Why Biden’s Lead Is Safer Than Clinton’s

Trump won in 2016 because voters didn’t like his opponent. That’s no longer true.

Joe Biden pointing and smiling in front of the Gateway Arch
Joe Biden in St. Louis in March. Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden is thumping President Donald Trump in the polls. As of Friday, Biden led Trump by 10 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics national average and by six to nine points in each of four key states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But many Democrats refuse to trust these numbers. They feel burned by 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost after leading in the polls for months. They’re afraid Trump will come back again.

That could happen. But it probably won’t, and one reason is that Biden isn’t Clinton. You can argue that public antipathy toward Clinton was sexist, based on lies, or propelled by the media. But that antipathy was a fact, and polls consistently documented it. Now polls are showing something else: On identical questions, posed by the same pollsters at the same stage of the campaign, Biden is doing far better than Clinton did. He’s more broadly liked and less broadly disliked than she was.

To measure the difference, I chose a single question—whether you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the candidate—and selected pollsters who tested both Clinton’s favorable rating in June 2016 and Biden’s favorable rating in June 2020 (or, in one case, the end of May). Six pollsters met this standard: Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, the Economist (YouGov), Fox News, ABC News and the Washington Post, and NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. By comparing their 2020 numbers to their 2016 numbers, we can measure Biden against Clinton.

Clinton’s scores were atrocious. In all six polls, most respondents viewed her unfavorably. In the five polls that reported degrees of antipathy, 39 percent to 49 percent viewed her very unfavorably. Trump’s scores were even worse. But if you’re wondering why so many people who disliked Trump voted for him anyway, a big reason is that they didn’t like the alternative.

Biden’s ratings are better. Over the past month, in polls taken by the same six organizations, most respondents did not view him unfavorably. His “net” favorability—the percentage of respondents who liked him, minus the percentage who disliked him—was 15 points better than Clinton’s. And his “very unfavorable” rating—the percentage of people who strongly disliked him—was only about 30 percent. That gives him a lot more room to work with.

Among independents—the voters least captive to partisan loyalties and therefore most likely to vote based on feelings about the candidates—the gap is even bigger. In each of the five polls that reported results for this group, Clinton’s unfavorable rating topped 60 percent. Biden’s unfavorable rating among independents ranged from 42 to 54. On average, his net favorable rating in this group was 22 points better than hers. Clinton’s very-unfavorable rating among independents averaged 50 percent; Biden’s was 28 percent. That’s a big chunk of independents who deeply disliked Clinton but not Biden.

Clinton struggled to win male voters, and Biden does better with them. Across the five polls that reported results by sex, his net favorable rating among men was 19 points better than hers. But he also outperformed her by 10 points among women. Clinton’s very-unfavorable rating, on average, was just under 40 percent among women. Biden’s was just under 30 percent.

Republicans will try to drive up Biden’s unfavorable ratings, as they did to Clinton. But that probably won’t work. Biden has endured a yearlong smear campaign by Trump and the GOP, with little to no effect. And long-term data show no sign that Biden can be vilified as successfully as Clinton was. In the 183 polls that tested Clinton’s unfavorable rating in 2016, she averaged 54 percent. Only once did she manage to get that number below 49. This year, Biden is averaging 47.

If you’re looking for reasons to remain scared that Trump might win, you could point to his favorability ratings, which are better than they were four years ago. In the six polls examined here, his average unfavorable rating in June 2016 was 61 percent. Now it’s 55 percent. But that’s because he consolidated support from Republicans who, as of June 2016, hadn’t yet accepted him. Among independents, his average unfavorable rating hasn’t budged. And Clinton, unlike Biden, never held a 10-point lead over Trump in the Real Clear Politics polling average.

Why is Biden less disliked than Clinton? The polls discussed here don’t shed much light on that question, but one factor seems to be trust. When the June 2016 Quinnipiac poll asked whether Clinton or Trump was “more honest and trustworthy,” voters picked Trump, 44 percent to 39 percent. But when the June 2020 Quinnipiac poll asked voters to assess each candidate’s honesty, Biden easily outscored Trump. By a 26-point margin, respondents said Trump wasn’t honest. On Biden, they were evenly split.

We’ll learn more about the Biden-Clinton discrepancy if pollsters repeat some of their questions from 2016. The June 2016 Monmouth poll, for instance, asked, “How important is it to you to make sure that Hillary Clinton does not get elected president?” Forty-one percent said it was very important; another 10 percent said it was somewhat important. The June 2016 Fox poll asked, “What are you more likely to do when Hillary Clinton comes on television—change the channel or turn up the volume?” Most said they would change the channel. The June 2016 Quinnipiac poll asked which candidate you’d rather “watch on TV for the next four years” or “invite to your backyard barbecue.” In both cases, voters chose Trump over Clinton. All of these questions could be asked about Trump and Biden.

For now, the numbers send a clear message: Biden is in a much better position than Clinton was. When Trump came back to win the Electoral College in 2016, he was working with an electorate that strongly disliked the Democratic nominee. Voters were willing to set aside their unease with Trump in order to defeat his opponent. This time, they aren’t.