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Special counsel Robert Hur’s observations about President Joe Biden’s “significantly limited” memory have rattled Washington, setting off a cycle of renewed attention on the president’s age and public verbal slips.
The good news for Biden is that this latest episode doesn’t appear to have changed how voters view his age and mental fitness, according to Morning Consult’s high-frequency tracking data. The bad news for Biden is that the public already have grave concerns on these topics.
Our latest survey found that 68% of voters say Biden is too old, unchanged from a survey conducted the previous week. There was also virtually no change in the relatively small share of voters who think Biden is mentally fit (38%) or in good health (36%).
The Feb. 8-11 survey, which was conducted after the release of Hur’s report that cleared Biden of prosecution for his handling of classified documents in 2017 but included damning asides about the president’s mental acuity, detected only a mild uptick in negative news coverage voters reported hearing about the 81-year-old incumbent. Just under half of voters (46%) said they had recently seen, read or heard something negative about Biden, up from 43% in a Feb. 3-5 survey, while 28% said they had heard something positive, down from 30%.
These short-term trends suggest that the Beltway’s initial reaction to the special counsel’s report was much larger than that of the average voter. In fact, over the weekend, our tracking of Biden’s expected contest against former President Donald Trump found the incumbent’s polling deficit softened a bit. But as Biden readies for an unusually long and grueling campaign, the report still presents a serious obstacle given how voters already view these characteristics in comparison with Trump.
More Voters Are Confident in Trump’s Mental Fitness and Health Than Biden’s
Our survey found Trump has double-digit advantages over Biden on questions of mental fitness (49% to 38%) and good health (52% to 36%), and voters are 20 percentage points less likely to see Trump as too old (68% to 48%).
These disparities are driven largely by what Biden’s own base says. Democrats, for example, are twice as likely to see Biden as too old than Republicans are to say the same of Trump (52% to 26%).
The bottom line
While the special counsel episode made for juicy headlines and erected an intra-administration rift between the president and his own Justice Department that could produce more insider buzz in the capital, it’s not clear that it’s done much to change the big picture with the electorate.
However, this may be beside the point. A large share of the electorate on both sides of the aisle were already expressing real concerns about Biden’s age and mental abilities, something that will undoubtedly remain a liability for him over the next nine months.
The one potential saving grace on the matter for Biden is Trump, who could help mitigate this problem. The likely Republican nominee has less of an advantage over Biden on the mental fitness question than he does the age issue, and as his GOP primary campaign has shown, he has his own penchant for verbal lapses. He has referred to former President Barack Obama as his 2024 opponent, misstated which countries are led by which foreign leaders and appeared to conflate Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But at this stage — admittedly before voters have fully tuned in to the contest and been heavily exposed to Trump, who is four years younger than Biden but has nonetheless aged since leaving office — Biden is starting with a serious disadvantage, and he’s only getting older.