Nothing but leftovers for your Thanksgiving political discussion

The most recent NBC News/Hart poll on the state of the presidential race (as well as American opinion on several other matters) was released over the weekend, and news is predictably dire both for Biden and for Republicans. Nobody is going to be having much of a happy political Thanksgiving holiday weekend — especially not the sweeping supermajority of voters who wish they had someone, anyone, in either major party they could vote for rather than Trump or the Biden/Harris ticket again.

The top-line takeaway most relevant to 2024: Biden — sporting a 40–57 disapproval rating — is now so weakened by the one-two punch of his accelerating decay plus the defection of young voters over the Israeli war that Donald Trump now leads him in the NBC News poll for the first time since they began testing a rematch. Any other Republican candidate would run up the score on Biden, regardless of personal popularity, while Trump leads him by only two (46–44) and is trounced by any Democratic candidate other than Biden.

So happy Thanksgiving, President Biden! He might be forgiven for being rather grumpy this time around, given that his approval rating among national voters of minus 17 is only one better than that of “Palestine” on the issues tested by NBC. (I would understand if he altered White House tradition on the fly this year and simply executed the turkeys live on camera during the pardon ceremony with all the casualness of Sarah Palin doing a TV interview, coldly declaring, “It is no longer the season for easy mercies.“) The topline demonstrates one thing beyond all doubt: This race is all about Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s equally unwelcome presence in it. Either one’s sudden absence would turn the race into a romp for the other side, regardless of their candidate’s personal unpopularity. Only the dual gravitational pulls of these aged, collapsing gas giants and their loyal primary bases keeps the field moored in such unreal stasis, wholly unresponsive to the desires of the American public writ large.

Which means happy Thanksgiving as well, America! The contrast between the national polling on a series of politicians and foreign countries and the polling on the priorities of each party’s primary electorates is perfectly illustrative of why America is in the mess it’s currently locked into, and why we’d all be forgiven for sacking out on the couch, watching football all weekend, and ignoring all political talk whatsoever this year. First of all, the actual national favorability rankings are wonderfully illustrative of an America that still has solid instincts on a gut level about foreign policy but which also currently hates its entire political class and cannot muster a majority to agree on anything. Of all the issues tested by NBC, the two most popular (by far) were “Israel” and “Ukraine,” both issues obviously proxy responses for the respective wars they’re engaged in. Israel sits at the top with plus-23 approval rating, down from recent years (and only 47–24 overall, with the significant abstention suggesting a point of view dangerously up for grabs). Ukraine at 45–24 also posts a healthy plus-21 rating, though not a majority of national approval.

That’s about it for good vibes from the American public for the holiday season. Every other issue tested, including all politicians, has a negative approval rating. Leading the way as the least hopeless (hey, it’s something) is Nikki Haley with minus-4 rating, the politician’s equivalent of a “gentleman’s C-minus.” With only 52 per cent of respondents expressing an opinion about her, she has the virtue of being relatively unknown. Similarly, Mike Johnson benefits from relative anonymity: At a practically sparkling minus-9 disapproval rating, he was rated by only 37 per cent of respondents. (So don’t worry, I’m sure his numbers will do fantastically during the remaining year of Matt Gaetz’s 118th Congress.)

Beyond that, the mood of the public about its national politicians is more sour than the one at a unadvertisedly vegan Thanksgiving dinner. Trump and Biden bear near identical 36–52 and 36–53 anchors respectively; barely behind either of them comes “Palestine” at minus 18. (Palestine has only a 20 percent approval rating, mind you, but only a 38 disapproval, either, and if what I hear from the kids these days if anything to go on, they have real room to grow.) Ron DeSantis fans shouldn’t feel too smug about all of this themselves, as their man is actually less popular than Palestine at 27–47 — and far more well known, to boot. Ol’ Ron has some serious image rehab to do if he ever makes it past the primary. But at least he isn’t as loathed as Kamala Harris, who with 80 percent of respondents expressing an opinion holds a minus-23 approval rating and must thank NBC for including Russia and Hamas as possible options in the poll so that she didn’t finish last.

Meanwhile, the poll numbers from actual Democratic and Republican primary voters demonstrate all too clearly why, despite the public at large wanting to rerun the 2020 campaign every bit as much as they’d enjoy eating a turkey cooked with durian stuffing, we are stuck here unless someone quits or dies. The Democratic numbers can be summarized quite simply: They aren’t seriously considering any alternative to Biden, who currently polls weakly for an incumbent (in the mid 70s) but is not seriously threatened internally. Perhaps those Kamala Harris approval ratings suggest one reason why.

The Republican numbers are far more complex to parse out, yet they tell a similar story: that despite a notional opening for a challenger to Trump, he sits in the pole position. He is the first choice of 58 percent of the primary electorate, and even more fascinatingly the second choice of a further 13 (presumably Ramaswamy voters and the like), for a combined-choice score — not necessarily a guaranteed percentage, for reasons explained below — of 71. That’s the ball game, folks, until something radical shakes up the dynamic of this race. (Spoiler alert: It won’t be any of Trump’s legal travails.) In theory, Ron DeSantis musters enough votes between first- and second-choice voters to rate a score of 54, but the reason these must be interpreted as relative rankings of power and not raw percentages is obvious when you consider Trump’s score of 71 — they don’t add up because they don’t really specify all the various permutations of candidate choices available and can’t account for the fact that certain voters have different preferences. Haley voters are Haley voters in large part because they already don’t like DeSantis or are uninspired by his campaign; she tops out at an extremely tepid combined first- and second-choice score of 28, suggesting that her ceiling within the Republican primary electorate is even more limited than DeSantis’s. (“Things could change politically!” is the consolatory fantasy all candidates use to reassure themselves that somehow, this time, it’ll all work out differently.)

It’s dangerous to conclude too much from any one poll — after all, even at their best and most accurate, they are only a snapshot in time, and one taken of a moving target. It’s not what the final electoral outcome will be in November 2024, not after an entire campaign has been waged and America has been exposed to these two shambling retreads again in all their pathetic inglory. (Imagine the debates. Unless Biden simply cancels them, that is.) But while the NBC poll is extreme in the depths of its civic gloom, it reflects a trend that has become clear in all polling by now: This Thanksgiving, the American electorate desperately wants to avoid eating yesteryear’s leftovers at the polls, while the chefs in the kitchen are already grimly pulling them out of cold storage and preparing to reheat them next November.

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