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Here's what matters to voters — and what could change their minds if it's Biden-Trump

President Biden greets staff and patrons at Regal Lounge, a Men's Barber & Spa, in Columbia, S.C., before speaking at a political event in the area on Jan. 27.
Kent Nishimura
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden greets staff and patrons at Regal Lounge, a Men's Barber & Spa, in Columbia, S.C., before speaking at a political event in the area on Jan. 27.

Preserving democracy tops the list of issues for voters in this election year, but not for Republicans, who are most concerned with immigration, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist pollfinds.

For Democrats, they said preserving democracy is top of mind for them when thinking about voting in this November's election, followed by inflation. For independents, it was preserving democracy, followed by immigration and inflation. After immigration for Republicans, it was inflation, and nothing else came close.

The results explain the evident divide when it comes to what the candidates are campaigning on.

Former President Donald Trump routinely talks about the threat from immigration, often in nativist and xenophobic ways. Immigration was fundamental to his initial political rise in 2015, and there's a clear split in the survey on Americans' mentality toward it. A majority said the country's openness to people from all over the world is essential to what it means to be American. But nearly three-quarters of Republicans said being too open risks America's identity.


President Biden and Democrats see Trump as that very threat to democracy given his increasingly pro-authoritarian rhetoric on the campaign trail. That follows the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol carried by Trump supporters after Trump tried to remain in office by spreading lies about the American voting system.

But nine months from Election Day — and with the GOP primary continuing — both men, if they are the nominees, face challenges. Biden is not well-liked and is struggling to reassemble his winning coalition from 2020. He's lagging with independents, younger voters and nonwhites. And he's facing a skeptical electorate when it comes to his handling of the economy and immigration — in addition to persistent concerns about his age.

Trump, who is not much younger, is also contending with the fact that most Americans continue to say they don't like him very much, either. He struggles particularly with women and suburban voters — and both groups would vote more heavily for Biden if Trump is convicted of a crime, the survey found.

If Trump is convicted as a result of the dozens of charges against him, Biden goes from a 1-point lead in the poll — a statistical tie — to a wider 6-point lead. Contributing to that are 9-point swings in Biden's favor with both women and suburban voters, as well as a 6-point decline for Trump with independents and a 5-point drop with Republicans.

As a panel of federal judges unanimously decided Tuesday, two-thirds of respondents don't think Trump should have immunity from criminal prosecution for things he did as president — and almost half of respondents continue to say they already think he has done something illegal. Three-quarters said he has at least done something wrong.


At the same time, more than two-thirds of Republicans said Trump should have immunity from criminal prosecution.

Trump remains largely untouchable among Republicans

Despite Trump's vulnerabilities, 93% of Republicans said they would vote for Trump over Biden, as opposed to just 78% who said they would vote for former Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley over Biden (15% said they're unsure or don't know how they would vote).

Because Republicans who otherwise support Trump withheld support for Haley in the survey, Haley is in a statistical tie — just like Trump.

Plus, more Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they were concerned that Haley is "too extreme" to win in a general election than those who said they were concerned about Trump being too extreme.

Haley has made her electability against Biden a principal argument in her case against Trump, but Republicans aren't buying it. It just shows the stronghold Trump has on GOP voters. If Republicans were fully with her in the survey — as they likely would be if she won the primary — she'd certainly be leading Biden in this theoretical match-up, because she significantly cuts into Biden's lead with suburban voters and wins independents by double-digits.

Immigration is a dividing line — and a major vulnerability for Biden

Trump could have real problems in a general election, as general-election voters view him very differently than Republicans alone.

But Biden's not in a great position, either. His job approval remains low (40%) as does his handling of the economy (41%) and, especially, immigration.

Only 29% of respondents said they approve of how Biden is handling immigration, and Republicans hold a 12-point advantage on the question of which party Americans think would do a better job when it comes to dealing with the issue.

It's not too surprising then to see why some Republicans, especially Trump, aren't willing to go along with a congressional border deal that was negotiated by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

"Let me tell you, I'm not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden's approval rating," Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, told CNN last month. "I will not help the Democrats try to improve this man's dismal approval ratings. I'm not going to do it. Why would I?"

When Trump came out against it, you might say he built a border wall of GOP opposition.

As far as what respondents think should be the top immigration priority, they said they want border security increased (41%), followed by allowing immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children (also known as DREAMers) to have a path to legalization (28%), taking in refugees trying to escape war and violence (15%) and increasing deportations of immigrants in the country illegally (14%).

Republican respondents overwhelmingly said the top priority should be border security (60%) followed by increasing deportations (22%). But the plurality of Democrats think giving DREAMers a path to legalization should be top (44%), followed by taking in refugees (25%).

Biden's frayed coalition

Biden is underperforming with lots of key groups.

He won independents in 2020, according to exit polls, but loses them in this survey by 8 points to Trump. Biden won women by 15 points in 2020, but only leads by 4 with them in this poll.

Plus, just 57% of Black voters, 38% of Latinos and only 30% of those 18 to 29 approve of the job he's doing, the lowest of any age bracket. In 2020, Biden won almost 9 in 10 Black voters, two-thirds of Latinos and roughly 60% of young voters.

When it comes to his handling of immigration, Latinos give Biden an abysmal 27% approval.

To be clear, whether respondents say they approve of Biden's handling of a given issue is not necessarily an indication of how they would vote in the end. But the numbers do give signals about where Biden is most vulnerable.

Suburban voters are buoying Biden, as he leads Trump by 16 points with them. Trump has been and continues to be toxic with the group.

Despite younger voters disapproving of the job Biden is doing by big margins, Gen Z/Millennials provide Biden with the largest lead of the generational groups against Trump — 7 points.

Biden also continues to perform well with older voters. He's up 6 with the Silent/Greatest Generation and up 2 with Baby Boomers. Those results are notable, because older voters have traditionally been strong GOP voters. Trump won those 65 and older by 5 points in 2020.

The survey of 1,582 adults and 1,441 registered voters was conducted from Jan. 29 through Feb. 1 by the Marist Poll via cell phone and landline using live interviewers, by text and online and in both English and Spanish. When all adults are mentioned, the survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.4 percentage points.

When voters are mentioned, results have a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percentage points. There are also 601 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents included in the survey. Results noting these groups specifically have a +/- 5.5 percentage-point margin of error.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.