Biden is still struggling against Trump in Pa., and our new poll helps explain why

Biden is still struggling against Trump in Pa., and our new poll helps explain why
Biden is still struggling against Trump in Pa., and our new poll helps explain why

After months of returning visits to Pennsylvania and millions of dollars poured into political advertisements, President Joe Biden hasn’t gained ground in the critical swing state.

Instead, he’s in a dead heat with former President Donald Trump.

Trump leads Biden 47% to 44% with registered voters in a two-way race, according to a new Philadelphia Inquirer/New York Times/Siena College poll. That’s within the survey’s margin of error, and when third-party candidates are included, the gap is similar — but Biden doesn’t even hit 40%.

The poll of 1,023 registered voters was conducted April 28 to May 7. The survey has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percentage points.

The tightness of the race appears to stem in part from an erosion of Biden’s support among key Democratic constituencies, with the poll showing frustration with the president on key issues that could impact the strength of his backing even in the reliably blue Philadelphia suburbs.

Pennsylvania voters said they are down on the economy and eager for changes in the political system. With two repeat candidates on the ballot, they are narrowly split with six months until the presidential election.

Biden appears to similarly be in trouble in other swing states, with Trump also leading in Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia, according to the Times polls, and the candidates are tied in Wisconsin. All are critical battlegrounds that Biden won in 2020, and he will need to notch victories in several of them to have any hope of victory this fall.

Pennsylvania could determine who wins the White House and Biden has crisscrossed the state, making trips to Scranton, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia and its suburbs all within the last three months. Still, voters spanning the state — and across the age spectrum — have deeply negative impressions of his job performance and ability to lead on issues such as the economy.

Trump is also viewed unfavorably but leads Biden on nearly every issue polled, except abortion, on which Trump trails by double digits. The former president has managed to run even with Biden despite spending far less time on the campaign trail and a split screen of Biden in the Oval Office while Trump sits on trial for alleged hush money payments to a porn star, with more criminal cases pending.

The political impact of a potential conviction of the former president, which would be unprecedented, remains unknown at this point. Trump remains ahead with voters on the issue of crime — even as he stands trial.

Biden is losing support with young and non-white voters

Biden’s support among young people in the state has waned since 2020.

The same is true of non-white voters, including those who identify as Black and Hispanic/Latino, two groups that were instrumental to Biden’s 2020 win. A drop in support from these traditionally Democratic constituencies could imperil Biden’s chances in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Giorgio Vavlas, a 24-year-old voter from Pittston, Luzerne County, who was polled, backed Biden in 2020 but has felt the financial pressures of post-graduate life and doesn’t see himself supporting the president in November.

“Things are more expensive. Gas, groceries, rent, all those types of things,” said Vavlas, who works in tech sales. “…I don’t think he’s necessarily been the best as president. And then the other thing is when you see him on TV, he doesn’t always seem the most competent.”

The issue of age and mental competency has become a major topic in the campaign. Biden, 81, and Trump, 77, are the two oldest major party nominees for president.

Young voters, such as Vavlas, are roughly evenly split between Biden and Trump in the May poll. That finding has a wide margin of error but still represents a huge change from 2020, when a NYT/Siena poll found Biden winning young people in the state by as many as 30 points.

Biden’s approval rating is lower among the state’s youngest voters than it is statewide. Young voters’ perceptions of the economy are also worse, and they trust Biden less than Trump with his handling of the war in Gaza.

Young voters turned out in record numbers in 2020 but a drop in their support remains an issue for him. In Pennsylvania’s April primary, a large number of Democrats cast write-in votes for president, many protesting his handling of the Middle East conflict.

Non-white voters, which encompasses Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander voters as well as Black and Hispanic/Latino voters, also reported less support for Biden than seen in 2020.

When asked to choose just one of the two major candidates, a majority picked Biden, while only about a quarter picked Trump. But that margin is less overwhelming than it was in 2020, when polls found Biden winning 70% of non-white voters.

John Robinson, 24, of Pittsburgh, backs Biden reluctantly. He’s concerned about Biden’s age and Robinson, who is Black, said he doesn’t think Biden has always been a good advocate for racial equality.

“I don’t think he’s fully capable,” said Robinson, a middle school teacher. “…he’s too old to do the job.”

Still, Robinson doesn’t consider Trump an option.

“I think the guy’s a villain,” he said. “And I won’t be part of him advancing in any way.”

It’s unclear whether declining support for Biden among non-white voters in Pennsylvania actually translates to more support for Trump. As many as one-fifth of non-white voters refused to commit to any candidate. Either way, even a slight erosion of Democratic support among Black and Latino voters could make a difference in the state.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is favored by 10% of Pa. voters

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmental lawyer and past anti-vaccine activist running as an independent, has support from about 10% of voters in Pennsylvania, on par with his margin in other states.

And 9% of Pennsylvania voters said they did not know who they would support.

Valvas, the voter from Pittston, said he’s leaning toward Kennedy largely because he wants to see a change.

“I think somebody new in there, whether it’s fresh ideas, a new voice, is kind of what’s needed,” he said.

Most Kennedy supporters in Pennsylvania say they are voting for him in opposition to their other choices and the majority say they are not open to changing their vote to Trump or Biden. If forced to choose between major candidates, they would divide their vote evenly, so it’s unclear who Kennedy is pulling more voters from.

Trump supporters are happier with their options in the presidential election than Biden supporters by a margin of 69% to 55%.

» READ MORE: There’s only one key issue where Pa. voters trust Joe Biden over Donald Trump: Abortion

Trump leads on the issues in Pennsylvania — except abortion

Voters across the state are pessimistic about the economy and favor Trump — by 12 points over Biden — to fix it.

“I know how he will handle the economy and we’ll get cheap gas again and all the prices will drop,” said Matthew Innis, a registered Republican from Drexel Hill.

Innis, 55, an auto mechanic, said gas and grocery prices have been a drag on his wallet. “They used to cost $200 a week to feed my family,” he said. “Now it’s $350.” He thinks Trump’s policies would lead to a drop in retail prices and make it cheaper to move products.

Voters also trust Trump more on crime by 9 points. He also has a lead within the margin of error on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Joseph Ferraro, a 55-year-old Trump supporter from Union City, Erie County, blames lax enforcement at the border on the fentanyl crisis. His son died of a fentanyl overdose.

“I want the border closed. I want it shut down,” Ferraro said. “I want the illegals out of this country.”

Overall, the economy, abortion, and immigration were the top three issues that voters said would decide their vote in November.

On abortion, Biden continues to lead Trump by double digits. Legal abortions are widely supported statewide, even in geographic regions that are strongly pro-Trump.

Janet Buskirk, 75, a retired teacher from Wyomissing, Berks County, said women’s reproductive rights are top of mind as she looks to re-elect Biden.

“I worry that it’s going to be a complete ban on abortion,” she said. Buskirk’s daughter had to undergo a procedure when she lost a baby during pregnancy. Buskirk said she fears her daughter may not have lived if that happened in a state with a strict abortion ban.

“I think all elections are important,” she said. “But this one, I think, could be country-changing if the Republicans get into office.”

The intensity of the moment is evident among voters across the political spectrum, many of whom said they are voting against the other side, not for their chosen candidate.

A majority of voters said they wanted “major changes” to the country’s political system — a warning sign for Biden, who 73% of voters said wouldn’t change much.

But to the extent that voters wanted change, that impulse might be rooted in a kind of nostalgia for less divided political times. A majority of voters also said they wanted a candidate who would “bring things back to normal” in Washington. Biden campaigned on a similar message of normalcy and calm in 2020, but will have a harder time claiming he represents change now.

Biden has an edge in the Philly suburbs — but there are warning signs there, too

As has historically been the case, Trump’s support in the central part of the state and among non-college-educated voters remains robust.

Biden leads in Philadelphia, its suburbs, and Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh. Trump leads everywhere except the Northeast and Lehigh Valley regions, where it’s a tie.

Drill down further into the Philadelphia collar counties, typically a Democratic bastion, and although Biden has a clear edge, his job approval numbers remain low. Fifty-five percent of suburban voters disapprove of Biden’s job performance, compared with 42% who approve.

Suburban voters are evenly divided between Biden and Trump on such issues as the economy and crime. And despite the suburbs’ commitment to voting for him, Biden’s overall favorability isn’t much higher there than it is statewide.

Whether that impacts Biden in the critical region is unclear. Typically low favorability can indicate less stable support but plenty of voters found Biden unfavorable in 2020 and voted for him anyway.

Benjamin Duerr, a 29-year-old electrician and registered Democrat from Upper Darby, said he’s disillusioned with politics. He doesn’t think either party stands up for working people. But he plans to vote for Biden.

“I just feel like Biden’s pretty incompetent,” Duerr said. “But he won’t f— up things too much, you know?”

Camille Baker of the New York Times contributed to this article.

» READ MORE: Josh Shapiro has the support of more than a third of Trump voters. That could help him in 2028.

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