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September 2023 NBC News Poll: A Country of Contradictions

Here are the results from the latest NBC News national poll conducted from September 15-19, 2023, among 1,000 voters.  The topline results of the poll can be found HERE.  

Post-Labor Day in an election year is typically a moment when voters dust off the sands of summer and start focusing in on their choices for the Fall.  It is at this time that the contours of the election turn into a much more defined shape, and crystal balls of clarity tell the story of what is likely to come.  A year from that moment, we are staring into a murky ball of JELL-O, full of contradictions and questions, more so than in any other election in recent memory.  Yet at the same time, due to our polarized politics, we are not seeing much movement, though a viable 3rd party challenger could break both the ball of JELL-O and the crystal ball to come.  But first, the contradictions in this poll, which are a good reminder for all of us to stay humble and listen to what voters are telling us over the next 14 months.

  • CONTRADICTION #1: Elections are usually referendums on the incumbent president, but a majority of voters say this election is about Donald Trump.  When asked if their vote is more about Trump or Biden, 57% of voters say their vote is more about Trump (either FOR or AGAINST), while just 37% say it is more about Biden.  We have 2 comps here, and in 2012, 66% of voters said their vote was more about the incumbent Barack Obama, in 2004 62% said their vote was more about the incumbent George W. Bush.  Even after losing the presidential election in 2020, Donald Trump remains the dominant political force in American politics, for better or for worse.

  • CONTRADICTION #2: Presidential job ratings usually track very closely with their share of the vote, but this is not the case for Biden against either Trump or DeSantis.  President Biden’s job rating is at 41% and he overperforms his job rating by 5 points against both.  Voters may not be enamored with Biden, but he is the best of what’s around compared to either of those candidates in personal terms.  Biden is 39% positive, 49% negative, which in a vacuum are troubling ratings, but that’s a far cry from Trump’s 35% positive, 54% negative or 28% positive, 48% negative for DeSantis. 
    • Among those who Somewhat Disapprove of Biden, Biden is 18% positive, 39% negative.  BUT Trump is 16% positive, 69% negative, and DeSantis is 18% positive, 48% negative.  And among these critical voters, Biden leads Trump by 18 points (49% to 31%) and DeSantis by 9 points (48% to 39%).
  • CONTRADICTION #3: Despite President Biden’s low job rating, there is only 1 of 3 Republican candidates in this poll who is leading Biden.  The small problem here is that Nikki Haley is 52 points behind Donald Trump in the Republican Primary.  Among the same somewhat disapprove group, where Biden leads against both Trump and DeSantis, Haley leads Biden by 14 points (49% to 35%).  
    • Making things even more uncertain, while Biden is tied with Trump in a 2-way matchup, in a hypothetical matchup with 3rd party candidates, Trump actually holds a 3-point advantage over Biden.  A viable 3rd party candidate clearly would take more away from the Biden coalition than the Trump coalition at this stage.  Trump retains 82% of his 2020 voters when 3rd party candidates are included, while Biden’s share of his voters drops to 70%.
  • CONTRADICTION #4: Voters say they are most concerned about Biden’s age than other concerns about candidates, but nearly 1 in 5 of those who say his age gives them major concerns are still voting for him against Trump.  By comparison, a majority of voters also have major concerns about Trump’s trials, and among that group nearly 1 in 10 are voting for Trump.  This suggests that not all concerns have the same impact on vote choice.

With these contradictions, the one thing that is clear is that this is a difficult moment in time for Joe Biden, and not where he wants to be a year from now.

  • His job rating is the lowest that we have measured for him – 41% approve, 56% disapprove (41% also approved in March 2022, but 54% disapproved, so the margin is larger now).
  • 7 in 10 Americans (73%) continue to say the country is headed off on the wrong track.
  • The economy continues to be a major issue for voters, and a challenge for Democrats.  Biden’s job rating on the economy is 37%, lower than his overall job rating.
  • Satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy has plummeted from 48% in April 2021 to 28% now, the lowest level since January 2014.
  • Personal satisfaction with voters’ financial situation has also declined from 61% in May 2022 to 55% now.  
  • Republicans enjoy a 21-point advantage on dealing with the economy, their highest advantage in the history of the NBC Poll.  
  • Democrats still lead on dealing with the middle class, but historically Democrats had owned that issue with double digit leads.  Now Democrats have just a 2-point advantage.  
  • 59% of Democratic Primary Voters want to see a Democratic challenger to Biden for the nomination.  They are still voting for Biden over Trump by 92% to 5%.  The concern here is more about turnout in the general (where their interest is lower) than losing their votes to Trump (though a viable 3rd party candidate could make inroads).

Republicans face their own set of problems, but satisfaction with the field of candidates among GOP primary voters is not one of them.  Fully 86% of Republican primary voters say they are satisfied with their choices.  The GOP Primary at the national level has become Trump and a diminished, if not yet diminishing field.  So far, the debates have made the Republican challengers smaller, making the case for Trump more than themselves.  

  • 58% of Republican primary voters now say that the Republican Party should be led by Donald Trump, up from 49% in June.  On any number of measures, at the national level, the primary is Trump and then candidates in the rear-view mirror with no clear signs that there is a path forward and all lanes are blocked.

  • But a majority of all registered voters (52%) say they have major concerns about Trump as a candidate due to his four trials, including multiple felony charges.  And this is BEFORE any of the trials have happened.  
  • And abortion remains a top single voting issue, and one where Republicans continue to struggle, with Democrats nearly matching their record high advantage on this issue from last September (D+18, D+22).
  • As a government shutdown looms, again, an impeachment inquiry has begun, and threats of vacating the chair continue, Kevin McCarthy is in a particularly weak position with voters, especially compared to past speakers at similar moments of their speakerships.  He looks more like Newt Gingrich at this stage than Speakers Pelosi, Boehner, or Ryan, but unlike Gingrich, his ratings with Republicans are fairly soft.
  • On impeachment, a majority of voters say an inquiry should not be held (56%), including 88% of Democrats and 60% of independents.
  • Impeaching and removing Biden is much more of a negative driver for Democrats (62% less likely to vote for a candidate who supported impeaching and removing) than it is for Republicans (35% more likely to vote).  And independents are net negative on this proposition by 25% to 14%. 

The data reveal how fragile and volatile the world could be over the 14 months, but also how little might change.  Like a JELL-O mold, the contours of the election may already be generally outlined, but given the razor thin margins in our politics, a slight shift (or jiggle) in the mold one way or another can have major implications for the election and the future of the country.