By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin, December 6, 2023
The political pundits think they know a lot about how the 2024 election will play out: (and we are not convinced by any of it.)
Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination easily despite his legal problems and promises to upend American democracy because Ron DeSantis is too unlikable, and Nikki Haley is too far back in the polls to catch Trump.
Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee despite his age and low standing in the polls because time is running out and there are no more appealing Democratic alternatives.
Trump and Biden will run neck and neck all the way to election day with large numbers of voters hating the choice they are offered but motivated to oppose one candidate more than the other.
The prognosticators believe Trump’s past misdeeds and current criminal trials will have no impact on voters because Trump surprised them with his resilience in 2016 and because he is running equal to Biden in current general election horserace polls. But they have no experience with any candidate facing so many criminal indictments, who led a Capitol insurrection as part of an illegal effort to overturn his defeat in the most recent national election. The truth is no one knows how this election will play out, but Nikki Haley has a path to win the GOP nomination, Joe Biden may not be the Democratic nominee, and Trump may or may not be a competitive general election candidate. This will depend on whether the middle of the electorate that he has made no effort to court stands with him, despite his many lies; his anti-democratic and anti-American actions and plans; and his unpopular views on abortion, health care, racial tolerance, violence, and a host of other issues.
In normal times we would warn against overconfidence in predictions made in the odd numbered year before a presidential election. For much of 2015, conventional wisdom expected Hillary Clinton to defeat Jeb Bush, and even as Trump passed Bush to take the lead in many surveys (with Ben Carson in second) few imagined that Trump could expand his support beyond his apparent 25 percent ceiling and defeat the large number serious contenders dividing up the GOP majority once the field winnowed down to a clear alternative. (We countered this with an early January post warning that “2016 Could Really Bring us President Trump”.)
But these are not normal times and Donald Trump is not a normal candidate for President so we should be especially cautious and humble about our ability to know what is likely to happen in the coming year. More and more Americans are starting to understand that Donald Trump is a wannabe dictator who has praised the intelligence and strength of nearly every despotic autocrat trying to use near total control of their government, the secret police, and the military to restrict the rights of their citizens and crush their political opposition.
The leaders of the Washington political and media establishment chose this week to redouble their efforts to warn America that Trump’s authoritarian ambitions threaten American democracy with the release of Liz Cheney’s book, “Oath and Honor,” a Washington Post Opinion column from former Reagan Administration State Department official, Robert Kagan, warning that “A Trump Dictatorship is Increasingly Inevitable,” a series of statements from Trump’s top White House advisors and the military leaders that served in key positions, and the January/February 2024 edition of The Atlantic (published this week) with more than a dozen writers sounding the alarm about the dangers of a second Trump term in office.
Political prognosticators have seen countless Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, but they have never seen a leading presidential candidate who is in a semi-secret alliance with one of America’s adversaries. The report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election proved that Russian agents violated US law to help Donald Trump win the White House and Trump has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military expansion in Syria and Ukraine. Putin has waged a propaganda campaign for decades to sow political division, racial and ethnic animosity among the American people, and doubt about the integrity of American elections, and these themes form the backbone of Trump’s current reelection campaign. The January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection was just the most visible tip of Trump’s broader effort to stay in power after losing the 2020 election, a clear and illegal attempt to overturn American democracy, as the public has learned from the hard work of talented investigators and prosecutors and the testimony from countless Trump White House insiders. The prognosticators may think they have seen this movie before. We do not think they have.
Nikki Haley has a path to win the GOP nomination. Every day brings a fresh repetition of assertions that Donald Trump has built an insurmountable lead for the Republican nomination, as if political pundits have never been surprised when the first actual votes are taken at the start of a presidential year. Trump currently holds a 50 percentage point lead over Nikki Haley (60 percent to 10 percent) in the 538.com average of national 2024 Republican nomination polls, and the defeated former president is 30 points ahead of the former South Carolina Governor (45 percent to 15 percent) in Iowa polling. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is second nationally (13 percent) and in Iowa (18 percent) although his long-term trend lines are declining. So how does Nikki Haley come out ahead? Well, it’s not easy, but it is more than doable.
Last week, Haley picked up the endorsement of the Americans for Prosperity Action, the political action committee founded by the David and Charles Koch (aka the Koch Brothers) in a strong signal that the corporate conservative wing of the Republican Party views her as the most viable Trump alternative. This is another blow to DeSantis who was expecting the endorsement and the money, advertising, and voter contact ground game that comes with it. Haley has something else that neither DeSantis nor Trump has ever had, several national poll results like this week’s The Messenger/HarrisX poll showing her with a double digit, 10-point lead over Biden. In the same poll Trump leads Biden by 6 and DeSantis leads Biden by 2.
This combined with her current momentum may not be enough for a win in Iowa, but it puts her in a strong position to finish second in the January 15 caucuses. This would solidify her as the Trump’s top challenger in New Hampshire, a state where Trump (45 percent) has never had majority support among likely GOP primary voters. Haley (19 percent and surging) is in second with Chris Christy (12 percent and also surging) and DeSantis (8 percent and falling) holding the balance of support. We are not (yet) predicting a Haley victory in the January 23, 2024, New Hampshire GOP primary, but it would not be historically unusual for the second-place candidate to close a gap of this size with nearly seven weeks to go in an independent minded state that has often produced surprises.
If Haley was able to pair a second place in Iowa with a win in New Hampshire, she would have earned the head-to-head contest she needs with the next two contests in Nevada (February 8) and Haley’s home state of South Carolina (February 24). It is possible Haley could enter March -- when nearly as many states hold contests (29) as there are days in the month -- with the delegate lead, nearly all the momentum, money in the bank, and a fresher story as most Republican voters are coming to know her.
Joe Biden may not be the Democratic nominee. It can be argued that Joe Biden is the best American president since the end of World War II. It is more troubling than ironic that he is currently tied with the worst former president in American History in surveys taken one year ahead of the election. This has many Democrats very nervous, but the pundits are correct that Biden probably cannot be defeated for the Democratic nomination. Joe Biden has earned the support of the entire Democratic Party leadership in Congress by passing sweeping legislation on important national priorities that united the far left (e.g., Bernie Sanders, Elisabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) and the more moderate liberal Democratic leaders (e.g., Chuck Schumer, Amy Klobuchar, Hakim Jefferies) and even passed landmark infrastructure investments with Republican support. Biden’s success in making investments in America’s growing economy has also won him enthusiastic support from the nation’s Democratic governors keeping any potential rivals for the nomination (e.g., California’s Gavin Newsome, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear) from mounting a primary challenge.
The few primary challengers Biden has attracted, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (now running as an independent), Marianne Williamson, Dean Phillips, have not been able to break out of the single digits in national or state level polling. We can say with some measure of certainty that there is no Democrat with the desire and ability to derail Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination. In a normal year, Joe Biden would sail to the nomination and be very likely to win re-election, but this does not mean Biden will definitely be the nominee, as he could choose to step aside and withdraw from the race as President Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968.
Time may have run out on any candidate seeking to beat out Biden for the nomination, but time is not yet running out on the Biden steps aside scenario. Biden could wait until March, April, or May to hope to see an improvement in his standing in the polls, but then decide another potential candidate would offer greater assurance of defeating Donald Trump and securing America as a democracy. Biden could name an alternative choice or leave that to the delegates at the Democratic convention. The Democrats would have several good choices that could unite the party in November. Our choice would be Gretchen Whitmer, but Democrats could also turn to Newsome, Beshear, or consider a celebrity like Dwane “the Rock” Johnson, or Oprah Winfrey. (Naming Vice President Kamala Harris as his choice would not be a solution to Biden’s and the Democrat’s problem because she is no more popular than he is.)
Would this be fair to Joe Biden? The question should not matter, but the answer is “yes.” In 2020 Biden was on track to lose the Democratic nomination to Senator Bernie Sanders, but Rep. James Clyburn and a large number of South Carolina Democrats, including a lot of African American women, viewed Biden as the best candidate to oppose Trump. As most of the rest of the Democratic field fell in line behind him, Biden was the recipient of history’s good fortune, but this did not come with a promise of a second term. If Democrats, we think wrongly, conclude that his age and moderate demeanor make him no longer the best Democrat to go against an historically dangerous anti-American insurrectionist, there would be no historical injustice.
Trump may or may not be a competitive general election candidate. We suspect that some of the pundits that misdiagnosed the 2016 election are overcompensating in their assessments of Trump’s strength heading into the 2024 election. It is possible Trump (aided by Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Vladimir Putin) has developed such an effective propaganda capability that his supporters will choose to believe his deceptions over the truth despite all his shortcomings and court appearances. But political analysts pay too much attention to Trump and his truth-denying base supporters and too little attention to the voters Trump himself too often ignores, the swing voters that abandoned Trump and likeminded Republicans in the 2018, 2020, 2022, and 2023 elections.
To understand how strong Trump will be in the general election, it is important to pay attention to independent voters, and moderate Republicans, especially suburban women, who oppose Trump and many other Republicans on abortion. They get their news as much from the “Today Show” as “Fox and Friends.” They have not enlisted in the culture wars, and some even marched with their sons, daughters, neighbors in support of Black Lives Matter in 2020. Since Trump entered the White House in 2017, and especially since the 2022 Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade reproduction rights, these voters seem to be drifting away from Republican side. Trump lost the 2020 election and must win back the voters he lost to Joe Biden. Axios and Engagious has been conducting a series of focus groups among voters in swing states that supported Trump in 2016 but Biden in 2020. So far, they have not turned up much interest in going back to Trump in 2024.
At the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottsville Virgina, marchers bearing tiki torches chanted, “You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us.” After the march turned violent and Heather Heyer, a counter protestor was killed, President Trump said there “were very fine people on both sides,” a line Joe Biden has quoted as the reason he decided to oppose Trump in 2020. Trump is running a different campaign for 2024 than he ran in 2016 but the core elements continue to be variations on the themes of the Great Replacement Theory. Trump attracts support by playing to the animosities within the electorate, issuing promises to crack down on his list of enemies. In 2016 the attacks were on women, African Americans, Jewish elites, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and moderate Republicans like John McCain. The attacks outrage CNN and MSNBC panelists ensuring him 15 minutes every hour will be about Trump and many Americans received the message that whatever group you hate Trump will put them in their place.
This year Trump’s top target is the career civil servants, and leadership throughout the government that thwarted Trump’s efforts to break laws and violate the separation of powers that define American democracy. What many people call “the guardrails of democracy” Trump calls “the deep state” and he vows to use the power of his presidency “on day one” to seek retribution from his enemies, and “obliterate the deep state.” It remains to be seen whether this politics of division, animosity, and outrage will be appealing to the suburban swing voters Trump will need to win the general election.