the inside game

Why More and More Democrats Want Trump to Declare Soon

So many feelings. Photo: Dustin Chambers/REUTERS

The texts and emails from the White House started pinging across Washington, D.C., only minutes after the New York Times alert popped up on dismayed Democrats’ phones last week. The news — “Sixty-four percent of Democratic voters prefer a candidate other than president Biden in 2024, a Times/Siena College poll shows” — was, predictably, causing a headache on Pennsylvania Avenue. So members of Biden’s political and communications teams quickly did their best to advise surrogates and allies who might be asked to go on TV that day. No formal talking-points memo was forthcoming — there was no persuasive spinning to be done about such a grim revelation for the president. No one even tried addressing the main takeaway of displeasure with their boss. But the aides did want to make sure the “talkers” saw and boosted one nugget from the Times poll that they felt was being overlooked, even though it might render the rest of the survey moot: Biden, the pollsters had found, would still beat Donald Trump if a rematch were held today.

Biden hates questions about his reelection plans and remains convinced that he must be the one to destroy Trump (again). His aides regularly show him both public and private poll results in which he leads his predecessor, and some of his biggest supporters tend to use such results as evidence that his dim political standing is temporary and the product of not having Trump to kick around. Just a few weeks ago, board members of Unite the Country, the original pro-Biden super-PAC, received a private memo outlining results of a new proprietary poll of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona voters, in which the group’s leaders acknowledged how unpopular “the Boss” is currently but revealed that he still narrowly led Trump in the midwestern states and only barely trailed in Arizona. And this was a relatively conservative sample of voters meant to model the 2022 midterm electorate, the operatives noted, “so these battleground numbers would indicate the national polls showing a 3-4 point lead are probably pretty solid.” Biden leaned into the message a few hours after the Times poll dropped.

“Read the polls. Read the polls, Jack,” the fed-up president told a reporter not named Jack outside the White House a few hours later in response to a question about his crummy standing even among Democrats. “You guys are all the same. That poll showed that 92 percent of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me.” He was slightly misstating the result — that figure represents the number that would support him against Trump specifically — and skipping over the fact that the Times poll showed him and Trump combining for just 85 percent of the vote, a sign of voter dissatisfaction with the options.

Biden knows as well as anyone, from decades of personal experience, that presidents’ first midterms usually become beatdowns for their party. Eighteen months into his term, he also knows that his own unpopularity now rivals only Trump’s and Jimmy Carter’s at this point in their presidencies, as far as modern history goes. He is painfully aware that it’s setting the scene for what might be an especially bleak November for Democrats, who are expected to lose their hold on the House and perhaps the Senate — no matter how hard they insist that record inflation isn’t Biden’s fault and that they’re working on fixing it, and perhaps even if the liberal rage over Dobbs v. Jackson and extremist Republican candidates mitigates the backlash. But, purposely or not, his answer on the South Lawn hinted at an emerging glimmer of hope among some professional Democrats: a formal reentry by Trump into the political arena could be very good news electorally for both the party and the president — arguably even the best realistic chance of a political turnaround right now.

Not one of them misses Trump as a leader, but they do miss him as a foil. And a growing number of them are convinced that the ex-president’s increasingly certain return to national politics with a 2024 campaign announcement before the midterms can only help them. Some go so far as to hope that, along with post-Roe outrage, it may even turn the midterm tide altogether.

“It’d be terrible! We don’t want him back!” one leading Democratic pollster told me last week. “But it would highlight the contrast between Biden and Trump. Biden beat him in 2020, he’s beating him in polls now, and if there’s a rematch he’ll beat him again. I don’t want to say it’d be good for the president, but it continues that dynamic.” Yet the hope isn’t only that Biden’s popularity will rebound simply because voters will perceive him as the anti-Trump. It’s that the sheer gravity of Trump’s announcement would reshape the conversation down the ballot, too. Republicans “want to make the election about gas prices and inflation, and that is top of mind for voters,” said Democratic strategist Xochitl Hinojosa. But “now you have Roe, and if you also have the threat of Trump becoming president, that becomes a motivating factor not just for the Democratic base to turn out but also for moderate voters who didn’t vote for him in the last election.”

There’s never been much legitimate doubt that, short of incapacitation or incarceration, Trump would try to reclaim his old job in 2024. But those low rumbles have in recent days given way to semi-public planning for an announcement — and sooner rather than later. Trump told my New York colleague Olivia Nuzzi as much on the record, just as the Washington Post was reporting that a timing decision is in the works and Politico relayed that he’d been reconnecting with his biggest financiers. Publicly, most Republican officials say they’re happy to go along with this plan — witness Lindsey Graham, to the Post: “The sooner he gets in and talks about winning the next election, the better.” But, in a desultorily predictable rerun of the past half-decade, many in the party privately harbor doubts that sound more like what Senator John Thune told Politico earlier this month: “The fewer disruptions, obviously, the better.”

In other words, they also think he’ll distract from the simple message that the GOP would offer an alternative to Biden’s struggling economy. That kind of focus would be all but impossible with Trump’s return to the daily fray, which sounds just fine to Democrats. Some people close to Biden’s inner circle have long maintained privately that having the ex-president off Twitter was politically bad for his successor, since it detracted from Biden’s ability to highlight his own relatively calm and steady image compared to Trump’s erraticism. He could, presumably, reclaim that 2020 message the second the Trump show returned.

More specifically, if Trump were to start campaigning again before November’s voting, few doubt he would orient that effort around his preposterous claims of election theft, which would likely yank the political media’s harsh spotlight far away from Biden’s White House while foregrounding Republicans’ own internal debates. “Trump is going to talk about the election being stolen, he’s not going to be bringing the gravitas and bipartisanship and statesmanlike qualities of other former presidents,” said the pollster, in whose focus groups GOP voters have been expressing exhaustion with Trump’s favored argument. “It’s going to highlight, once again, how toxic he is for everybody.”

In this vision, the political world’s renewed focus on Trump could also give Biden a chance to return to his most effective mode of communication: “values-based messaging” as opposed to policy talk, as one of his former White House advisers put it. And those close to him hope that this might help him start to claw back support from the Democratic voters whose support he’s recently lost, especially as they’ve become disillusioned with his responses to the Dobbs decision and recent mass shootings.

Biden’s personal favorability numbers still outstrip his political approval ratings, and the two might return to parity once the existential threat of Trump as the alternative is more present, even absent any major Democrat-favored policy wins between now and November. (This hope only became more pointed last week, when Senator Joe Manchin effectively killed one of the few remaining semi-ambitious pieces of Biden’s domestic agenda on climate and taxes.)

This is the scenario envisioned by many people atop the Democratic political braintrust. Biden’s latest dips are attributable to frustration among Democrats, but these people believe those same voters are likely to come back to him when election season returns. And that may happen sooner if Trump effectively turns 2022 into a referendum on himself.

Nonetheless, it’s not lost even on the biggest proponents of this argument that it’s a measure of how dark Biden’s political picture has gotten that Democrats are resorting to this perspective. Nor is it obviously risk free. For all Biden’s confidence about dispatching Trump again — and, implicitly, using his return to renew Democratic hopes — he can only go so far in saying so. For one thing, he and his operation are wary of triggering Federal Election Commission rules that would make him a formal candidate and subject him to onerous disclosures and campaign restrictions. (This explains why Vice-President Kamala Harris recently walked back remarks that “Joe Biden is running for reelection” and amended them to “The president intends to run.”)

For another, though the prospect of a three-year Biden-versus-Trump campaign would clearly reset the political landscape, it’s not as obvious as Biden boosters make it seem that this is a clear win for the president. Though the Times and super-PAC polls show him leading Trump, FiveThirtyEight has this year tracked 30 surveys with at least a B-rating in which Biden or Trump has a lead on the other, and each is ahead in 15. The RealClearPolitics average of all polls has Trump narrowly ahead. So even before you consider the more immediate practical downsides of a Trump return from the golf course — like the almost certain freezing of Biden’s meager remaining agenda on Capitol Hill — that reset landscape may not tilt so obviously in Biden’s direction.

The president, though, seems eager to bet that it will. In recent days, he’s been jocular about Trump’s threats to run. Asked last week by an Israeli TV interviewer about the prospect of a rematch against his predecessor, Biden shot back: “I’m not predicting. But I would not be disappointed.”

Why More and More Democrats Want Trump to Declare Soon