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As the field of candidates running for president grows, more Americans are concerned about the mental fitness of the two leading candidates than not, a new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll finds.
A month into Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, 62 percent of Americans say that the question of his mental fitness is a real concern about his ability to be president. That’s 11 points higher than for the leading Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump, whose mental fitness is a concern for 51 percent.
Trump has fueled concerns about Biden’s mental acuity since the 2020 presidential campaign, once saying his successor is “not competent to be president.” Biden has similarly said Trump is “unfit to serve” and cited his “erratic behavior” as a reason the former president should not receive classified intelligence briefings.
Megan McGrew/ PBS NewsHour
A potential 2024 rematch between Biden, 80, and Trump, 76, would pit the two oldest presidents ever elected to first terms against each other again, and concerns about age and mental fitness have become major points of criticism for each.
WATCH: Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on the Republican presidential candidates
A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month asked a similar question and found 63 percent of Americans believe Biden lacks the mental sharpness to serve as president – nearly identical to the latest number. But this poll found more concern for Trump’s mental fitness than the 43 percent in the earlier poll.
According to the new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll, 36 percent of Americans dismiss questions about Biden’s mental sharpness, saying concerns are merely a campaign strategy used by his opponents. Forty-three percent say the same of Trump.
Younger voters are the most likely age group to question Biden. Two-thirds of Generation Z and millennials expressed concern. Biden’s own contemporaries in the Silent and Greatest Generations, those born before 1946, are the most likely to give him the benefit of the doubt – just 45 percent of them question his fitness, while 14 percent are unsure how to feel.
READ MORE: Key Trump attorney says he’s leaving legal team as Mar-a-Lago probe intensifies
How voters view each candidate is also heavily influenced by party affiliation. Eighty-four percent of Republicans question Biden’s fitness; 78 percent of Democrats question Trump. And nearly two out of three Democrats say concerns about Biden are simply campaign rhetoric.
But a significant gap emerges among independent voters. By a more than two-to-one margin, independents are more likely to say Biden’s mental fitness is a real concern than a political strategy. Their view of Trump is more evenly split, 48 percent to 42 percent.
While the divide could be concerning for Democrats as the 2024 campaign kicks off, other political issues may become more salient in a general election matchup that offers voters a distinct choice, especially if Trump is the Republican nominee, according to Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.
“Many of these independents, while nervous about Biden’s mental fitness, may end up voting for him anyway because they see Trump’s liabilities as more disqualifying,” she said.
Despite any concerns about Biden, his overall job performance rose slightly from last month to 45 percent, while 49 percent of Americans disapprove, including 59 percent of independents.
Americans’ frustration with Biden (and Congress) has the potential to creep up again amid the high stakes negotiations over raising the debt limit as the United States nears potential financial default. With the debt ceiling currently set at $31 trillion, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told lawmakers again Monday that the country could run out of money to pay its bills as soon as June 1.
WATCH: Debt ceiling negotiations continue as Treasury says deadline is 10 days out
Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy met yesterday for their third face-to-face negotiation, in hopes of preventing the first-ever default because of a failure to raise the debt ceiling. Economists warn that such an event could have disastrous effects on the U.S. economy. Both sides agreed the meeting was productive but emerged without a deal.
McCarthy and congressional Republicans have insisted for months that any agreement to raise or suspend the debt ceiling be accompanied by spending cuts, and for months the president accused Republicans of holding the economy hostage.
More than half of Americans agree with the president’s position, according to the new PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll. Fifty-two percent of Americans say Congress should raise the debt ceiling first to avoid a debt default and then discuss spending cuts separately, including 75 percent of Democrats, 30 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of independents.
READ MORE: Why Biden is cautious about using the 14th Amendment to address the debt ceiling crisis
But 42 percent of Americans believe Congress should only increase the debt ceiling if it makes significant spending cuts at the same time, even if the U.S. defaults on its debt. That includes 21 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of independents.
If the two sides fail to reach a deal in time and the country defaults on its debts, Americans are split on which side would be at fault: 43 percent say Biden while 45 percent say Republicans in Congress, within the margin of error of 3.4 percent. Another 7 percent say both parties would be equally to blame.
Opinions on the debt are once again aligned by party, with 75 percent of Democrats blaming congressional Republicans and 73 percent of Republicans blaming Biden. But independents are more likely to blame Biden, with 47 percent saying the president, 38 percent saying Republicans and 11 percent saying both.
Opinions could shift by the time the election is held 18 months from now because incumbent presidents are often credited or blamed for U.S. economic conditions.
“If the economy is thrust into a debt ceiling-driven recession, it is Biden who will suffer the most at election time,” Walter said.
The PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a survey between May 15 and May 18 that polled 1,268 U.S. adults with a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points and 1,166 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
Matt Loffman is the PBS NewsHour's Deputy Senior Politics Producer
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