Opinion: Bright signs for Democrats in 2024?

Photo/Pete Marovich/The New York Times / President Joe Biden delivers remarks honoring the legacy of the late Sen. John McCain at the Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, Ariz., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Biden announced on Thursday that he will devote federal money to creating a new library dedicated to McCain, his old friend and adversary.

Democrats are right to be concerned about Joe Biden's 2024 re-election prospects. An array of national polls shows the president running no better than even — and often behind — Donald Trump and other GOP hopefuls.

And as The Washington Post's Aaron Blake recently pointed out, surveys show Trump would reduce normal Democratic margins among the Black and Hispanic voters who have been crucial to the party's recent successes.

But there is another, more optimistic scenario to which some pro-Democratic strategists are pointing: the persistent success of party candidates in outpolling its base vote in special elections at various levels and what it augurs for 2024.

According to an election chart by Daily Kos, a progressive group, Democratic candidates have outperformed Biden's 2020 showing by an average of 7.6 points in 25 special elections this year — most for legislative vacancies.

A broader analysis by the nonpartisan web site fivethirtyeight.com showed the Democratic over-performance was 10 points.

The races range from a Wisconsin Assembly district where the Democrats cut the GOP victory margin from 17 points to 7 points to last week's special election for a New Hampshire state House seat where a Democrat won by 12 points in a district Trump carried narrowly in 2020 and by eight points in 2016.

One of Biden's chief strategists, Mike Donilon, recently sought to tamp down concerns among Democrats by calling Trump and abortion the two factors that would re-elect the president in 2024. Both were issues in some recent special elections and loom as factors in November's important Virginia legislative elections.

Simon Rosenberg, a prominent Democratic analyst who correctly dismissed the likelihood of a Republican "red wave" in last year's midterm elections, is calling the special election results omens that indicate the possibility of an unexpectedly large 2024 Democratic victory.

For months, Rosenberg has contended that, because of the pro-Democratic trend, the party's growing strength in the Southwest and his belief that Trump is unlikely to reach his 2020 level of 47% of the general election vote, Democrats could in 2024 get to 55%.

That would appear to surpass the reasonable limits of optimism, given that Biden won 51.3% in 2020 and the best recent Democratic showing was Barack Obama's 52.9% in 2008.

Recent national polls show that Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, has a long way to go to reach 50% in 2024, let alone get to 55.

Fivethirtyeight.com says the president's job approval, often a predictor of future election showings, is 41.4%, roughly where it has been for the past two years. The average of 2024 matchups by Real Clear Politics, another nonpartisan site, shows Trump 1.5 points ahead of Biden with both hovering in the 45% level.

Obviously, a lot will depend not only on subsequent events like Biden's health and Trump's trials, but on how many other candidates run and attract more than a handful of votes. In 2016, for example, minor party candidates held Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton to 94.3% of the vote, but in 2020, Biden and Trump won more than 98%.

One significant sign of potential weakness for Biden not evident in these special elections is his weaker-than-usual poll showings among minority voters, who formed more than one-third of the Democrats' 2020 vote, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Indeed, everything the Biden campaign and White House is doing indicates they recognize their main need is to overcome the negative perceptions of him among voters and the frequently expressed concerns by party officials.