7 min read

The confidence gap

Democrats think they’re doomed. Republicans think they’re guaranteed victory. They’re both wrong.
The confidence gap
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Good morning! It’s Thursday, September 7, 2023. The 2024 elections are 425 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Based on all available evidence, Joe Biden and Donald Trump have about even odds of being sworn in for a second term as president on January 20, 2025.

Almost every poll confirms this view. If you average them out, as RealClearPolitics has done, you’ll find that the two candidates are evenly split, with no discernible difference in their chances: Biden’s support averages at 44.5%, Trump’s at 44.1%.

Such a close race tracks with our understanding of our polarized, 50-50 country and of the last two elections, which were both decided by paper-thin margins. By the Washington Post’s calculations, about 81,000 votes in four states made the difference in 2020; about 78,000 votes in three states did so in 2016. Gone are the days of Barack Obama’s 365-electoral-vote landslide in 2008 (much less Ronald Reagan’s 525 electoral votes in 1984). At least for the moment, we are a country living perpetually on the political razor’s edge.

But that doesn’t seem to be how either party views the 2024 election.

Republicans are wildly overconfident about Trump’s chances. According to a CBS poll last month, 61% of likely GOP primary voters believe Trump will “definitely” beat Biden next year. 30% say he “might” beat Biden; only 9% view the ex-president as a “long shot.”

Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be more pessimistic about Biden’s chances than polling would suggest they should be. In a CNN poll out this morning, 67% of Democrats believe the party should nominate someone other than Biden; only 33% said Biden was their best potential nominee.

The GOP thinks their candidate will win this thing in a walk; Democrats seem to be convinced their candidate is doomed. In reality, they’re probably both wrong. While a Trump win is perfectly possible, polls and recent history would suggest it’s about as likely as a Biden win (and that either margin of victory will be minuscule). Both candidates have clear strengths and vulnerabilities; neither boasts a clear advantage.

This confidence gap is an inversion of what you might expect when an incumbent president is seeking re-election.

Traditionally, sitting presidents are seen as having an incumbency advantage. At this point in the cycle, they might be unpopular — and they are often are — but they still have the looming stature befitting a commander-in-chief, while the other party often looks small in comparison, squabbling amongst themselves trying to pick a standard-bearer.

In the past, voters in the president’s party have psychologically imbibed this dynamic, seeing it as a reason not to change horses midstream. In the middle of Obama’s first term, per CNN, 76% of Democrats thought the incumbent should be re-nominated; at a comparable point, 55% of Democrats said the same about Bill Clinton. Again, just 33% of Democrats today say Biden should be their nominee.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a competitive primary, you would expect Republicans to be less certain about their chances, still engaged in a party-wide conversation about who is their most electable option. But then, of course, the GOP this year is not hosting a very competitive primary.

In fact, even though their choice is all but pre-ordained, Democrats seem to be running a more competitive primary purely in their heads than the Republican one that’s playing out in real life. More Democrats said in the CNN poll that they want someone other than Biden (67%) than Republicans who said they want someone other than Trump (47%), even though Republicans are the ones who actually have other options. (Only 18% of Democrats who wanted a non-Biden nominee named a specific alternative; 82% said they just want “someone besides Joe Biden.”)

This data is a reminder that our traditional ways of thinking about an incumbent vs. challenger presidential race probably won’t hold up in a contest that is the closest thing we’ve had since 1892 to two incumbents running against each other.

Usually, at this point, the incumbent’s party would be solidified behind their nominee, while the out-party would still be trying to figure things out. But with huge numbers of Republicans embracing their pseudo-incumbent choice, and Democrats heavily dissatisfied with their real incumbent, the situation is exactly reversed.

This unique dynamic of two presidents running against each other also allows us to poll on the two contenders’ records in a way you usually can’t. It’s hard to compare a governor or senator’s record to a president’s, but by November 2024, Trump and Biden will have both had four years in the White House, making the election a clear test of which four years voters liked better.

So far, polls suggest voters view the Trump record more favorably than Biden’s. In a Wall Street Journal survey released last week, 52% of registered voters said Trump has a “strong record of accomplishments as president,” compared to 40% who said the same about Biden.

The Democrats who were polled were less proud of Biden’s record than Republicans were of Trump’s, perhaps another reason that Democrats are less confident overall about the election. 81% of Democrats said Biden has a strong record, compared to 91% of Republicans who said Trump does; 12% of Democrats said Trump has a strong record, more than double the 5% of Republicans who said that about Biden.

Similarly, in poll after poll, Democrats are much more worried about Biden’s age (80) than Republicans are about Trump’s (77), which also appears to fuel the gap in confidence. 60% of Democrats in the CNN poll said they were “seriously concerned” that Biden’s age would impact his ability to win the election.

Does the confidence gap tell us anything about who will actually win the election?

Probably not. In this, it is similar to the much-discussed enthusiasm gap — the difference between which party is more excited about their candidate — which receives a lot of column inches every four years but rarely predicts the winner with any accuracy.

The reality is, we are so polarized as a country — and so familiar with these two options — that no matter who voters are excited about, no matter who they think will win, almost all of them will end up voting for the same party they always do.

This is illustrated perfectly in the CNN poll, which shows this year’s enthusiasm gap moving in the same direction as the confidence gap I’ve described. Among Biden supporters, 64% say their vote is more against Trump than for Biden. Trump voters are the exact opposite: 62% say their vote is more for Trump than against Biden.

But, even though the two groups have very different reasons for why they’re supporting the candidate they do, both sides of the ledger shake out to be almost exactly the same in number. In the poll, Trump is at 47% support and Biden stands at 46%, firmly within the margin of error.

Even if the confidence gap is unlikely to be predictive — in fact, I think neither side has any special reason to be too confident — it can still tell us some interesting things about the two parties.

For one, it clearly seems to line up with which party is more jazzed about their candidate. It also exposes a split that exists on both sides between the party base and the party elites. While Democratic voters are worried about Biden, Democratic elites largely are not; most party pros are busy expressing confidence about the president and scoffing at the bedwetters. Meanwhile, even as Republican voters think Trump is guaranteed a victory, GOP strategists and donors feel very differently.

The gap might also be able to tell us something psychologically about the two parties, aligning with research that shows liberals are more pessimistic and even less happy than conservatives by nature. Personally, I also think the gap shows the physic mark the 2016 race left on both parties, with Republicans taking away that Trump is Teflon, able to win no matter what is thrown at him (what’s a few indictments if he won after “Access Hollywood”?) On the other hand, that race made Democrats more skeptical of polls, or really anyone telling them they have a shot, since they’ve been fooled before.

On the right, at least, 2020 looms large too: in a CNN poll last month, 70% of Republicans said that Biden’s 2020 win was illegitimate. If you are certain that Trump won last time, it is easier to believe that he will romp to victory again.

But, of course, Biden did win in 2020. And, contrary to Democratic belief, polls in recent cycle haven’t done that poorly. Which means neither side should be feeling over-confident or doomed: they should be buckling up for yet another photo finish.

More news to know.

This summer broke the world record for the highest temperature officially recorded (AP)

Federal prosecutors intend to seek indictment of Hunter Biden by Sept. 29 (USA Today)

Trump says he would ‘absolutely’ testify at his criminal trial (NBC)

Facing health questions, McConnell vows to finish his term ending in 2027 (NBC)

Judge allows 2 defendants to be tried separately from others in Georgia election interference case (ABC)

Rep. Chris Stewart’s ex-staffer Celeste Maloy wins Utah special election primary to replace him (AP)

Federal judge orders Texas to remove floating barriers aimed at deterring migrants on Rio Grande (CNN)

Trump is liable in the second E. Jean Carroll defamation case, judge rules; January trial will determine damages (CNN)

Mexico’s Supreme Court decriminalizes abortion nationwide (Axios)

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