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Where the 2024 presidential race stands: Part II

Trump v Biden

The general election:


Recent polls have made headlines for showing that Biden and Trump are neck and neck in the race for the White House. In the run-up to such a consequential election, it's tempting to extrapolate any data at hand. When recent polls consistently show Biden and Trump knotted up, that feels like something one simply can’t ignore–especially in the aftermath of 2016. But we’re so far out from the election that there’s an extreme danger in doing so. Of polling done between 1944 and 2012, even projections 14 months out of the election were ultimately off 11 points on average from the final results. That said, in 2020, polls undershot Trump by about 6 percent at around this time before the election. In 2016, they likewise undershot him by a couple of points. Presidential election prognostication is inherently tricky because the historical sample size is so tiny that it’s challenging to differentiate trends from randomness. Yet overall, while head-two-head polls shouldn’t keep Biden’s administration up at night, they’re part of a pattern of lagging poll numbers.


Regardless of where Trump and Biden stand H2H, we know they’re currently on pace to be the most disliked major nominees in American history. Between the two, Trump is the most despised by the American public. Just under two-thirds of Americans do not want Trump to run again, including 68 percent of independents; only 35 percent of voters view the former president favorably. However, Biden doesn’t fare a whole lot better. Fifty-four percent of voters disapprove of the President, driven by extreme disapproval of his age. Sixty-six percent of voters think Biden is too old to run again, which should especially concern the President’s team given that just 44 percent of voters believe the same about Trump even though he’s only four years younger (76 to 80). 


Similarly, while the fundamentals for the general election should be in Biden’s favor, voters seem to disagree. After the beginning of Biden’s tenure saw the country plagued by consistently high inflation as the country roared back from COVID, the economy has found a shockingly prosperous groove. The US unemployment rate is beneath 4 percent, the labor force participation rate is the lowest in over 20 years for people aged 25-54, and the country’s inflation rate has slowed dramatically and is now the lowest of any country in the G7. Crucially, signs generally don’t indicate an imminent recession that could undermine Biden’s record. Yet, that said, a recent CNBC poll found Biden’s economic approval rating was a measly 37 percent, and only 20 percent of voters described the US economy as good or great. In contrast, Trump’s economic approval ratings hovered around 45-50 percent during his presidency, largely due to his business persona.


It obviously remains to be seen whether Trump will even be the Republican nominee. If he’s able to run, his extremism and record of corruption will certainly do him no favors with voters. However unpopular Biden is, barring an economic collapse, scandals, or health issues, Trump is more unpopular, and since his defeat in 2020, the former president has only undermined his image. However, if Trump can’t run, Biden certainly appears to be a flawed and somewhat vulnerable candidate in the 2024 presidential race. 


The other wild card: Dobbs v Jackson


In 2022, the Republican party suffered a historically lousy midterm showing for an opposition party. Despite Biden’s meager approval rating, Republicans managed to lose seats in the Senate. While poor candidate quality and general extremism were contributing factors, Dobbs defined the 2022 election. The 2022 ruling by the Supreme Court reversed Roe v Wade and allowed states to ban abortion–an opportunity taken up by over half of the states in the union. Americans were broadly stunned by the decision. Only eight percent of voters support a total abortion ban, yet 15 Republican-controlled states nationwide quickly implemented such bans. And suddenly, abortion prohibition–a core GOP platform plank for years–turned from a cost-free rallying cry for the base into political poison.


According to the AP Vote Cast Survey, roughly 47% of the electorate indicated that the Court's ruling significantly influenced who they voted for in 2022. This includes approximately 64% of individuals who supported Democratic House candidates. Moreover, while the GOP won more votes in 2022 due to their expected turnout advantage, Democrats won the persuasion battle. Despite a highly conservative electorate, Democrats took independents by over four points.


The biggest concern for Trump and the GOP is that 2022 is part of a larger voting pattern that has continued into the present. After being clobbered in the 2021 Virginia governor race, Democrats have consistently dominated Republicans in special elections post-Dobbs. In 2023 alone, liberals have overperformed by a jaw-dropping 10 points on average despite Biden’s unpopularity. Even in conservative states, voters have made their displeasure over Dobbs known. Voters in blood-red Kansas rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have effectively banned abortion by a stunning 59-41 margin. In a proxy battle in Ohio earlier this month, voters crushed Prop 1–a subtle piece of legislation that would have made the state’s upcoming referendum on abortion much more difficult to pass. For Donald Trump, who argued the federal government should “play a vital role” in fighting abortion rights and nominated the Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe, the issue is a severe liability. So expect Democrats to again make abortion a defining battle of 2024. 


The electoral map:


In 1984, President Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale, winning 49 states in his successful bid for re-election. But long gone are the days when every state is up for grabs. In 2020, just 14 states were decided by less than a 10% margin, and even some of these states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, were never truly in doubt. Biden’s 306-232 electoral college victory came down to just a small handful of states; the tipping point, Wisconsin went to Biden by just a .63 percent margin, which meant it voted 3.5 points to the right of the nation and the same EC bias will likely persist in Trump’s favor in 2024.


In 2024, the battleground map will look remarkably similar to 2022. UVA lists Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia, and Arizona as the only toss-up states heading into the election. States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Nebraska’s 2nd CD lean Dem, while North Carolina and Maine’s 2nd CD lean GOP. Other states in play include Texas, Florida, Ohio, Alaska, Iowa, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Maine. Of the latter grouping of states, Texas will likely play an outsized role in the campaign for 2024–especially because it hosts a crucial Senate race. Trump won the state by less than six points in 2020, and suburban trends remained strong for Democrats in the 2022 governor race. While Republican Governor Greg Abbot easily won the election, Republicans are running out of room to grow their maxed-out rural margins. With proper Democrat turnout in 2024, the state could be competitive for the presidential and Senate races.


The stakes:


The stakes of the 2024 presidential race cannot in any way be discounted. If America re-elects Trump, he’s prepared to quickly implement extreme reforms and attempt to gut American bureaucracy and democracy. Trump has already discussed his plan to implement a universal 10% tariff around the US economy and reportedly has an interest in invading Mexico to deal with the issue of drug trafficking. Furthermore, Trump intends to disembowel the civil service, remove any independent checks on his executive power, and install loyalists throughout the government. His attempts to incite a coupe and falsify the 2020 election results suggest he has no qualms about molding democracy to serve him.


On the other hand, if voters re-elect Biden, there’s a broad yet much more predictable set of outcomes. If the Democrats fail to win back Congress (currently, the Republicans hold the house, and the Democrats hold a 51-49 margin in the Senate), the country’s situation would be static. Without full control of the House and Senate, Biden cannot pursue substantial legislative reform. If the Democrats can only hold the Senate, he’ll still be able to confirm judges, but if not, Republicans could block that basic function of government. However, if Biden can win back the House and the right Senate seats, he could be in a strong position to abolish the filibuster and enact generational progressive reforms.


The current rules of the Senate effectively mandate that most legislation needs 60 votes to pass; while the Democrats possess 51 seats and could theoretically change the rules, moderate Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona currently oppose such reforms. But they’re both up for re-election in 2024 and presently favored to lose. In fact, Sinema, who plans to run for re-election as an independent, is actually splitting votes from Republicans, making Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego the polling favorite to win. Thus, if the Democrats won in Arizona, that would put them at 50 votes in favor of filibuster reform–meaning they would simply need to hold one Senate seat. 


Yet this may be easier said than done. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan all have blue Senators attempting to defend their seats in 2024. And while a Biden victory would likely mean Democratic Senate victories throughout the Rust Belt, the same cannot be said of other battlegrounds. Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown from Ohio and Jon Tester from Montana face uphill battles in red states. While Dems and the GOP can win Senate seats in opposing territory, ticket-splitting has become increasingly rare during Presidential years, meaning both Senators will need to far outpace Biden. The good news for Democrats is that Ted Cruz is also up for re-election. The unpopular Senator nearly lost to Beto O’Rorke in 2018 and has become embroiled in controversy and far-right politics ever since. Out of these three races, Democrats will need to win two to maintain Senate control. 


So where does this all leave us? Ultimately, only time will tell. The entire 2024 presidential race hinges on the fate of Donald Trump, and if he can’t run, then all bets are off. Biden is the prohibitive favorite right now, and it may be difficult for even a non-Trump Republican to overcome the weight of Dobbs and a zipping economy. Yet, as long as the Republicans have a presidential nominee to face President Biden, anyone could win. 

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