For the second time in a week, a poll shows that three-quarters of Americans, including two-thirds of Democrats, consider President Biden too old for the office.
In the new Wall Street Journal poll, 73 percent of Americans said the phrase “too old to run for president” captures Biden at least “somewhat well,” with even Democrats agreeing overwhelmingly. The results echo an Associated Press-NORC poll from last week, which found that 77 percent of Americans overall and 69 percent of Democrats said Biden was “too old to effectively serve” another four-year term.
It’s evident that this is a growing problem for Biden. But how much might it actually matter in a deeply polarized country in which the likely alternative has been criminally indicted four times?
Let’s take the first part of that first.
Biden’s age problem is clearly bigger than it once was. But more specifically, it’s a growing perceived mental-sharpness problem, and the gap between him and former president Donald Trump on such questions has also expanded.
Here’s how that breaks down:
Those two-thirds of Democrats who say Biden is too old is up from earlier polling. Previously, around half of Democrats generally said Biden was too old, including in a spring Washington Post-ABC News poll, a May Yahoo/YouGov poll and a June Quinnipiac University poll.The AP-NORC poll also asked people for the first word that comes to mind when they think of Biden. In February, around 2 in 10 who offered a response chose a word referencing Biden’s age (“old,” “grandpa,” for example) or mental fitness (“bumbling”). But today, 4 in 10 choose such a word.When Biden was running for president in October 2020, an NBC News poll showed about half of Americans had major or moderate concerns that both he and Trump had the “necessary mental and physical health” to serve as president (51 percent for both men). By June 2023, 68 percent said that of Biden, while Trump’s number rose only slightly, to 55 percent.A Pew poll in March 2021 showed a majority of Americans said “mentally sharp” described Biden at least “fairly well.” By April, that had declined to 3 in 10.A Fox News poll in September 2021 showed independents said 53 percent to 41 percent that Biden didn’t have the “mental soundness” to serve effectively. That split is now an overwhelming 76-22 against Biden — among the voters who generally inhabit the political middle. (Biden’s 54-point gap is also much larger than the 19-point gap for Trump, with independents saying 59-40 that Trump lacks the requisite mental soundness.)
The Fox News poll isn’t the only one to suggest that the mental angle is now significantly more of a liability for Biden than Trump. The Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that while 69 percent of independents said Biden didn’t have the required “mental sharpness,” just 43 percent said the same of Trump.
It’s natural to ask at this point how much it matters. The New York Times in April published an analysis downplaying the significance and pointing to the impact of polarization — as well as to Trump’s many problems not related to age or mental sharpness. Polling expert Nate Silver, by contrast, argued over the weekend that Democrats ought to be more concerned than they currently are.
Silver’s analysis strikes me as reasonable. It’s not that the three-quarters of people who say Biden is too old won’t actually vote for him; many will. Democrats as a whole have increasingly rallied around Biden, and the alternative of Trump looms large.
What’s more, there is evidence that “too old” isn’t close to a dealbreaker for many of the would-be Biden supporters who have that reservation about him. In a July Suffolk University poll, 37 percent of Democratic-leaning voters said Biden’s age made them less likely to support him, as compared to the two-thirds who now say he’s too old.
That 37 percent saying they were less likely to back Biden over his age was similar to the 34 percent of Republican-leaning voters who said the same of Trump’s initial indictment in New York. And much of the conventional wisdom pretends as if Trump’s indictments are something of a political non-factor.
But Silver’s analysis closes with an important point. It’s not so much that this is currently a major liability; it’s that it’s going to loom on the campaign trail. “This election is probably going to be close, and Trump might be only one Biden-has-a-McConnell-moment away from winning,” Silver wrote, referring Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) two on-camera freeze-ups.
The problem is that the margins are just so fine, and this issue presents the vast majority of voters with a historically unusual liability, however compelling they might ultimately find it, to balance against Trump’s liabilities.
There is a large universe of people who not only think Biden is too old but, relatedly, that his mental acuity is actually an impediment to his service as president. When those saying these things include 7 in 10 independents and two-thirds of your own base — the people most likely to view you in the most positive light and give you the benefit of the doubt — it’s something that must be reckoned with.
There is logically a point at which that impediment could rise as a priority, depending in part on how Biden deals with it and in part on the perceived magnitude of Trump’s own problems. For now, the issue is trending in the wrong direction for Biden.