Joe Biden is officially the Democratic nominee for president, but if you drive through my town, you’re more likely to see Biden’s name on a tattered, peeling bumper sticker from 2008 than on a shiny new 2020 sticker. Biden simply isn’t the sort of candidate that inspires Joe Taxpayer to drop $2.50 on car art. And even though Biden has been ahead of Trump in the polls, the underreported weeds of those same polls are forecasting disaster for Democrats.
The newest CNN poll shows Biden four points ahead of Trump. No big deal; that’s within the margin of error. What is a big deal is the story the poll tells about voter enthusiasm for Biden.
The poll asks folks who said they’re voting for Biden, “Is that more a vote FOR Joe Biden or more a vote AGAINST Donald Trump?” Only 38% answered that it was a vote “FOR Biden.” Meanwhile, among those who said they would vote for Trump, 67% said it was a vote “FOR Trump.”
CNN’s poll offers some historical context for this poll question that drives home how important it is.
In September 2012, 69% of Obama voters said they were voting “FOR Obama” while only 48% of Romney voters said they were voting “FOR Romney.”
In September of 2004, Bush bested Kerry on this question 80% to 41%.
Going way back, in September of 1984, Reagan smoked Mondale in this category 76% to 44%.
Combing through the historical context on this question from four past elections, two facts stuck out:
1. Nobody below 50% won any of those elections
2. Biden is the only candidate to ever register lower than 40%.
This trend is not confined to the CNN poll, it’s showing up everywhere. In the most recent Fox News poll (RV), voters were asked essentially the same question in slightly different words, “Which is the bigger motivation?” Is it “Enthusiasm for your candidate to win” or “Fear the other candidate might win.”
Only 39% of Biden voters answered with enthusiasm for Biden compared with 51% for Trump. When the same question was asked in 2016, Clinton bested Trump 44% to 35%.
In the most recent NBC/WSJ poll (RV)— a poll that shows Biden up by 9 points— Trump topped Biden on this enthusiasm question a tremendous 38 points: 74% to 36%.
In 2016, Clinton and Trump were almost neck and neck in this poll question. Clinton was up 49% to 46%. And— quick side note— that poll showed Clinton leading Trump by 10 points.
In 2012, Obama bested Romney on this question 72% to 35%, and in 2008, Obama bested McCain 81% to 61%.
So what does all this mean? To use a Trumpism, it means that the Democrats aren’t sending us their best people. In 2008, the electricity being generated by Obama was almost inescapable— partially because Obama represented a historic moment for the country, but also because Obama possessed newness, youth, and charisma while at the same time representing a political shift from the perceived failures of the Bush administration.
In 2016, I can remember Hillary Clinton desperately trying to manufacture the old Obama excitement. Unfortunately for her, she was devoid of newness, youth, and charisma. But somehow, she still managed to garner more enthusiasm than Biden.
In 2020, it was plain to anyone who watched Biden “celebrate” his official nomination at the virtual convention that even Biden himself doesn’t seem overly enthusiastic about his candidacy. He displayed about as much exhilaration as one of those cardboard cutouts watching the MLB games. The burning excitement of the “Hope and Change” days are a dot in the Democratic Party’s rearview mirror.
Lack of excitement among Democratic voters is like a Kudzu vine spreading through the polls which otherwise look promising for Biden. The hardest part of winning the presidency is making people excited enough to actively interrupt their lives for a moment in order to vote. It’s easy to see why Democrats—who usually worry about disenfranchisement—are eager to embrace the new vote-by-mail paradigm. They can look at the polling data and see that their candidate isn’t going to inspire people to wait in a line or make a special trip to cast a vote for him.
The bottom line is that Democrats have never been less excited about their nominee. They’re all-in on orange-man-bad-ism being enough to drive turnout in their favor, but an entire generation of presidential elections says it won’t be.
Eddie Zipperer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and co-host of the podcast Ever Election Ever... and Beer. You can follow him on Twitter @EddieZipperer