2024’s remarkably, stubbornly stable race — for now

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The good news for President Joe Biden in our new national NBC News poll is that it appears he’s climbed out of the political hole he was in this winter: His overall approval rating is up 5 points from January, and he now trails former President Donald Trump by just 2 points among registered voters, down from a 5-point deficit three months ago.

The bad news for Biden is that his current political standing is back to where it was in the fall of 2023, when his re-election prospects were already on shaky ground.

It underscores an important point about 2024's presidential election with six months to go: The Biden-Trump contest has been remarkably stable — and remarkably competitive — with the movement coming within the margin of error.

Take the two-way ballot between Biden and Trump, for example. Over the course of almost a year, Trump’s percentage has been stuck between 45% and 47% of registered voters, matching his share of the popular vote in both the 2016 and the 2020 elections. Biden’s percentage, meanwhile, has hovered between a high of 49% in the summer of 2023 and a low of 42% in January.

Or look at Biden’s approval rating, which has consistently been below 45% since the start of January 2023, and which hit a low of 37% in the first month of this year. It’s now at 42% in our latest poll.

Or look at the favorability ratings for both Biden and Trump, which are almost identical:

  • Biden: 38% positive, 52% negative (minus 14 net rating)

  • Trump: 38% positive, 53% negative (minus 15 net rating)

Or take the names at the top of the ticket out of the equation and note the stable congressional preference in the poll. Right now, 47% prefer a GOP-controlled Congress in the new NBC poll, compared to 46% who want Democrats. The parties have been locked in that competitive position for years: The GOP number hasn’t moved more than 2 points in either direction in NBC News polling since August 2021, while the Democratic number dipped outside that range just once.

So, despite all the news, developments and drama over the past year, this race has barely budged. And it’s extremely close.

But the new NBC News poll also points to at least three potential wild cards that could upend this stability.

The first is Trump’s criminal trial in New York. While his multiple criminal indictments and legal challenges helped him with Republican primary voters in 2023 and early this year, the NBC poll finds 50% of voters saying he’s being held to the same standard as anyone accused of such a crime, versus 43% who believe he’s being unfairly targeted.

That majority saying Trump is being held to the same standard as anyone else is higher than the vote share Biden gets in the head-to-head matchup against the former president. Bottom line: The legal challenges don’t seem to be a political winner for Trump with the general electorate — at least right now.

Another potential wild card is the third-party vote. For months, the conventional wisdom has been that the bigger the size of the third-party vote, the worse it would be for Biden. And that could still be the case, given that Trump’s consistent 46% to 47% vote share becomes a winning percentage if the third-party vote is greater than 6%.

Yet, our NBC News poll shows independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. hurting Trump more than he is hurting Biden at the moment.

And a final wild card is the eventual turnout in the 2024 presidential race. As our poll finds, the level of high interest in this contest is at a nearly 20-year low, signaling that turnout in November could be significantly lower than it was in 2020.

Does that lower turnout help Trump, given that more Republicans have high interest (70%) than Democrats do (65%), according to the NBC News poll?

Or does it help Biden, given that many of the voters who say they’re supporting Trump are the ones who didn’t participate in 2020 or in the 2022 midterms?

These are all reasons how a stable race can quickly become unstable — and unpredictable.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com