So about that poll. You know the one: the Times/Siena poll showing Donald Trump with an edge over President Biden in five out of six swing states, and suggesting a softening of support for Mr. Biden among Black, Latino and young voters.
The results have been met in Democratic and other anti-MAGA circles with horror, disbelief and panic. How could they not be? Whatever disappointment voters have with Mr. Biden, the idea that any of his 2020 backers would give his predecessor another shot at destroying democracy feels like pure lunacy.
It is best to take horse-race polling this far out from Election Day with a boatload of salt. There are too many moving pieces. Too much that could happen. Too much of the public is not paying attention.
But some of the data points to the unusual dynamics at play with a defeated president challenging the guy that America dumped him for. It isn’t just that Mr. Biden has weakness among less engaged voters, or that some respondents weren’t embracing Mr. Trump so much as rejecting Mr. Biden. What struck me is that despite his own raging unpopularity, Mr. Trump is positioned to serve as the repository for protest votes, nostalgia votes and change votes, a weird but potentially potent mash-up of support that could make up for a multitude of weaknesses. He could wind up beating Mr. Biden almost by default.
A re-election campaign is fundamentally a referendum on the incumbent. And for all his accomplishments, Mr. Biden is presiding over a rough time. Inflation is still taking its bite out of people’s paychecks. The nation is still in a twitchy, sour mood post-pandemic. People are worried about crime and homelessness and the surge of migrants at the southern border. They are still dealing with the toll Covid took on their kids. And the broader mental health crisis. And the opioid scourge. And the two wars in which America is playing a supporting role. Of course a big chunk of the electorate sees the country as headed in the wrong direction.
When Americans are feeling pessimistic, the president gets blamed. The degree to which Mr. Biden’s policies have helped or hurt does not much matter, especially on the economy. He owns it. And here’s the thing: You can’t argue with voters’ feelings. Even if you win the debate on points, you’re not going to convince people that they or the nation is actually doing swell. Trying, in fact, often just makes you look like a condescending, out-of-touch jerk.
In such gloomy times, many voters start itching for change, for someone to come in and shake things up. This commonly means giving the out party a chance. Think Barack Obama in 2008, after eight enervating years of George W. and Dick Cheney.
This time, instead of a fresh face, the Republican Party looks poised to offer a familiar one. This has its downsides. Mr. Trump’s defects are excruciatingly well known — and ever more so as the multiple cases against him wend their way through the courts. But no one denies that he likes to shake things up. And just as Mr. Biden sold himself in 2020 as a break from the chaos of Trumpism, Mr. Trump can now position himself as the change candidate. To borrow a cliché from Mr. Biden, Americans won’t be comparing Mr. Trump to the Almighty but to the alternative. And for many voters, the alternative in 2024 is a Biden status quo they consider unpalatable.
It does not help Mr. Biden that he comes across as doddering and frail. This opens him up to one of Republicans’ favorite charges against Democrats: weakness. And political smears resonate more when they fit within an existing framework.
At an even more basic level, Mr. Trump doesn’t have to promise positive change so much as the chance to stiff-arm the current leadership. Plenty of protest voters may not be looking to punish Mr. Biden for a particular action, or inaction, so much as for their inchoate disenchantment with the way things are. The economy should be better. Life should be better. The people in charge should be doing better.
Some protest voters will turn out to support anyone running against the object of their distaste. This is what plenty of people did with Mr. Trump in 2016 to express their lack of love for Hillary Clinton. Others, especially inconstant voters, may simply decide to sit out the race. If this happens disproportionately among groups who went for Mr. Biden in 2020, such as young and nonwhite voters, it works to Mr. Trump’s benefit. This is the low-turnout specter keeping Democrats up at night.
Then there is the nostalgia factor. Political nostalgia is a real and powerful thing. People are wired to romanticize the way things used to be and, by extension, the leaders at the time. Usually, voters dissatisfied with a president do not have the opening for such a direct do over. Rarely does a president who loses re-election attempt a comeback, and only one, Grover Cleveland, has ever done so successfully. But this election, rather than exchanging the incumbent for an unknown quantity, voters can choose to go back to a devil they know, who hails from a pre-Covid age of golden elevators and cheap mortgages.
Now factor in thermostatic voting, the fancy name for a kind of generic buyers’ remorse you see as voters frequently veer toward the opposite party from the one they backed in the previous election. Virginia, for instance, picks its governor the year after a presidential election, and its voters typically go with the candidate whose party did not win the White House. You also see this nationally in midterm elections, in which voters often punish the president’s team.
Mr. Trump has the added advantage of the economy having been humming before the pandemic upended his last year in office. Inflation was practically nonexistent. Unemployment was low. The nation wasn’t neck deep in scary, sticky wars. Sure, he was a supertoxic aspiring autocrat who tried to subvert democracy by overturning a free and fair election and who is now facing dozens of criminal charges, not to mention a civil suit for fraud. But if, come fall of 2024, he asks voters that most basic of political questions, “Weren’t you better off when I was president?” an awful lot may answer, “Hell, yeah.”
Twelve months is several eternities in politics. And none of this is to downplay Mr. Trump’s glaring flaws — or his manifest unfitness for office. But there are some political fundamentals working in his favor that go beyond his specific pros and cons. Anyone who isn’t at least a little afraid isn’t paying attention.
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