The 2024 presidential primaries are in full swing. President Joe Biden is the overhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. Former President Donald Trump remains the clear front-runner for the Republican nod.
This puts a lot of Americans in a position they don’t want to be in: A historically large share of them do not like either man at this point.
A CNN/SSRS poll from earlier this month found that more Americans viewed neither Biden nor Trump favorably than those who held favorable views of either man. A plurality (36%) viewed neither candidate favorably, while 33% had a favorable view of Trump and 32% for Biden. Constraining ourselves to registered voters, 31% viewed neither Biden nor Trump favorably.
When you zoom in on those who were unfavorably inclined toward Biden and Trump (i.e., putting aside those who were unsure or were neutral), 22% of adults and 21% of registered voters had an unfavorable view of both men.
To put that in perspective, consider the end of the 2016 presidential election. That race (between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton) is the benchmark election for candidate unlikability. It is the only one on record in which both candidates were disliked by more Americans than liked on Election Day.
The final pre-election CNN poll of that campaign found that 16% of registered voters held an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton. When you add in those who were neutral or didn’t have an opinion, 19% viewed neither nominee favorably.
If the numbers we’re seeing now in CNN polling continue through the election, more Americans will dislike both major party nominees for president than ever before.
Usually, most Americans like at least one of the candidates running for president. That has been the norm for most of polling history.
Just 5% of voters said they had an unfavorable view of both Biden and Trump in the final 2020 CNN poll. An even smaller 3% of voters said they had an unfavorable view of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in the final CNN poll of the 2012 campaign.
It’s worth noting, of course, that we’re still well more than a year out from the 2024 election. Things can change.
But frequently, they change for the worse as more negative ads fly.
When you examine the polling at this point in the 2016 campaign, the current 2024 polling is even more ahistorical.
While Trump’s favorable rating among registered voters this month nearly equaled his favorable rating in CNN’s July 2015 poll (34%), Clinton’s stood at 44% in the 2015 survey. Her unfavorable rating was 49%. Biden’s favorable rating in CNN’s latest poll was 32% among adults and 35% among registered voters. His unfavorable figure was 56% among both groups.
Neither Trump nor Biden are anywhere near positive territory this cycle, and we’re not talking about one outlier poll.
The average of all polling so far indicates that both men have favorable ratings below 40% with unfavorable ratings into the mid-50s.
CNN’s May poll showed that 23% of voters didn’t hold a favorable view of either candidate. In each of Quinnipiac University’s last three polls among registered voters, somewhere between 22% and 28% of the electorate viewed neither candidate favorably. The average was 24%.
The closest anyone came to having a favorable rating above an unfavorable rating was Biden in Quinnipiac’s June poll. His favorable rating was 42% to an unfavorable rating of 54%.
So what happens if Biden and Trump continue to be this unpopular? Maybe primary voters decide they want to nominate someone else for president. But Biden doesn’t have a primary competitor with a favorable rating as close to his among Democrats. Trump’s most formidable challenger at this point, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also has a net unfavorable rating among the general electorate.
If Biden and Trump make it to the general election with such low ratings, it could open the door for a third-party candidate. Ross Perot’s 1992 independent bid for the White House got major tailwinds early in that election cycle because both Democratic challenger Bill Clinton and Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush had low favorable ratings.
(Bill Clinton’s favorable rating in 1992 improved after winning his party nomination.)
Likewise, Hillary Clinton and Trump’s low favorable ratings in 2016 allowed the cumulative share of the vote outside the two major parties to eclipse 5% for the only time in the past 25 years.
The bottom line is that there may be repercussions if both parties put up such unpopular nominees. A number of voters may be unwilling to settle for a major-party candidate they dislike.