Twenty years ago, my brother John Zogby called that year’s presidential contest “the Armageddon Election”, referring to the way each side characterised the dangers to the country and the world should the other side win. Since then, that term has been used to describe every presidential election and will no doubt be dragged out and repurposed again in 2024. And for good reason.
As Stephen Walt thoughtfully argues in a recent Foreign Policy Magazine article, the most significant differences between former President Donald Trump and President Joseph Biden are not in the areas of foreign affairs. For the most significant international challenges we face – Ukraine, the Middle East and China – policies in a second Trump or Biden administration will largely follow the same trajectory. The contest over whether to bring on or avoid Armageddon will be fought on the domestic front.
We’re still early in the primary calendar, but with Biden facing no real opposition for the Democratic nomination and Trump having vanquished the substantial array of Republican challengers, a Biden-Trump rematch appears inevitable. The first two primaries demonstrate Biden’s and Trump’s ability to win, but also their vulnerabilities.
Trump’s supporters have bought into his nightmare vision of an America in which politically correct elites are destroying our traditional culture and allowing our country to be overrun by foreigners who are taking our jobs, bringing crime and disease, and “tainting our blood”. They’ve come to believe that Trump must be defended from threats from law enforcement, the courts and media, accepting his boast that he (and only he) can save America from devastation and the chaos of the apocalypse.
Meanwhile, Biden’s supporters point to Trump’s many court cases for crimes ranging from financial fraud and sexual assault to compromising government secrets and encouraging insurrection, and note that his threats of revenge and refusal to accept the outcome of past elections expose him as an authoritarian threatening America’s democracy.
But while this November’s rematch appears to be a classic example of an Armageddon election, it comes with a difference. As things stand now, this election presents a contest many voters don’t want and about which even some partisans are unenthusiastic.
Recent polls show that only four in 10 voters are even somewhat pleased with this rematch. Both candidates have low approval and even lower job performance ratings. Even among party members, each is only polling in the low 70 per cent range. The result is that this election, a clash between two dramatically divergent visions of the nation’s future, features standard bearers that fail to excite many voters.
Trump’s faces problems with Republicans who are appalled by his political and personal behaviour. Biden’s difficulties with his Democratic base come from younger and non-white voters, concerned about his age and disappointed with his failure to deliver on 2020 campaign promises on immigration reform and domestic spending priorities, and, interestingly, his unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza.
Despite the lukewarm reaction to both candidates, national head-to-head polling matchups are close, with neither ever crossing over 50pc. When the current lacklustre field of “third party” candidates are thrown into the mix, the share garnered by Biden and Trump drops to less than eight in 10. This situation creates an inviting environment for a more serious independent candidate to challenge the two parties’ nominees. At that point, this election will be about Trump and Biden competing to win over undecided voters while attempting to shore up their support among less-than-enthusiastic party members, intensifying partisanship. Meanwhile, third-party candidates will be working to win over voters disaffected with both parties and lukewarm toward their nominees.
Both major parties and their supportive Political Action Committees will certainly have billions of dollars to spend in November. They’ll use their fortunes to tout their candidates’ records, project their contrasting visions and slam their opponents. Here’s where it gets ugly.
The billions spent on attack ads will exacerbate the polarisation, intensifying the sense that it’s an Armageddon election. An additional byproduct of negative ads will be further deflation of interest among voters already displeased with their choices. When it’s over, no matter who wins, we’ll be more divided, with our fragile democracy and our country’s unity at greater risk.