Exclusive poll: Biden and Trump tie at 37% as RFK Jr. costs Trump a narrow lead

The arithmetic gets complicated and the politics unsettled in a 2020 rematch with at least one significant independent candidate, and perhaps more.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the frontrunners for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations in 2024.

It's a tie: One year before the presidential election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump each command 37% of the vote in a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll − with independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. costing Trump what would have been a narrow lead.

Kennedy, scion of the nation's most revered Democratic family, won 13% of the vote in a hypothetical match-up, drawing voters who by 2-1 said they would otherwise support the probable Republican nominee.

Progressive activist Cornel West, who also plans an independent campaign, is at 4%. His supporters would break to Biden if he weren't on the ballot.

The survey's findings underscore the complicated arithmetic and the unsettled politics of the likely rematch of the 2020 nominees, especially with the addition of at least one significant independent candidacy and possibly more.

Carl Hickey, 85, a retired Methodist minister from Monkton, Maryland, is a Democrat who plans to vote for President Joe Biden but would consider a third-party candidate if the right one emerged. "We've got to do something that's different," he said in a follow-up interview after being polled. "The division has to stop; we have to work together."

Desiree Whitney, 64, a retiree from Boerne, Texas, who voted for Trump in 2020, would consider voting for Kennedy in 2024. "I am supportive of him because he doesn't seem to be the Washington ilk," she said. Kennedy, who initially made his reputation as an environmental lawyer, has become an outspoken advocate of conspiracy theories on vaccinations and other issues.

One in 4 voters, 26%, said they would seriously consider supporting a bipartisan ticket of a Republican and a Democrat that a centrist group called No Labels may field. Another 23% said they might consider it, depending on the nominees. Biden voters were more likely than Trump voters − 28% compared with 18% − to say they would take a serious look.

The poll of 1,000 registered voters by landline and cellphone Tuesday through Friday has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Not since billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot drew 19% of the vote in 1992, enabling Bill Clinton to defeat President George H.W. Bush with just 43% of the popular vote, has the prospect of independent bids threatened to upend the standard two-party calculations of campaigns.

Without Kennedy in the mix, Trump would edge Biden 41%-39%, a lead within the survey's margin of error, with West at 7%. Without West in the mix, Biden would edge Trump by an even narrower margin, 38%-37%, with Kennedy at 14%.

With neither Kennedy nor West on the ballot, Biden and Trump would tie 41%-41%.

Trump fortifies GOP lead; Nikki Haley almost neck-and-neck with Ron DeSantis

Despite months of legal troubles − or perhaps because of them − Trump has strengthened his command of the Republican nomination.

In the poll, he leads the GOP field at 58%, 10 points higher than he was in the USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll in June. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, then his leading challenger at 23%, has lost half his standing. He's now at 12%, only a point ahead of former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. She is at 11%, up from 4% four months ago.

No other contender is higher than 3%.

Though they're tied, Trump has a significant advantage over Biden when it comes to voter enthusiasm. Asked to rate how enthusiastic they felt on behalf of their candidate − 1 being very unenthusiastic and 10 very enthusiastic − Trump scored a mean, or an average, of 7.1. Biden was at 6.28.

Supporters of Trump who rank themselves as a 10 − that is, as the most enthusiastic possible − include 50% of Republicans, 58% of union members, and 54% of those ages 50 to 64, his strongest age group.

"Compared to the people that he's running against, I think he's the better option because he exposed a lot of the crap that was going on," said Dustin Gibbons, 34, a Republican and a Trump voter from Queen Creek, Arizona. "He's not a RINO," an acronym for "Republican in name only" used as a conservative slur against moderates. Gibbons said, "He's not a lobbyist, or, you know, he's not controlled by the lobbyists or the other parties."

In contrast, no demographic group of Biden voters matches that level of enthusiasm. Backers who rank themselves as a 10 included 29% of those 65 and older, 21% of Black voters and just 17% of Democrats.

Asked if she was enthusiastic about supporting Biden, Tanya Richie, 64, a Democrat from Lincoln, Illinois, replied, "Not really, but he's better than any of the alternatives on the other side." The retired cosmetology teacher added, "I'll put it this way: I will never put a Republican in the office at this point in time."

Democratic voters were asked if they would support in a primary Biden or Marianne Williamson, a spiritual guru who is making her third bid for the party's nomination. He was backed by 73% and she by 11%, a standing that may reflect an inclination by some voters to support anybody but Biden.

The president's job approval rating is 40% approve, 56% disapprove. The intensity of feeling is running against him: 13% say they "strongly approve," while three times that, 41%, say they "strongly disapprove."

What would it take to dislodge Trump supporters?

We asked Trump supporters what circumstances would prevent them from voting for him.

Many had trouble imagining what that could possibly be.

In response to the open-ended question, more than 1 in 4, or 27%, said "nothing." Another 15% said only if he wasn't on the ballot; 6% if he died; and 4% if they couldn't vote. That means a majority of Trump supporters, 52%, are determined to vote for him unless that proves all but impossible to do.

About a third could fathom a reason to change their vote − 3% for offensive behavior or rhetoric and 4% if he changes his policy views. Fourteen percent say they wouldn't vote for Trump if a better candidate came along, and 12% if he was in jail

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