President Joseph Biden’s situation is complicated. Polls show that Democrats have a favourable attitude of the president and approve of his job performance, but, largely due to concerns about Biden’s age, nearly one-half of Democrats would prefer someone else be their 2024 standard bearer. That might have posed a problem for the president’s re-election, except for four factors.
First, Biden’s successful, drama-free two-and-a-half years in office mean no serious Democrat is willing to challenge his re-election.
Second, Biden’s most likely successor is Vice-President Kamala Harris, but her favourable ratings are so low that Democrats see Biden, despite his age, as a much safer bet in a general election contest against any Republican.
Third, other possible Biden alternatives are all centrists, meaning any challenge would be based on personal not policy differences and frowned upon by the party establishment.
Finally, a challenge is unlikely given the new presidential primary schedule. A few months ago, the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body, replaced Iowa and New Hampshire, the long-standing first states to hold contests in the election process, with South Carolina.
Iowa and New Hampshire, long been viewed as problematic by the Democratic establishment, have frequently catapulted insurgent candidates into the national spotlight over the establishment’s favourites. With Iowa and New Hampshire – which both handed Biden defeats in 2020 – out of the way, and replaced by South Carolina, an easy win and turning point for Biden in 2020, the party establishment feels confident that they’ve paved the way for a Biden repeat in 2024.
Even with these factors in Biden’s favour, his current polling numbers aren’t strong. In national match-ups against a variety of Democratic opponents, Biden rarely breaks 40 per cent. Rank-and-file Democrats may have reservations, but their concerns have been overruled by their party’s establishment.
The Trump story is almost the exact reverse. As in 2016 – when he won the Republican presidential nomination and went on to win the White House – the GOP establishment appears uncomfortable with his 2024 bid to return to office. But their efforts to find an alternative are being upended by Trump’s powerful hold over a substantial plurality of the Republican rank-and-file.
Since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decisive re-election victory in November 2022, the GOP establishment has hoped to elevate him as their standard bearer. But DeSantis continues to lag in the polls, and recently more than one-half of Florida’s Republican congressional delegation publicly endorsed Trump.
Trump’s base remains firmly attachment to him regardless of indictments or scandal. And they condemn those who attack him – the media, law enforcement, Democrats, or even other Republicans, who they accuse of traitorous behaviour.
Trump’s leadership results from his cult-like hold over his base into whose alienation and anger he has so successfully tapped, and his ruthless and relentless attacks against those who dare to challenge him. As DeSantis’ star fades – under Trump’s attacks and the fear other Republican elected officials have of crossing him – a few others may yet emerge as challengers. But, like 2016, though some of these aspirants may be briefly heralded as the ‘flavour of the month’, they will be no luckier than DeSantis.
At this point, few scenarios would prevent Trump from emerging as the Republican nominee: if he decides to step aside and support someone else (which is almost inconceivable) or if he is incapacitated and unable to run. If, in the unlikely event, Trump were to lose a bruising primary battle, the victor would emerge bloodied and without the support of Trump’s faithful followers.
And so, at this point, 2024 looks like a replay of 2020, but with a difference. Both candidates are older. Biden has become more cautious and less gregarious, but continues to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate with both his record and his ‘working class Joe from Scranton’ appeal. Trump, on the other hand, still harbours the delusional and dangerous notion that the last election was fraudulent and uses that grudge to incite his faithful. His behaviour will guarantee that 2024 will be even uglier and potentially more dangerous than 2020.