2024 election

Trump Could Definitely Beat Biden

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2024 Republican primary is not certain. But it now looks more than merely likely.

The former president boasts more than twice as much support as Ron DeSantis, leading the Florida governor by a 51-to-24 percent margin in FiveThirtyEight’s average of GOP primary polls. No other candidate is polling above 6 percent. And the gap between Trump and DeSantis has been growing steadily wider for weeks.

Indeed, the Viktor Orbán of the Sunshine State appears to be wilting beneath the heat of the national spotlight. DeSantis presents better on paper than on television. He did manage to push a thoroughly Trumpist agenda and then win a landslide reelection in a purple state. And he also served as the national standard-bearer of conservative COVID doves throughout the pandemic. But the small-bore acts of constituent service that earned DeSantis bipartisan approval in Florida — such as wetlands restoration and raises for public-school teachers — don’t really translate to the national stage. And they certainly aren’t winning cards in a Republican primary. Meanwhile, the salience of DeSantis’s opposition to vaccine and mask mandates declines with each passing day.

Put aside all the reasons DeSantis is theoretically an appealing candidate and you’re left with all the reasons he isn’t one in reality. The man is charmless. He does not like people, and it shows. His antipathy to schmoozing and glad-handing is so powerful that he can’t be bothered to reliably return calls from billionaire GOP megadonors. He eats pudding with his fingers. Trump, an inveterate bully, has no trouble identifying his rival’s pain points and squeezing them mercilessly. This week, the Republican front-runner suggested DeSantis may soon be forced to seek “an emergency personality transplant.”

We are still more than a year away from the Republican convention. And in the interim, Trump is liable to face multiple criminal indictments in addition to a civil trial in which he stands accused of rape. So it is entirely possible DeSantis, or one of the party’s current long shots, will ultimately prevail. But it seems overwhelmingly likely Trump will resume his place at the top of the GOP ticket.

With President Biden officially announcing his reelection bid this week, we’re on track for a rematch of the 2020 election.

This has led some Republican operatives to resign themselves to Biden’s reelection. As Jonathan Martin reports for Politico, Trump’s intraparty skeptics are already trying to find silver linings in his inevitable defeat:

It took Democrats three consecutive losses in the 1980s for the Democratic Leadership Council to finally gain traction and elevate one of their own in 1992.

Republicans would only have to suffer two White House defeats to finally move on from Trump and, in the meantime, there’s that Supreme Court majority he helped deliver as the political backstop.

As a shrewd Republican strategist, and no NeverTrumper, put it to me recently: “We’re just going to have to go into the basement, ride out the tornado and come back up when it’s over to rebuild the neighborhood.”

This Republican, as with a number of his like, has been hoping for a strong Trump alternative to emerge but has grown more pessimistic, DeSantis’ early stumbles confirming his doubts about the Florida governor. Moreover, there’s the matter of Roe being overturned and the political vise the party is caught in between its unyielding anti-abortion activists and a broader electorate that supports legal abortion. “We’re the dog that caught the car on Trump and abortion.”

I wish this strategist’s fatalism were well founded. But I really don’t think it is.

Without question, Trump is an exceptionally weak general-election candidate. To no small extent, his personal odiousness does much of the Democratic Party’s persuasion-and-mobilization work for it. For a significant number of swing-state suburbanites, Trump’s presence on the GOP ticket is sufficient cause for supporting the Democratic one. This reality is reflected not only in 2020 voting patterns but also in the underperformance of Trump-y candidates in swing states last year. Meanwhile, Trump did more in 2018 and 2020 to increase turnout among the Democratic base than countless get-out-the-vote initiatives ever did. His nomination will make reassembling the Biden coalition considerably easier than the ascent of Nikki Haley or Tim Scott would.

But that doesn’t mean Trump’s coronation would ensure Biden’s reelection. To the contrary, there is reason to believe Trump’s odds of victory in 2024 would be at least as good as his odds in 2020, when he came within 45,000 well-placed votes of winning.

It is easy to miss just how narrowly Trump lost his matchup against Biden. The Democrat won the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points and secured 36 more Electoral College votes than the 270 necessary. But his margins in the pivotal swing states were tiny. In the tipping-point state of Wisconsin, just 20,682 votes separated Biden from Trump. If Biden had won the popular vote by “only” 4 points, Trump likely would have won reelection.

It’s possible the Electoral College is less biased against Democrats today than it was in 2020. The overturning of Roe v. Wade seems to have reminded some secular white voters in the Midwest why they used to oppose the party of Bible thumpers. In 2022, Democrats did better in key Michigan and Pennsylvania races than they did nationally. But, as a general rule, the most recent presidential election is a better guide to the geographic distribution of party support than the most recent midterm. Thus, a reasonable default assumption is that if Biden wins the popular vote by only 3 points next year, he will lose reelection.

And Biden is much less popular now than he was on Election Day in 2020. His approval rating currently sits around 43 percent. As political scientist Ruy Texiera notes, the previous three incumbent presidents received only one to 2 percent more support in the popular vote than they did in approval polls. Currently, in surveys of a hypothetical 2020 election rematch, Biden leads Trump by an average of just 1.4 percentage points. In 2016, a 2-point popular-vote win was not enough to secure Hillary Clinton an Electoral College majority.

What’s more, there is reason to fear that Biden’s economic record will get worse before it gets better. He has presided over the highest inflation in half a century, and voters broadly disapprove of his economic management. For a long time, the bullish case for Biden was that prices would stabilize by 2024 and he would finally enjoy the political benefits of full employment. But as the Fed’s interest-rate hikes ripple through the economy, the odds of an election-year economic downturn have steadily risen. Judging by the spread between the three-month and ten-year U.S. Treasury rates, markets believe there is a nearly 58 percent chance of the U.S. entering a recession by March 2024. Thursday’s lower-than-expected GDP numbers lend credence to that forecast.

It is possible a mild recession would kill inflation, thereby eliminating what has been Biden’s greatest economic liability. But even if the pace of inflation were to slow down, the level of many salient prices would remain noticeably higher than they were under Trump. Combine discontent about higher grocery bills with rising unemployment and Biden’s odds of enjoying the same election-year rebound that many past incumbent presidents did go down.

Biden’s other liability — his extraordinarily advanced age — is of course going to get only more pronounced between now and November 2024. Biden’s status as an 80-year-old is less of a liability against a 76-year-old Trump than it is against a 44-year-old DeSantis. But the president does come across as distinctly older than his makeup-and-tanner-drenched rival.

Finally, even though Trump has myriad demerits as a general-election candidate, he isn’t devoid of peculiar strengths. The mogul is far less wedded to the conservative movement’s ideological project than many of his rivals. Unlike DeSantis, Trump has never endorsed the privatization of Social Security. And, to this point, he has been less acquiescent to the anti-abortion movement’s maximalist demands than the Florida governor has. Last week, the Trump campaign leaked word that the candidate considers a national abortion ban a vote loser and would be unlikely to support one. The less competitive DeSantis becomes, the more likely it is Trump will be able to avoid moving any further right on abortion policy.

In sum, Biden is lucky the Republican Party probably can’t help renominating a proven loser. But he isn’t that lucky.

Trump Could Definitely Beat Biden