The pack chasing Donald Trump hasn’t come close to catching its prey.
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images
It’s been a turbulent year in U.S. politics, leading to a 2024 election year that’s likely to be even more chaotic. As 2023 ends, here’s a look at how the polls have evolved over the last year, and what they are telling us about the state of the presidential race.
At the beginning of the year, Donald Trump had already overtaken the early post-midterm momentum of Ron DeSantis; Trump led DeSantis in the RealClearPolitics national polling averages by 18.2 percent (47 percent to 28.8 percent). Now Trump’s lead is up to an astonishing 52.2 percent (63.8 percent to 11.6 percent). The only other viable challenger at this point, Nikki Haley, bumped along in the single digits of national polls most of the year before surging above 10 percent in November (she’s now at 10.8 percent). While other candidates occasionally showed potential, none made it into double digits in the national polling averages all year. Presently, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, and Asa Hutchinson together have 7.8 percent of the national vote.
Things are a bit more interesting in the three early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Trump’s support in Iowa just over three weeks before the caucuses seems steady at 50 percent or slightly higher. DeSantis (18.6 percent in the RCP averages), who has gambled everything on this state, and Haley (16.1 percent) are locked in a close battle for second place, but over 30 percent behind Trump. And no other candidate is making any real noise there. New Hampshire (whose primary is on January 23) is the one state where a rival is within shouting distance of the 45th president; he leads Nikki Haley in the RCP averages by 21.5 percent (46.3 percent to 24.8 percent); Christie (10.5 percent) and DeSantis (9.5 percent) are third and fourth and losing altitude. (There’s some late buzz over an extreme outlier poll from American Research Group showing Haley within four points of Trump). In Haley’s native South Carolina, Trump could go for a knockout on February 24; he leads Haley by nearly 30 points in the RCP averages (49.2 percent to 19.6 percent) and has even more high-level endorsements than she does.
At this point, a long-shot Haley upset in New Hampshire followed by another a month later in South Carolina is the only foreseeable development that could deny Trump an early nomination (by mid-March). DeSantis is just scratching for survival in Iowa and doesn’t have much of a path to success after that.
There really isn’t much of a contest other than in New Hampshire, which is holding a rogue primary on January 24 where Joe Biden’s two rivals, Dean Phillips and Marianne Williamson, are hoping for attention-grabbing headlines. Biden’s Granite State backers are running a write-in campaign for the president, and limited polling is beginning to show him pulling away from the candidates actually on the ballot (the RCP averages have him at 47.3 percent and rising quickly, with Phillips at 11.7 percent and Williamson at 8.7 percent). If Team Biden can hold expectations down a bit and keep reminding the media this is an unsanctioned primary that awards no delegates, they should have this largely symbolic challenge well in hand. Nationally, Biden has 68.3 percent in the RCP averages, with a 60-point lead over Williamson (7.8 percent) and Phillips barely making a mark at 3.3 percent. The Democratic contest formally begins on February 3 with a primary in South Carolina.
In terms of the public’s overall assessment of Joe Biden’s performance as president, 2023 has been a year spent underwater. His approval-disapproval ratio at the beginning of the year (per RCP averages) was 43.5 percent to 52.1 percent, and it is currently 40.5 percent to 55.9 percent. At no point in the year did he have (in the averages, at least) a positive net job approval. His approval-rating average briefly dropped below 40 percent in December before rebounding slightly.
Averages aside, you may hear a lot about Gallup’s job-approval numbers since they are the basis for most comparisons between Biden and his predecessors. Its final 2023 rating for Biden is 39 percent. Trump was at 45 percent per Gallup at the end of 2019; Barack Obama was at 43 percent at the end of 2011.
November 2024 remains a long way off, but it’s worth noting that polls matching Biden against Republicans and others show another very close general-election contest. They also show remarkable resilience for Donald Trump given his persistent unpopularity, his two impeachments, his many legal troubles, and the slim but real possibility he will be disqualified from the ballot.
The RCP average of polls testing a head-to-head Biden-Trump rematch give Trump a 2.3 percent lead (46.8 percent to 44.5 percent), which is especially striking given the presumed Republican advantage in the Electoral College (in 2020, Biden won the national popular vote by 4.5 percent but won the states necessary for an electoral vote majority by a combined 44,000 votes). A few polls limited to battleground states mostly provided good news for Trump (e.g., a December Bloomberg–Morning Consult survey showing Trump leading Biden in each of seven key states).
There will, of course, be other candidates on the ballot in many states, and given the relative unpopularity of both major-party candidates, independent or minor-party options could become important. The most significant at present is former Democratic and now independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The RCP average of three-way polls including RFK show Trump with 38.3 percent, Biden with 37.3 percent, and Kennedy with 15.3 percent; RFK seems to be drawing slightly more support from Trump than from Biden. But five-way polls including not just Kennedy but fellow indie Cornel West and likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein show Biden suffering from a large and left-leaning field: The RCP averages show Trump leading Biden by 5 percent with the other candidates claiming a total of 17 percent.
Given the extremely close balance of power in the U.S. House over the last several years, House races will be another important 2024 battleground. Polls of the “congressional generic ballot” (typically just asking respondents which party they want to control the U.S. House) are very close. In the RCP averages, Republicans currently lead by 0.5 percent (44.6 percent to 44.1 percent).
“Direction of the Country” polls typically measure whether respondents regard America as being on “the right track” or “off on the wrong track.” 2023 polling on this question reflects the general sour mood of the public. The right-track/wrong-track ratio in the RCP averages began the year at 29.7 percent “right track” to 63.7 percent “wrong track” and managed to deteriorate to 24.6 percent “right track” to 68.7 percent “wrong track” at present. That’s hardly atypical, though: Gallup’s long-term polling on “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.” hasn’t shown a majority feeling good since May 2003. We’re a grumpy bunch of people.