Biden tries to build on small gains in polls as Trump stands trial

Polling suggests several factors could be helping President Biden’s re-election bid, including that voters are growing more upbeat about the economy. PHOTO: REUTERS
Polling suggests several factors could be helping President Biden’s re-election bid, including that voters are growing more upbeat about the economy. PHOTO: REUTERS

Summary

The president has picked up support since the State of the Union, but he still faces uncertainty in the Middle East and stubborn inflation.

SCRANTON, Pa.—Former President Donald Trump will be sitting in a courtroom for much of the next several weeks, giving President Biden a window of opportunity to play offense and build support—if he can take advantage of it.

Biden embarked on a multiday tour of Pennsylvania this week as jury selection began in Trump’s criminal hush-money trial in New York, opening a presidential split-screen that voters will see this spring.

Recent national polls show the race between the two men essentially tied, with Biden’s support rising gradually since his State of the Union address in March. Trump still holds a narrow lead in many of the battleground states that will help decide the election, making it imperative for the president to build momentum in states such as Pennsylvania.

The start of Trump’s trial, which will keep him in the New York City courtroom for four days a week, follows a recent spate of news about an abortion ban in Arizona, another battleground state where Democrats could be helped by an abortion-rights ballot initiative in the fall.

Biden was set to receive the endorsement in Philadelphia Thursday of several members of the Kennedy family, who will say the president has championed the rights and freedoms pursued by the late President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The endorsements come as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has mounted an independent bid for president, with polls showing him getting support in the double-digits. Many Kennedy family members have criticized his campaign, saying it could help elect Trump.

But the conflict in the Middle East remains a wild card for Biden as the risk of a broader war between Israel and Iran could inject uncertainty into the campaign and some young and progressive voters remain unhappy with his support for Israel. Biden is also still wrestling with inflation, a political problem the president has few tools to address.

Biden struck a populist tone this week in Scranton, Pa., where he lived as a boy until his family moved to Delaware, portraying Trump as supportive of tax policies that only benefit the wealthy and corporations. Biden said when he viewed the economy, “I don’t see it through the eyes of Mar-a-Lago, I see it through the eyes of Scranton," referring to the former president’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla.

At a union event Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Biden urged his trade office to raise tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from China, backing a protectionist approach favored by the United Steelworkers union.

Even before this week’s split screen, the race appeared to be tightening. An average of national public polls calculated by The Economist finds Biden and Trump tied, with 44% support each, compared with a 3-point Trump advantage in early February. (Based on recent elections, Biden would need to win the national popular vote by at least a few percentage points to have a good shot at winning the Electoral College.)

Polling suggests that several factors could be giving Biden a lift. A Wall Street Journal survey in February found voters shedding some of their pessimism about the economy, and consumer sentiment, as measured by the University of Michigan, has improved markedly in recent months, though it slipped in March.

The renewed attention on abortion rights in the news might also have helped Biden by shifting voters’ focus to that issue and away from problems at the border with Mexico, which is one of Biden’s weakest issues. In Journal polling of seven swing states last month, voters said Biden was better able than Trump to handle abortion by 12 percentage points, but that Trump was better on immigration and border security by 20 points.

Jefrey Pollock, a Biden campaign pollster, said the tighter polling reflects a shift since the State of the Union, when many voters who remained doubtful of a Biden-Trump rematch started to view the election as a choice. “Joe Biden took it to Donald Trump," Pollock said. “And it was the clear beginning of Biden saying this is going to be a mano a mano, and we’re going to have a conversation about my vision and his vision."

Republicans note that Trump still has an advantage in the battleground states. The Journal survey found the former president leading in six of the seven most competitive states, with Trump holding leads of between 2 and 8 percentage points in six states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina. In each case, the lead was within or right at the edge of the poll’s margin of error.

Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said the former president was winning “because voters are tired of Biden’s weakness, record-high inflation and open border chaos," and that the campaign is expanding operations in battleground states.

Trump made an appearance at a Harlem bodega following Tuesday’s court proceedings and planned to hold a rally Saturday in Wilmington, N.C., offering a window into how he is likely to proceed during the trial. His campaign is planning events in and around New York as well as additional rallies in battleground states. He will increase media interviews, people familiar with the strategy say, and has the ability to do virtual events in the evenings.

The Harlem event, scene of a 2022 assault on a store clerk—who fatally stabbed his attacker—was designed for Trump to highlight fears over violent crime, even as numbers overall are down nationally from pandemic highs.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, charged the bodega clerk Jose Alba with second-degree murder before later dropping the charges amid a backlash. Bragg also brought the hush-money charges against Trump.

“There’s no crime," Trump claimed of his own prosecution. “You know where the crime is—in the bodegas where they come and rob them every week."

Even though the trial, replete with unsavory accusations, will curtail Trump’s ability to actively campaign, his allies said the proceedings will help him press his case against what he calls the unfair nature of the nation’s justice system.

“Seeing him in court reinforces the message the president has been putting out there—Democrats attempt to keep me off the ballot," said David Urban, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign effort in Pennsylvania.

Urban said it remained unclear how a potential conviction in the case might affect the electorate. “It’s a Rorschach test—people are going to see what they want to see," he said.

A recent AP-NORC poll found 35% of Americans thought Trump committed a crime in the hush-money trial, the lowest percentage to express that belief among the four criminal cases he faces. But the survey also found that 50% of respondents said he would be unfit to be president if convicted in the New York case, while 29% said he would still be fit and 21% weren’t sure.

The White House and the Biden campaign have declined to weigh in on Trump’s trial, saying the president is focused on his work. But Biden repeatedly reminds voters of his predecessor’s past statements and warns that Trump, if re-elected, would threaten the underpinnings of the nation’s democracy.

Aaron Zitner and Alex Leary contributed to this article.

Write to Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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