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Trump Could Win Another Lesser-of-Two-Evils Election

Lesser-of-two-evils elections can be unpredictable. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

It’s pretty well known among attentive political observers that Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton was driven by his solid win among the many voters who disliked both major candidates. Exit polls showed 18 percent of voters fell into this category, and Trump won them by 17 percent. It’s far less well known that despite losing in 2020, Trump won “I hate ’em both” voters once again by about the same margin as in 2016. The big difference was that their share of the electorate dropped from 17 percent to 3 percent. Both Trump and Joe Biden had lower unfavorable ratings than either candidate did in 2016; but in general, Biden was significantly more popular than Clinton had been. Still, Trump’s showing among the haters, defying what most polls had been predicting, was one of the reasons he did better than expected.

Now, 2024 election polls suggest the pool of voters disgruntled with both candidates in a Biden-Trump rematch could be back at 2016 levels, if not higher, as CNN’s Harry Enten reported:

When you zoom in on those who [in a June CNN survey] were unfavorably inclined toward Biden and Trump (i.e., putting aside those who were unsure or were neutral), 22% of adults and 21% of registered voters had an unfavorable view of both men …

If the numbers we’re seeing now in CNN polling continue through the election, more Americans will dislike both major party nominees for president than ever before.

Republican pollster David Winston notes in Roll Call that unlike the situation in 2020, Biden’s popularity and Trump’s are nearly identical in current polling:

Today, Biden and Trump’s favorable-unfavorable, according to the June 18 RealClearPolitics average, are remarkably similar, with Biden at 40 percent-55 percent favorable-unfavorable and Trump at 39 percent-55 percent favorable-unfavorable. Neither has improved their standing with independents.

If the rematch that voters don’t want is the end result, we may see some similarities with 2016, given both Biden and Trump’s unfavorables, especially with independents.

And if Trump wins this larger number of disgruntled but ballot-casting voters once again, he could have a path back to the White House despite his persistent unpopularity.

But that’s just one of multiple directions the general-election contest could ultimately take. If objective conditions in the country — especially the economy — continue to improve, and Biden makes no major mistakes, the president’s popularity could rebound to 2020 levels. Meanwhile, Trump is entirely capable of making himself even more unpopular among general-election voters, who will be constantly exposed to the former president’s allegedly criminal activity and will also hear some criticisms from rival Republican candidates. Indeed, if Trump begins unambiguously looking like a general-election loser, the odds of Republican primary voters turning to an alternative like Ron DeSantis could go up significantly.

Another scenario might be a surge in support for options other than the major-party candidates. It remains very unlikely that a significant new independent candidacy, like the one being plotted by the No Labels organization, will emerge as a viable presidential option; barriers remain to adequate ballot access for the group’s as-yet-unknown candidate, and growing hostility from centrist Democrats could undermine the effort as well. But the percentage of the vote cast for existing minor-party candidates could definitely affect the outcome: That vote dropped from 5.7 percent (the highest percentage since Ross Perot’s last candidacy in 1996) in 2016 to 1.9 percent in 2020, almost certainly boosting Biden’s popular-vote margin and perhaps flipping states. It’s also possible unhappiness with both major-party candidates could dampen turnout, which jumped from 59.2 percent in 2016 to 66.9 percent in 2020; all other things being equal, that might hurt Biden’s odds of winning reelection.

All in all, though, the high percentage of unhappy voters should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks Donald Trump has disqualified himself from any serious chance of reentering the White House. He’s won one lesser-of-two-evils election and came very close to winning another. Democrats need to do everything in their power to make Joe Biden more successful and popular.

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Trump Could Win Another Lesser-of-Two-Evils Election