on both sides of the hypothetical matchup continue to be more likely to say their choice is about Trump than that it is about Biden (68% of Biden supporters say they’d be voting against Trump rather than for Biden, while 60% of Trump supporters say they’d be voting more for him than against Biden).

A month into the election year, there are few signs of movement in how the public views either candidate. Both Trump and Biden continue to be deeply underwater in favorability ratings (59% of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Biden and 55% have a negative take on Trump), and many say that Biden does not deserve reelection (66%). Americans largely see Trump’s views and policies as “too extreme” (63%), while most see Biden’s views and policies as “generally mainstream” (61%).

The poll finds that a victory by either candidate would leave most of the nation dissatisfied and a substantial share upset.

Voters in the poll were asked whether they would like to see another candidate from within the party they’re closest to run as an independent if Biden were the Democratic nominee and Trump the Republican. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 43% say they’d want to see another Democrat make an independent bid alongside a Biden-Trump matchup, while 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they would want a Republican candidate to run as an independent in that scenario.

Polling consistently shows that the idea of a third party or independent candidate for president is popular, but in reality, third-party bids rarely generate as much support as pre-election polling would suggest.

The pull of party loyalty comes through in the poll’s broad majorities who say they would be content should their party’s likely nominee win. Roughly 8 in 10 GOP-aligned voters say they’d be satisfied or enthusiastic with another Trump presidency, and roughly three-quarters of Democratic-aligned voters are similarly positive about a second Biden term.

Neither Biden nor Trump has locked in their party’s nomination. Trump’s last remaining major GOP opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, holds a clear lead over Biden among voters nationwide in another hypothetical general election scenario: 52% support her compared with 39% for Biden. Voters’ choices in that matchup are primarily motivated by views of Biden, with 63% of his supporters saying they back him more than they oppose her, while 63% of her supporters say it’s more about opposing Biden than about backing her.

Still, many Americans say they don’t know enough about Haley to have an opinion of her (42%). Those who do currently break more negative than positive, 32% unfavorable to 25% favorable.

Haley trails Trump by roughly 50 points when Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters are asked who they would most like to see win the GOP nomination for president in 2024 (70% say Trump, 19% Haley, 8% name someone else).

Republicans express confidence in Trump’s odds at winning a second term as president: 88% of Republican-aligned voters say he has a realistic chance of winning the presidency should he become the nominee, while only 29% see Biden as having a realistic shot at winning. About 7 in 10 (72%) Republican-aligned voters say the party has a better chance to win the White House with Trump at the top of the ticket than someone else, and 57% say they would be enthusiastic should he become president again. And most Republican-aligned voters view Trump as generally mainstream (62%) rather than too extreme (37%).

Haley faces more pessimism among the potential Republican electorate about her chances to win. Despite numerous national polls showing her holding a broader lead over Biden than Trump does in hypothetical matchups, just 54% of GOP-aligned voters see her as having a realistic shot at winning, and a scant 16% would be enthusiastic about her should she become the next occupant of the White House.

Among Republican and Republican-leaning voters, her favorability rating lags far behind Trump’s: 31% have a favorable view of Haley, compared with 71% who have a positive view of Trump.

Republican-aligned voters’ concerns about Trump as a candidate remain more focused on his personality and image than on his policies. The share saying their biggest concern about him is his abrasive or disrespectful nature has climbed from 8% late last summer to 15% now. And 8% say they are concerned he will be attacked by or unable to work with Democrats, 8% that his legal situation or possible convictions are their biggest concern, 6% cite his bad public image and widespread dislike of him, and 5% express concerns that elections would be rigged against him. About 1 in 5, 19%, say they have no concerns about Trump as a candidate.

While most Democrats see Biden as having a realistic shot at winning a second term (80% of Democratic-aligned voters say so), most also see Trump as having a real shot at the White House (61%), and a narrow majority say that Biden is not the candidate who brings the Democratic Party its best chance to win. In the new poll, 53% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters say their party has a better chance to win in 2024 with someone else at the top of the ticket.

Democratic concerns about Biden remain concentrated around his age. Nearly half, 46%, cite his age when asked to name their biggest concern about him as a presidential candidate, with 5% mentioning his mental competence or sharpness, 2% citing worries about his ability to handle the job and 2% worrying that he wouldn’t live through a second term. About 3% say it’s not his age that concerns them personally, but ageism and how his age is perceived by others.

And a new concern has emerged about Biden: 5% say his handling of the conflict between Israel and Hamas is their major concern, an issue that hadn’t yet emerged when CNN last polled on this question in August. Democratic-aligned voters younger than 45 are more apt to name this as their top concern than are older voters (9% of those younger than 45 mention Israel, compared with 3% among older Democratic-aligned voters).

The poll suggests, though, that an enthusiasm gap that broke for the Republicans in polling last fall may have narrowed. In the new poll, 63% of Republican-aligned voters say they are extremely motivated to vote in the 2024 presidential election, down from 71% in the fall. Among Democrats, the share who is deeply motivated to vote has held closer to even: 58% say they are extremely motivated now compared with 61% in the fall.

Overall, Biden’s approval rating among all adults stands at 38% approve and 62% disapprove, similar to where that figure has been hovering for much of the last year.

Democrats are more positive toward his job performance (78% approve), but a smaller majority of Democrats say he deserves a second term (69%). Among independents, 66% disapprove of his job performance, and 70% say he does not deserve a second term in the White House.

The CNN poll was conducted by SSRS from January 25-30 among a random national sample of 1,212 adults drawn from a probability-based panel. Surveys were either conducted online or by telephone with a live interviewer. Results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For results among the 983 registered voters surveyed, the error margin is plus or minus 3.8 points.

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