There is admittedly not a whole lot of use in polling presidential general election matchups 14 months before they take place. That’s a lot of time, perhaps best exemplified by pointing out that in September 2019, we not only didn’t know how difficult Joe Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination was, we had no idea that a global pandemic was about to erupt. Things change.
But there are ways in which such polling can offer insights. One is by comparing different sets of general election polls to suss out trends and comparisons. Of course, this is made more complicated by the fact that different pollsters ask different questions at different times; it’s tricky to know whether it’s terribly significant that, say, Donald Trump polls poorly against Biden in one poll, but Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) polls better in another.
Enter CNN. Along with its polling partner SSRS, the cable news heavyweight conducted a new national poll that considers not just the most likely 2024 matchup — Trump vs. Biden — but pits Biden against more than a half-dozen potential nominees. Suddenly, we can learn a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, if not much about the race itself.
Addressing that latter point first: There is a very narrow band of difference between the various Republicans and Trump. Only businessman Vivek Ramaswamy trails Biden, but a one-point deficit is well within the margin of error and therefore not a statistically significant deficit at all. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley does the best, with a six-point lead over Biden. No one else leads him by more than two points.
CNN also provided breakdowns by demographic, from gender to income to education. There are consistent patterns — Republicans fare worse with non-White voters and better with White people without a college degree, for example — but the subtle differences are telling.
On the chart below, notice for example that former New Jersey governor Chris Christie fares much worse with non-White voters than does former vice president Mike Pence — and that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis fares worse still. Or notice how Haley does much better among college-educated respondents than DeSantis.
The “own party” metric compares the level of support for Biden and each Republican with members of each candidate’s party. So if 87 percent of Democrats support Biden against Trump, as they do, and 90 percent of Republicans support Trump, that’s a three-point advantage for Trump. This allows us to accommodate the relative unpopularity of candidates like Christie among Republicans.
What this surfeit of data also allows us to do is compare each candidate’s performance against Biden to the average. In other words, we can see, for example, how Ramaswamy’s numbers against Biden compare to the other six candidates included in the poll. And in doing so, we see that they do quite poorly.
Below, you can see how each candidate fares with each demographic group relative to the average margin against Biden for all candidates. What jumps out is that Haley beats the average almost across the board, the exceptions being with non-White respondents and those earning under $50,000 a year in income. DeSantis underperforms with every group except Whites without a college degree and support from Republicans.
Christie does do well with independents; Trump doesn’t. Trump does overperform with non-White voters.
This is the point at which we need to sprinkle a few more caveats onto the numbers. That Haley is doing relatively well at this point may be an artifact of her being less well-known than other candidates. If she rose in the polls to compete against Trump or won the nomination, it’s likely that perceptions of her would change.
This is an important consideration given that the most likely contest remains Biden-Trump. Both candidates are well-known and well-established; both are running about even in the poll, as we would expect.
CNN also asked a specific question about that matchup that tells us a great deal about what we might expect if Trump wins the nomination. In 2020, a large part of his loss was that there was a groundswell of opposition to his presidency. A lot of people came out to vote for Biden not because they liked the Democratic candidate, but because they disliked Trump. On both sides, in short, the 2020 election was about Trump.
In its new poll, CNN found that this dynamic persists. Just under two-thirds of Trump supporters say they support Trump because they like Trump. Just under two-thirds of Biden supporters say they support Biden because they oppose Trump.
That dynamic is hard to measure in contrast to other Republican candidates.