We are a long way from Election Day 2024, a date that is dreaded by a good portion of the country, but it has already become apparent that 2024 is almost certain to be a rematch of 2020. The election of 2020, of course, was the worst choice that American voters had been forced to make since 2016.
Not only does it look likely that Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be the binary choices for voters next year, but Republican hopes have been buoyed recently by a spate of polls that show Donald Trump in a dead heat with Biden and sometimes leading. While that’s what the polling shows, I stand by my conviction that Trump has (almost) no chance of repeating his 2016 fluke.
I have several reasons for making this claim. First is the fact that we are still 14 months from Election Day. A lot of voters aren’t paying attention yet, despite the headlines of Trump’s indictments. A great many voters are late deciders and, ironically, it is these low-information, low-engagement voters who decide elections and the fate of our democracy.
Consider this: The horserace polls that make the headlines come with a score of something like 47 percent for Trump and 46 percent for Biden (to quote a recent CNN poll), which is pretty close to the polling averages. It’s interesting and not irrelevant that the final result in 2020 was 51.3 percent for Biden and 46.9 percent for Trump. Trump’s share of recent polling is almost identical to his 2020 share of the popular vote. Partisan lines are often drawn in stone these days.
A savvy consumer of the news will realize that 47 plus 46 is not 100 percent. In fact, it’s 93 percent. If we go beyond the headlines and look underneath the hood of the poll, we find that two percent say that they would not vote and five percent say “other,” which probably includes undecided voters since this poll doesn’t offer that option. With five to seven percent undecided, the race is still very much in the air.
But who would the undecideds go for? We can get a clue from the details of the supporters for each candidate. By 64 to 36 percent, Biden supporters say their vote would be a vote against Trump rather than a vote for Biden. For Republicans, the numbers are reversed with 62 percent voting for Trump rather than against Biden.
The key here is that both candidates are very unpopular. FiveThirtyEight’s tracker puts Biden’s approval rating at an average of 40.1 percent, which is almost identical to Trump’s average favorable rating of 40.0 percent.
I think that one of the keys to the election will be that voters are more motivated to turn out against Donald Trump than against Joe Biden.
While 67 percent of Democrats in the CNN poll wanted to see a different candidate than Joe Biden, very few (18 percent of those who preferred a candidate other than Biden) had a specific alternative in mind. Even among that minority, there was nothing close to a consensus with no replacement candidate garnering more than three percent.
And keep in mind that a lot of the dissatisfaction with Joe Biden comes from the left. Contrary to Republican claims that Biden is a radical progressive or socialist, his governance has been pretty moderate. A lot of Democrats don’t like Biden because they think he hasn’t been radical enough. These progressive voters may be dissatisfied with Biden, but they aren’t going to cross the aisle to vote Trump.
They also aren’t going to stay home. If 2016 taught Democrats anything, it’s to not stay home when Donald Trump is on the ballot.
On the other hand, the situation is different for Donald Trump. I do think that Trump’s support has a ceiling. Where Biden voters will be motivated to turn out to defeat Trump, Republican voters may well be motivated to stay home or skip the presidential race on the ballot. We know this is a real possibility because it happened in 2020 when Republicans lower on the ballot won more votes than Trump, often winning their races when Trump lost.
The situation is likely to become worse as Trump goes to trial and is possibly convicted before the election. Revelations of Trump’s crimes from insiders won’t make the Republican Party dump Trump, but it might well make enough conservative voters refuse to vote for him that it throws the race to Biden.
And Trump can’t afford to lose those votes. About half the country thinks Trump broke the law, which is a big red flag for a political candidate. Further, an August AP poll found that 53 percent of Americans will “definitely not” support Donald Trump. Another 11 percent said that they will “probably not” vote for The Former Guy. With 64 percent of the electorate set against the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump’s only chance will be to suppress Biden’s turnout. But the rub is that Democratic voters are planning to turn out not for Biden but against Trump.
Another big problem for Republicans is that most of the lines of attack against Biden also apply to Trump. Is Biden corrupt? Maybe, but Trump tried to steal an entire election. Sure, Biden is old but Trump is only a few years younger. Is Biden mentally competent? I don’t know, but I have serious doubts about Trump’s faculties as well. What’s more, these are the same objections that Republicans raised unsuccessfully in 2020. In an election between a senile grandpa and an abusive, crazy uncle, I think that most voters will choose grandpa… again.
Going back to the polling, current polls closely mirror the 2020 results if you factor in the assumption that undecided voters will break against Trump and for Biden. That fits a rematch race in a world in which the partisan divide is set in stone.
So far, we haven’t addressed the Electoral College, but I’ll point out here that national horserace polling is almost meaningless in a presidential election. While it’s possible to win a presidential election with a minority of the popular vote (just look at 2000 and 2016), Democrats will be on guard against the possibility. Don’t look for Biden’s 2024 campaign to ignore the Rust Belt like some Democrats I could mention.
Instead, this time it looks as though typical red states will be battlegrounds once again. With the Trump campaign on the defensive in states like Arizona and Georgia, it will be difficult to carry the fight to blue states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
And finally, I have another rule of thumb involving Donald Trump. In my view, the more the public sees of Trump, the less they like him. Despite his presence in the headlines, Trump has been largely out of the public eye. If and when Trump hits the campaign trail in a big way and voters start paying attention, they will remember why they don’t like him and why they fired him four years ago. There is no better campaigner for Joe Biden than Donald Trump. For that reason, Trump’s campaign might actually see a net benefit if he goes to jail (I’m only partly kidding here).
All of the nuts and bolts of the polling and election aside, with more than a year to go there is a lot of water yet to pass under the bridge. There are many more economic reports to be published, many more headlines to be written, and many more surprises for the US and the world to experience. There are many events yet to come that will impact the race.
There is the chance of a wild card that isn’t a Trump conviction that could upend the race. Among the possibilities are health problems that could affect either candidate, economic problems, a new international crisis, or some nightmare as yet undreamed of. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
I won’t say categorically that Trump can’t win, but he has an uphill battle. Trump’s negatives are so high and opinions are so hardened against him that it will be very difficult for him to overcome the Never Trump majority in the electorate, even with a zealous following from the Republican MAGA faction. I expect that deficit to show up in polling as the election nears.
SEPTEMBER 11: I didn’t write a special post for September 11, but late in the day, I did have some thoughts that I shared to social media. I’m going to repeat them here:
Looking back, it’s stunning how much #September11 changed course of American history. Without 9/11, you don’t get the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you don’t get Obama (and maybe not 2008 financial crisis). Without Obama, we don’t get Trump.
It’s tempting to forget events of 22 years ago, but in a very real way, we are still living with fallout from 9/11. And we will be for long time.
9/11 put us a chaotic course that we still haven’t been able to correct.