Obama's pollster on the Republican voters Trump should fear: "Wild enough to threaten his chances"

"For Trump, even a small dip in his base could cost him the election"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 8, 2024 5:31AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Public opinion polls show a 2024 election that, at this point, is very close. President Biden appears to be ahead in several key battleground states. However, other polls have consistently shown that Donald Trump is leading Biden, both nationally and in the battleground states. As politics experts know, there is always the qualifier and truism that public opinion polls are a snapshot in time and are not predictive – unless they turn out to be correct in retrospect on Election Day.

The polls and focus groups also show that many Americans across the political divide are tired, exhausted, and would prefer that neither Biden nor Trump be their respective party’s presidential nominees. Many Americans are in their own self-curated self-reinforcing information echo chambers and closed episteme(s) that make finding a common ground regarding the facts and the truth even more difficult.

"For Biden, 2024 must be a referendum on Trump — not a choice."

In an attempt to make better sense of the 2024 election in this tumultuous and confusing time, I recently spoke with Mike Kulisheck, who is Managing Director of BSG, a consulting and strategic research firm that worked as Barack Obama's pollsters during his 2012 presidential re-election campaign.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Kulisheck explains how the 2024 election is uniquely and highly volatile. He also shares his concerns and warnings about how the many Americans who view Trump’s time in office through a distorted lens as “the good old days” and plan to punish President Biden on Election Day. Kulisheck highlights how, contrary to the dominant news media narrative, Trump’s support among Republicans is not as strong as many observers believe. Those voters, he tells me, could be the wildcard that derails the corrupt ex-president’s quest to take back the White House and become America’s first dictator.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Public opinion polls and other data about voter attitudes and behavior are a type of story. Where are we in the story that is the Age of Trump?

I like the idea of data as a story. BSG fielded a poll of 1,001 likely voters last month that highlights the complexity of the moment. In our survey, two-thirds of voters say things in the U.S. are off on the wrong track, three-quarters say America is in decline, and two-thirds say they are worried or fearful about the November election for president. In addition, 7-in-10 voters rate the U.S. economy as only fair or poor and 4-in-10 say their family’s finances are getting worse. Yet, despite deep-seated negativity, the incumbent president trails the former president by just two points. The race for president is essentially a tie.

For me, the story in these numbers is that 2024 is not going to be the straightforward pocketbook election that it looked like when experts were predicting recession and steep inflation. It’s not a ‘just the economy, stupid’ election. The economy will by a factor in November, but for the slice of voters who will decide the election, the story in the polls is going to be about how they weigh the importance of different policy issues, their feelings about the economy and the country, and their thoughts about specific candidates as they make their decision. 

What are the dominant narratives so far from the mainstream media in terms of the election? But what is the data telling us?

There is a narrative these days that the contours of the 2024 race are set in stone. This narrative emphasizes the things that, in retrospect, feel inevitable, like Trump and Biden capturing their respective parties’ nominations. 

"The best polling this cycle will tell us about what is driving voters’ preferences and how events and new information shape voters’ election calculations."

I believe the 2024 race is actually very fluid and uniquely up for grabs. Just about anything could decide our next president – Latinos shifting right, young people staying at home, RFK, Jr. siphoning votes, Trump’s indictments, the age of both candidates, etc. Rather than set in stone, this race wiggles like Jello. 

The Trump regime was only a few years ago and was one of the most disastrous in American history. Yet, there are huge swaths of voters either yearning for Trump to return or somehow are misremembering that disaster nostalgically. Help me make sense of such madness.

Donald Trump is benefitting from voters looking backward through rose-colored lenses. Their memories of the Trump administration have recovered and are remarkably upbeat. Three years after the Jan. 6 insurrection and the second Trump impeachment, a 52% majority of voters in our March poll say they approve of the job Trump did as president. This is a huge improvement from when Trump was president and his job approval never cracked 50% and averaged in the low-40s.

President Biden will lose if voters choose between faded memories of Trump and their current thoughts about Biden. Voters feel the world was safer (+10%) and America was stronger (+11%) when Trump was president. When Trump was in the White House, voters say they were more positive about the future (+5%), prouder to be an American (+4%), and that the economy was better (+19%). Voters acknowledge that the Trump administration was more corrupt (+9%) and chaotic (+9%) than the Biden administration and that America was more divided when Trump was president (+10%). But head-to-head, voters will likely put up with chaos and division if it means a strong America with a growing economy. 

Biden needs to flip the 2024 narrative so that it is about what Trump actually did in office – not based on rose-colored memories. He needs to call out the effects of Trump’s actions on the lives of everyday Americans and the ongoing dangers Trump poses to America. For Biden, 2024 must be a referendum on Trump — not a choice.

How are third-party candidates impacting the 2024 election?

Donald Trump holds a razor-thin 42% to 40% lead over Joe Biden in our March poll, with 11% supporting third-party candidates. If third-party voters stay where they are now, they will swing the election to Donald Trump. 

It is important to note, however, that in an election cycle defined by hyper-partisanship, support for third-party candidates is interestingly soft and up-for-grabs. Only one-fifth of third-party voters are very certain they will end up voting for their candidate, compared to 7-in-10 Biden and Trump voters. 

While third-party voters are not fans of Joe Biden or Donald Trump, our data suggest that they would rather have Biden in the White House than Trump. When asked to choose between the two leading candidates, third-party voters opt narrowly for Biden over Trump 32% to 23%, with 45% undecided or possibly not voting. But 67% of third-party voters believe Biden is the lesser of two evils compared to Trump, and compared to Biden, third-party voters describe Trump as more authoritarian (79%), dangerous (76%), and corrupt (69%). 

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Leaning toward Biden is not the same as voting for him. Biden and the Democrats need to raise the stakes about 2024 and convince these third-party voters that defeating Trump means voting for Biden.

The Republican Party belongs to Donald Trump. But what about the Republican voters?

Trump’s hold on Republican voters in a general election is looser than conventional wisdom suggests. Donald Trump has fully tamed the party, but a bloc of Republican voters remains wild enough to threaten his chances in November.

In our poll, 62% of Republicans identify as Trump or MAGA Republicans and they are solidly in Trump’s corner. Among these Republicans, 94% are favorable toward Trump, 96% approve of the job he did as President, and 98% say they are voting for him in 2024.

The 38% of Republicans who do not identify with Donald Trump or MAGA are a different beast. Just 58% of these Republicans are favorable toward Trump, and while 71% say they will vote for Trump, half say they are voting against Biden rather than for Trump. 

For Trump, even a small dip in his base could cost him the election. In 2020, Trump lost just 6% of Republicans according to exit polls.  In 2024, if he holds on to 98% of the Trump/MAGA wing of the party and keeps 71% of ‘questioning’ Republicans, he will have lost 11% of Republicans, a scenario that makes his re-election very difficult, even in a multi-candidate race. 

What are you and your colleagues at BSG focusing on that others may not be?

I was talking to my colleague Patrick Toomey, a partner here at BSG, about how he’s looking at the data and opportunities for Biden and the Democrats. Here is what he told me:

Much of the conversation about women voters in this election has centered on abortion and reproductive rights, but in my polling, I frequently see women voters expressing more concerns about the cost of living than men. I’m particularly interested in the degree to which women end up prioritizing one over the other. Of course, Biden and the Democrats have strong arguments about making life more affordable, but many women swing voters are torn between voting for the candidate they know will protect abortion rights and the one whom they associate with (wrongly in my view) a lower cost of living.

Social scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that time feels faster because of how dominant the perpetual crisis frame has become since the 1960s. From your perspective and experiences, how do you feel about “hyper-politics”? What does the data tell us?

News cycles are faster, but the effect of news on public opinion is slower and more muted. The overwhelming majority of voters are sorted into partisan camps. When news stories pop up – no matter how salacious or shocking – they are viewed through a partisan lens. Big stories hit, stories that would have knocked older politicians on their heels, and they barely make a dent in public opinion. Current events can reset feelings about candidates over time, but the ability of a single story to change public opinion is less than in the past because of rigid partisanship.

What do we know about Trump’s trials and how the so-called “walls closing in” will impact his electoral chances?

In our March poll, we asked voters about Trump’s conviction and fine in the New York civil fraud case. One-quarter of voters told us that Trump’s conviction made them less likely to vote for him, one-quarter said more likely, and half of voters said it didn’t make a difference either way. 

"The danger for Trump is less the outcome of his trials, than the storyline that emerges from the trials."

The danger for Trump is less the outcome of his trials, than the storyline that emerges from the trials. For example, in the New York civil case, Trump not being able to make his bond payment was potentially more damaging to him politically than the actual verdict. The possibility that State Attorney General Letitia James would seize Trump's properties or force him to sell would have undermined Trump’s core identity as a rich and successful businessman. Whether or not Trump is convicted in the election interference cases will likely matter less than the story that comes out about him during the trials. 

That said, voters would like to see Trump’s legal issues addressed before the election. Three-quarters of voters in our poll say that his cases should be resolved before the November election, including 59% of Republicans. 

What is the overall state of polling today? 

I believe polls are capturing the mood of the country quite accurately these days: We are divided, in a foul mood, and worried about the future. 

When it comes to the 2024 election for president, polls show an extremely tight race. Though it can be used as a crutch for pollsters, the race is in the margin of error. Meaning, a poll reporting Trump +2 should be interpreted as a toss-up. I don’t mean this to be a get-out-of-jail card for pollsters, but the best polling this cycle will tell us about what is driving voters’ preferences and how events and new information shape voters’ election calculations.

I am less confident about the ability of individual polls to capture the attitudes among key subgroups like voters of color and Gen Z voters. Across polls, there is persuasive evidence that these subgroups are wobbly on Biden and the Democrats, but it is less clear where they are going between Trump and third-party candidates. Looking at individual polls, it is difficult to get large, representative samples of these subgroups, and results need to be interpreted with care.

What about focus groups?  

I’m a big fan of qualitative research like focus groups. A focus group cannot be interpreted as representative of anything more than the handful of people in the room. However, a handful of people talking about current events can clarify how everyday Americans interpret complicated issues and make tough choices. Quantitative polling gets at ‘what’ voters think and want. Qualitative focus groups let pollsters ask ‘why’ voters think the way they do. 

Focus groups can be a tip-off to larger findings. I was involved with focus groups for state senator Barack Obama in his 2004 campaign for Senate. The focus groups revealed the degree to which Obama was capturing the zeitgeist with his message of hope and change. The focus group setting drew out this insight.

Right now, given what we know, would you rather be Donald Trump or President Biden in terms of the polls and what they are suggesting about Election Day?

Narrowly, I would rather be President Biden.

Donald Trump is coming out of a long stretch during which news about him was about winning. He vanquished Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley and consolidated the core of his party around MAGA. The campaign has now shifted to the general election. Biden and the Democrats are getting much more aggressive with Trump. Trump’s legal cases are gaining steam. And the Democrats’ money advantage has not yet been fully activated.

Biden faces his own set of vulnerabilities, but Donald Trump is in a weaker spot than it seemed even six weeks ago.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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