It’s primary season in America:
If one looks at the polling averages alone, there’s a simplicity to the 2024 presidential race. Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, despite their advanced ages and unpopularity, are sprinting laps around their respective primary opponents. Meanwhile, initial polls generally point to a close general election between the two. However, under the surface is a much more complicated picture. Low approval ratings, criminal indictments, rapid political trends, and a Senate teetering on a knife's edge offer only the certainty of unpredictability. And the stakes have never been so high. As the Democratic Party sits with generational reform just a couple of Congressional seats out of reach, Trump aims to undermine democratic institutions and gut the federal government. So, with the first Republican debate officially kicking off primary season last night, where does the 2024 presidential race currently stand?
The Republican Primary:
In less than half a year, the first Republican presidential primary will kick off in Iowa. As it stands, Donald Trump has the numbers to dominate from Iowa to the GOP convention in Milwaukee. He commands the support of over 50% of Republican voters and faces no legitimate threat from any existing Republican candidate. In fact, Trump refused to even bother showing up to the first GOP debate last night. Despite Trump’s latest indictment, the AP estimated that over 63 percent of Republicans want Trump to run again. While members of the Republican establishment have decried Trump as an electoral liability, over 60% of Republican voters believe Trump would definitely beat Biden in a rematch. His legal issues, discussed in-depth later on, pose an existential threat to his chances at the presidency, and for that reason alone, it's worth getting to know the Republican bench that may have to replace him. But as of yet, nothing and no one has seemed to threaten Trump’s Republican polling numbers.
While some GOP malaise over Trump exists, his opponents have fractured the field, and the former president has left them to fight over the scraps. Many Republicans believed (or hoped) the primary would be a head-to-head battle between Trump and Governor DeSantis, but the race has played out as nothing of the sort. Recent polls generally have Trump hovering around 50+ percent of the vote, with DeSantis struggling to maintain 10-15 percent. The Florida Governor has careened down the slope of a disastrous campaign that critics have savaged as extremist, impersonal, and inexplicably managed. One anonymous Republican operative suggested “dropping out or becoming a different person” were the only viable ways forward for DeSantis. Last night at the debate, DeSantis’ viral moment came in the form of his pained grimace fighting against gravity to become a smile. As DeSantis’ campaign is so heavily funded and managed by super PACs (to a somewhat unusual extent), if the donors in control don’t see signs of life, they could instantly pull the plug on his 2024 campaign.
In fact, DeSantis has struggled so greatly that in multiple recent polls, he’s fallen to 3rd place behind Vivek Ramaswamy, a former biotech executive turned far-right firebrand. Ramaswamy, who has argued for prohibiting American citizens under 25 from voting and claimed that the federal government helped orchestrate 9/11, has won support in the Republican party for his extremist views and refusal to criticize Trump. His debate performance last night shrewdly pumped MAGA politics full of youthful charisma, leaving him the likely winner in the eyes of Republicans. It’s unlikely that he could beat Trump in a primary, but a VP slot is not out of the question, and if Trump were unable to run, all bets are off.
Meanwhile, a laundry list of Republican candidates, high profile and not, lag far behind the top three. Of these, candidates such as Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mike Pence were all portrayed by the Republican establishment and Beltway Media as potential top-tier challengers to Trump. None of them have managed lift-off. Former South Carolina Governor Haley, ostensibly running as something akin to a moderate, has been unable to expand beyond her initial 4% support. She’s not extreme enough for a radicalized Republican base, but her contradictory unwillingness to fully take on Trump and her flirtation with more extreme policies have prevented her from consolidating the anti-Trump vote. While political experts have described Haley (a competent woman from a multicultural background) as a potentially formidable threat to the Democrats in a general election, there’s currently no clear path for her out of the primary. Objectively, winning the Republican nomination will require candidates like Haley to beat Trump or pray he becomes indisposed. So far, Haley has chosen the latter; commenting on Trump’s recent indictment for the January 6th coup, Haley called it a distraction and refused to hammer Trump for any wrongdoing.
South Carolina Senator Tim Scott is in a similar position as Haley. In theory, he could be a strong threat to Democrats if he headed the 2024 Republican ticket. Scott overcame racial prejudice in a post-Jim Crowe South Carolina as a young man and rose to the highest echelons of conservative politics. And unlike candidates such as Trump and DeSantis, Scott has sought to run a much more positive campaign that centers on America’s racial progress and opportunities for social mobility. However, as with Haley, Senator Scott has struggled to consolidate anti-Trump voters and sits around 4 percent. He called Trump’s January 6th indictment “un-American” and largely refuses to criticize Trump.
Former Vice President Mike Pence has, at the very least, condemned Trump for his criminal behavior. Pence argued that “President Trump and his advisers didn’t just ask me to pause. They asked me to reject votes, return votes, essentially to overturn the election.” However, Pence’s extreme social conservatism prevents him from winning over more moderates, and his opposition to Trump (widely beloved by GOP’s Evangelicals) prevents him from thriving with his natural, Christian conservative base. Moreover, as with the rest of the field, Pence has at times struggled to fully oppose Trump, fearful of alienating supporters. The former Vice President even went so far as to argue that Trump should not be banned from running if a jury convicts him of a felony.
The unprecedented wildcard: Trump’s legal woes
But Trump’s untouchable polling advantage could become a moot point if his legal problems sink him. If you’re keeping count, Trump currently faces 91 felony charges off of four separate indictments for crimes relating to: his campaign’s hush money payments to porn-star Stormy Daniels, his mishandling of stolen documents at Mar-a-Lago, his efforts to incite a coup on January 6th, and his attempt to overturn the election results in Georgia. A jury also found Trump liable for rape, although he faces no danger of further criminal charges. So far, Trump’s indictments have not budged his polling numbers. But the trials themselves could change the entire ball game.
Presently, Trump is attempting to move the trials until after the election, while judges have thus far pushed for a more expedited timeline. With Trump fighting on four fronts in relatively liberal bastions (DC, New York, and Atlanta in particular), experts doubt he’ll be able to hold off every trial. Whether the media circus that will inevitably envelop the proceedings is more likely to help or hurt Trump is unclear. That said, most Americans believe the charges against Trump are called for.
However, the more pressing concern for Trump is the very real prospect of jail time. The former President faces 641 years in prison from all his charges combined. While running for president from the inside of a jail cell is possible (if maybe not ideal for PR), legal experts are genuinely unsure what would happen if he won. Trump would not have the power to pardon his litany of state convictions, and even the Republican Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, would not be able to pardon him for the Georgia RICO case. Yet some conservatives argue that the President enjoys legal immunity, although the courts have never ruled on this.
That all said, establishment conservatives from the influential Federalist Society–which currently counts five members on the Supreme Court–recently argued that the 14th Amendment bars Trump from elected office permanently due to the January 6th insurrection. Whether Trump would need to be convicted of abetting insurrection for the 14th to kick in is not clear. The Federalist Society members who made the case argued he wouldn’t on paper, although in practice, Republican judges may want the cover.
The Democratic primary:
As opposed to the Republican primary, the Democratic situation is much simpler. President Biden is the prohibitive favorite to return as the Democratic nominee, as he currently commands the support of 65 percent of party voters. In contrast, his primary challenger, RFK Jr. (the son of Bobby Kennedy), possesses just 12 or so percent support. Although RFK claims to be a Democrat, his platform suggests he’s a conservative spoiler candidate. RFK has campaigned on the dangers of vaccines, argued that COVID was ethnically targeted to spare the Jews, advocated against federal intervention to combat Global Warming, claimed wifi causes cancer, and pushed for a federal abortion ban. The more voters have seen of RFK, the less popular he’s become. In fact, RFK now sports a lower approval rating among Democrats than Republicans.
Biden’s other Democratic opponent, writer Marianne Williamson, possesses support in the lower single digits; while she’s legitimately left-wing in a way RFK Jr. isn’t, she likewise has no elected experience and has received flack from critics for her views on vaccines. Her campaign has been plagued since the beginning with mismanagement and has struggled to maintain financial solvency. Unlike RFK Jr., she is not considered by 538 to be a major candidate.
Yet while the 80-year-old President Biden, absent health issues, appears to be a lock for the nomination, it’s not as if most Democrats are particularly thrilled about it. Most Democratic voters don’t want Biden to run again, primarily due to his age. Yet, with the threat of a Trump presidency still looming, the Democratic party doesn’t want to risk turning the primary into a catastrophic civil war; as a result, no legitimate contender wants to destroy their career on a potential political suicide mission. Moreover, voters may not love Biden because of his age, but beyond that, there’s no immediate motivation to jump ship: the economy is clicking along strongly, the President passed large-scale reform to combat climate change, and he’s mostly stayed away from doing anything too unpopular–sans having to oversee the US withdrawal from the unpopular war in Afghanistan. But if the President were to drop out, his logical successor would be Vice President Kamala Harris, who is likewise highly unpopular with the general public. Thus, Democrats are likely trapped going into 2024.
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