Biden and Trump's Popularity in the Election Year

The two candidates are not popular in the presidential campaign; quite the opposite, rarely have candidates been as unpopular as they are this year. Only 40 percent of voters overall have a positive view of Joe Biden, while his challenger Donald Trump scores just over 42 percent in such ratings. Even within their own political camps, approval ratings are steadily decreasing: among Democrats, only about 75 percent still have a positive view of the incumbent president. Support for Trump among Republicans is even lower: only 66 percent now see the challenger in a positive light. Current polls show a neck-and-neck race. In a recent survey by YouGov/The Economist, both candidates are tied at 43 percent. These data tell us little about the possible outcome of the election because it concerns a majority in the Electoral College, which does not necessarily align with the national election result.


But what do these approval and poll data tell us about the state of democracy in the USA? They are certainly not a positive signal; overall, US citizens are quite dissatisfied with politics in the USA, and trust in the political system is continuously declining. In particular, trust in the federal government has significantly decreased. While nearly 80 percent trusted the government in D.C. in 1960, the value has hovered around 20 percent for several years now, at a very low level. Traditionally, such trust values correlated with economic indicators: when the economy boomed, citizens were also satisfied with the government's work. But this correlation is weakening. This can primarily be explained by two developments. Firstly, the constantly growing partisan polarization, which also leads to a decrease in the capacity for policy-making in the legislative process. An ambivalent development is evident here: on the one hand, citizens are dissatisfied with this polarization and increasingly demand bipartisan cooperation to solve the pressing problems. On the other hand, citizens' attachment to one of the political parties is continuously strengthening. Political science already speaks of affective polarization, where party affiliation becomes part of one's identity, making a switch to the other political camp almost categorically excluded. So, even if one is dissatisfied with the "own" political personnel, they will never vote for "the others". What remains in times of dissatisfaction is abstention from voting. This also explains why both candidates never fall below a certain level of approval despite this widespread dissatisfaction. People do not vote out of conviction for the "own" political personnel but rather to prevent a victory for the other side.


The second explanation lies in the current reality of multiple crises, which is not as new as sometimes suggested. A connection can be drawn from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, through the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the Covid crisis to the current wars in Ukraine and Israel, which have also severely affected economic development. High energy costs and inflation rates are the visible expressions of this development. People are uncertain and do not trust established political actors to solve these problems; they are looking for alternatives, and sometimes demands for a strongman who can solve the problems, even if it means operating outside the established democratic playing field, arise. Trump skillfully exploits this dissatisfaction with his right-wing populist mobilization. He presents himself as an outsider who acts for the "people" against the political elites. The fight against the Deep State becomes the central campaign theme. Trump cleverly interprets the numerous legal proceedings in this way: the establishment is trying to marginalize him, prevent him, and wants to destroy him. Currently, Trump's supporters can be divided into three groups: moderate Republicans who see Trump as the lesser evil compared to Biden (greetings to affective polarization), the bewildered voters seeking orientation and simple solutions in a complex world, and the far-right electorate mobilized by Trump, which became politically active for the first time in 2016 and has since become loyal to Trump.


For both candidates, the primary goal for November is to get their own supporters to the polls. Whoever succeeds better in this has a good chance of returning to the White House in January 2025. Currently, Trump has the upper hand here; his supporters are more enthusiastic than Biden's. Democrats, on the other hand, hope that Trump will also drive Democrats to the polls, then the odds will be in Biden's favor.

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