Will Biden win? 3 clues to track – and his approval rating isn't one of them

Susan Page

WASHINGTON – Sure, President Joe Biden's approval rating is anemic and even most Democrats tell pollsters they don't want him to seek a second term.

But Biden formally launched his reelection campaign Tuesday with assets where it matters. While there are perils ahead, including a potential recession and a possible third-party contender, he has more in common at the moment with recent predecessors who won than those who didn't.

"He starts out in a pretty good place," said Allan Lichtman, an American University historian who devised a highly regarded system of 13 "keys" to winning the White House. It's too early to make a prediction for 2024, he said, "but any other Democratic nominee would start out in a much worse position."

Among other things, Biden leads a relatively united party and has won the passage of significant legislation during his first term, including pandemic relief, infrastructure funding and measures to address climate change. 

"Let's finish this job," he declared in a rapid-cut three-minute video announcing his candidacy. He described the opposition as "MAGA extremists" and repeated the language he used in the launch of his 2020 campaign, calling the election "a battle for the soul of America."

FILE - President Joe Biden talks to reporters after a lunch with Senate Democrats on his upcoming budget and political agenda, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 2, 2023.

What about those approval ratings?

History says a president's approval rating at the time they announce their reelection campaign has little value in predicting how they will fare in the only poll that counts, on Election Day. When the last nine presidents announced their bids, only three had ratings in the Gallup Poll on the upside of 50%, and two of those ended up losing. 

That would be Jimmy Carter, at 51%, and George H.W. Bush, at 65% in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Ronald Reagan, at 52%, did win a second term.

Most of the other presidents were somewhere in the 40-something percent range when they formally started their reelection campaigns, a bit higher than Biden's rating of 40%. Donald Trump, who declared he would run for a second term as he was being sworn in for his first one, had an approval rating of 39% at this point in his tenure.

By the way, despite talk that Biden delayed his decision and fed speculation that he might not run, his announcement Tuesday was on the early side of the timing for modern presidents. 

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton also formally announced in April of the year before their reelection, and George W. Bush announced in May. George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon waited until the fall or winter.

Since Nixon, five presidents have won second terms and four have lost.

Here are three clues to track what's ahead:

Is he challenged for the nomination?

There is no shortage of Democrats who have eyed running for president, from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to California Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

But chatter about replacing Biden as the nominee quieted after Democrats fared better than expected in November's midterm elections, bolstering their Senate control and limiting House losses to a handful. The chances of a credible challenger emerging now seem low.

That's important because primary battles have a history of leaving presidents wounded. Ask the elder Bush, challenged from the right in 1992 by Pat Buchanan, or Carter, challenged from the left in 1980 by Ted Kennedy. Both presidents held the nomination but lost reelection.

While controversies in his coalition continue over issues including immigration and social justice, Biden has generally united Democrats ideologically. Among voters who supported him in 2020, 70% say he has governed "about right," not in a way that has been too liberal or not liberal enough, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released this week. 

Biden vs. Trump: Big challenges, but opposite ones, as 2024 rematch begins – Poll

Democrats are now more united than the GOP, where Trump dominates the field but faces several primary challengers, likely to include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump has legal troubles, too, that may get deepen over the next few months.

He already is the first former president to be criminally indicted, and a civil trial related to allegations of rape opened in New York Tuesday. He denies wrongdoing in both cases.

Does the economy have a soft landing or a crash?

Clinton's 1992 truism is still true. When it comes to winning the White House, it is the economy, stupid.

Inflation that rose unexpectedly high and has been surprisingly stubborn has cost Biden confidence among Americans in his handling of the presidency. The Federal Reserve Board has been raising interest rates to tamp down inflation by slowing the economy, ideally without tipping it into a recession.

That rosy scenario got a little dimmer last month when the Silicon Valley Bank collapsed, prompting emergency steps by government regulators and the Fed and raising fears of more turmoil in the banking sector.

Is a recession coming? Most corporate economists don't see a slump happening within a year.

Having a recession doesn't necessarily doom a president's reelection prospects. Six months into Reagan's first term, the economy took a deep downturn, but the recession ended two years before the next election – when he won a second term in a 49-state landslide. 

What matters politically is recovering from a recession in time to argue during the campaign that happy days really are here again. 

Does a credible 3rd-party candidate run?

A credible third-party candidate for president turns election arithmetic into calculus, complicating how to get the Electoral College majority needed to win.

There may be one on the horizon. A centrist group called No Labels has announced an effort to get on the ballots of all 50 states with the idea of backing an independent, bipartisan ticket if the two major parties nominate candidates deemed "unacceptable."

The organization already has gotten on the ballot in the swing state of Arizona as well as Colorado, Alaska and Oregon. 

In a Biden v. Trump rematch, a No Labels presentation argues that voters' dissatisfaction with their options means its unnamed third-party candidate could win the White House.

But some Democrats fear the independent campaign is more likely to be a spoiler and one that carries bigger risks for Biden, whose support is wide but shallow. Trump's voters are ardent, even in the wake of investigations, but he faces challenges in expanding their ranks in a general election.

When a third-party candidate claims a significant fraction of the vote, a presidential candidate can win with less than 50%. Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush with just 43% in 1992, a year when independent candidate Ross Perot took 18.9%.

Or consider this: Democrat Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush when he failed to carry Florida by 537 votes – a state where Green Party nominee Ralph Nader won more than 97,000 votes.