Biden needs that hopeful spin to become reality, since up until this point in the 2024 campaign he has persistently lagged Trump among the bloc that decides most presidential races: independents. Trump squeaked out a 43–42 percent victory over Hillary Clinton among independents and third-party voters in November 2016, after which his approval rate from the group stayed mired in the 30s for most of his presidency, culminating in a 52-43 percent loss to Biden in 2020. But within his first six months in the White House, Biden’s support among independents crashed from 61 percent to 34 percent, where it has been languishing ever since.
In our two-party system, independents tend to serve as an electoral brake on the excesses of the party or executive in power; incumbents get the focus more than potential general-election challengers. Now that Trump has progressed to near-inevitability, the Biden theory goes, independents will start paying far more attention to the Republican, particularly his potentially opinion-swaying criminal trials.
Some of Tuesday’s exit poll numbers coming out of New Hampshire buttress that theory. “We’ve never seen a gap between the independent vote and the Republican vote in an NH GOP primary like we saw last night,” MSNBC numbers whiz Steve Kornacki tweeted Wednesday morning. Trump beat Nikki Haley 74 percent to 25 percent among Republicans, but Haley took independents 60 percent to 38 percent. And among the independent voters who participated in the GOP primary, noted The Wall Street Journal, a whopping 68 percent said they would not for Trump in the general election.
Luckily for Trump, the GOP nomination is decided by electorates that are a good deal more Republican than New Hampshire’s. Unluckily for the presumptive nominee, his one-man polarization act is registering numerically even within the party he dominates. Exit polls showed 21 percent of Republican voters in the New Hampshire primary, and 15 percent of GOP Iowa caucus participants, saying they would not vote for Trump in November. Maybe those numbers reflect heat-of-the-moment sentiment, but it’s hard to imagine them improving if the candidate is convicted of a January 6, 2021–related crime.
Meanwhile, registered independents, having grown by 46 percent nationwide since 2008, are now nearly as numerous as Republicans, with 35.3 million compared to 35.7 million as of last October. This swing vote, which has been the most revolted by the prospect of a Trump-Biden rematch, will be serially wooed and cajoled over the next 41 weeks.
The candidate best positioned to exploit the growth in both independents and political disillusionment is neither Biden nor Trump, but rather Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In a three-way matchup, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling average, RFK stands at a Ross Perot–like 19.3 percent, compared to 37.5 for Trump and 33.8 for Biden.