You probably don’t want to be reading about this. Well I don’t want to be writing about it! But given that this past Friday was officially 18 months until the election, and that we probably already know who the nominees will be (more on this below), I feel I must. Just this once, then I plan to steadfastly avoid writing on this further until we’re a year out.
So, what’s that I say about how we already know who the nominees will be? Let’s start with the easy one.
President Joe Biden announced that he was running again on April 25th. On general principle, this means he’ll be the nominee- the last time an incumbent President lost their party’s nomination was in 1884. Also note that, in order to lose your nomination, there has to be somebody running against you. Every major potential alternative is on board with Biden 2024, including 2016 and 2020 runner-up Senator Bernie Sanders.
While many Democrats aren’t thrilled with Biden running again, the vast majority are satisfied enough, and, as mentioned above, the Party leadership is all in. So, barring health conditions preventing him from continuing, or a debilitating scandal erupting, Biden will be the Democratic nominee. Which brings us to…
Former President Donald Trump announced that he was running again on November 16th of last year. In his case, it’s not that there isn’t anyone else running. In fact, it will likely be the opposite condition that ends up handing him the crown.
There are plenty of potential candidates kicking around: Former South Carolina Governor and UN Representative Nikki Haley and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson have already announced. South Carolina Senator Tim Scott has an announcement pending. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Former Vice President Mike Pence haven’t announced, but they’re sure behaving like candidates. And former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and current New Hampshire Governor Chris Sunnunu are known to be seriously considering.
This pretty much sets up a repeat of 2016, where a large field splintered the vote so that no single “not Trump” candidate emerged. That, a loyal core base, and the Republican penchant for winner-take-all primaries allowed Trump to gallop away with the nomination even though he only got low 40s-percent of the vote. DeSantis had initially seemed to be getting some traction, but has now faded back, as can be clearly seen in 538’s poll tracker:
The most recent polls have shown that 44% of Republicans don’t want Trump to run again. However, the flipside of that is that 56% do. And this is after January 6th, the classified documents scandal, the new special counsel, the New York indictments, etc. Trump retains a loyal core of support, as he always has, the whole way along.
Combine this core base with the large field, the current leading alternate contender doing worse over time, and the winner-take-all primaries, and the conclusion seems inescapable. Trump is overwhelmingly likely to be the party’s nominee in 2024.
But wait, you say, what about all of Trump’s multiple streams of legal peril? They don’t matter. Being on trial doesn’t make you disqualified from running for President. Being found guilty doesn’t make you disqualified from running from President. Even being in jail wouldn’t disqualify you. As long as Trump’s base sticks with him (and they have so far, through everything over almost eight years), he’ll be the nominee.
Okay, so say we’re headed for a rematch. What’s the outlook? First of all, how dare you! It is utterly useless to prognosticate about this kind of thing a year and a half in advance! Second of all, as a hopeless election nerd, I will take you up on it anyway.
Biden’s net popularity isn’t great (also from 538):
On the other hand, that number is a weak indicator this far out. We can say that his net approval isn’t that much different from same period lows of first term Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, who all went on to handily win reelection:
Also in Biden’s favor is the above-noted fact that he hasn’t attracted any major challengers (sorry Bobby Jr. and Marianne). Presidents who do have competitive re-nomination primaries (Ford, Carter, Bush I) are usually headed for a loss.
And probably the greatest single factor in Biden’s favor is that he’s probably running against Trump. Trump is massively unpopular, and has multiple downside legal issues facing him going forward. In that same poll cited above about 44% of Republicans not wanting Trump to run again, 93% of Democrats and 63% of Independents felt the same way. It’s pretty hard to win a general election when coming up on 2/3 of Independents, and a major chunk of your own party don’t want you there.
The standard disclaimers apply: Eighteen months is a long time. Either candidate could face major health issues. Either candidate could face a crippling scandal (although it’s hard to imagine what would be crippling for Trump in the eyes of Republicans at this point). Recession could be in full swing come election day. Some foreign policy event could have either massive upside or downside for Biden. And so on…
And in our highly regionally polarized age it’s also worth mentioning that the electoral college could make things dicey no matter what. In 2016, Trump finished behind by 2% and 3 million votes nationally, and still became President because of 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Put another way, if just 39,000 of the 14 million voters in those three states had changed their minds, I might be writing about who will succeed Hillary Clinton in the White House next year.
And 2020 was arguably even closer. Biden ended up leading by 4.5% and 7 million votes nationally. But without the 37 electoral votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, we would have had a 269-269 tie, which would have gone to the House of Representatives to settle and probably would have resulted in a Trump “reelection”. Biden won those three states by fewer than 45,000 votes combined. Meaning that around 22,000 voters out of 11.5 million total in just three states changing their minds could have led to a different result.
So this rematch could go down to the wire no matter what the popular vote is. There’s a cheerful thought to consider for the next six months until we check in again!