Last month, the Associated Press commissioned a poll in which Americans were asked how they would describe President Biden and former president Donald Trump, the two most likely candidates, respectively, for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations next year. The question was open-ended, meaning that people could say whatever they wanted.
Despite that, consensuses emerged. The most common descriptor for Biden (offered by a quarter of respondents) was “old,” with words like “confused” being the second-most common. For Trump, the most common response was some variation of “corrupt,” with the runner-up being a broad category of generally negative comments.
This comports with our general understanding of how each candidate is viewed by the public. But in polling released by Fox News on Thursday, an interesting bit of nuance emerges: Both candidates are viewed as corrupt or mentally unfit to a nearly equal degree. Trump has a slight edge on corruption (if such a thing can be seen as advantageous) and Biden on a lack of mental soundness.
It is, if nothing else, a representation of how deeply partisan perceptions of the candidates are.
(A probably necessary aside: Fox News’s polling team has a robust and deserved reputation for impartiality, despite what one might think of the channel’s coverage on the whole. At times, poll results that run against the narrative amplified on the channel’s prime-time shows are simply buried.)
An interesting way to look at the responses in the Fox poll is to display the partisan results relative to each candidate. Instead of showing the responses from Democrats or from people who say they voted for Trump in 2020, we can compare the results from members of each candidate’s party or from those who say they voted for the candidate’s opponent three years ago.
When we do so, we see that perceptions of Trump as corrupt are higher across the board. Overall, most Americans view him as corrupt, beating Biden by an eight-point margin. His own party is nine points more likely to say he’s corrupt than Democrats are to say the same of Biden. Independents are 10 points more likely to say that the term applies to Trump than to Biden.
On the question of mental soundness, the results are essentially inverted. Across the board, this descriptor is more commonly applied to Biden. Most Americans believe that both Biden and Trump lack the necessary mental soundness for the job, although nine percentage points more respondents say that of Biden. That’s the same gap between the two that exists among independents.
Tellingly, there’s a much bigger gap within each candidate’s own party. Democrats are 11 points more likely to say that Biden lacks the necessary mental soundness than Republicans are to say that of Trump.
One can anticipate the partisan debate that these numbers might trigger: How on Earth could [candidate] be viewed as nearly as [attribute] as the other guy? There’s no evidence that [candidate] is [attribute] but plenty of evidence that the other guy is!
That these negative perceptions are near-equally applied matches our understanding of the probable presidential contest. Both men are unpopular and half of respondents told Fox that they dread a Biden-Trump rematch. If, somehow, neither made the cut, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they’d look forward to it.
It also shows why the contest remains close: If Trump is seen as a bit more corrupt and Biden a bit less mentally fit, it mutes the negative effects of each of those characteristics for the other candidate. This is ostensibly part of the desired outcome from launching an impeachment inquiry against Biden, for example — bolster an impression that the current president is little cleaner than the last one, whatever the merits of the argument.
It seems we’re already there.