You’ve probably heard again and again that a 2024 rematch between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump is what Americans don’t much want. But it’s what Americans voting in major-party primaries are likely to give themselves next year, and whether they are excited, disappointed, or just plain meh when they cast votes, they will award one of the two men another term in the White House.
So far, it looks like the 2024 general election for president will be a third straight barn burner that could go either way. The RealClearPolitics polling averages show Biden leading Trump by a statistically insignificant hair (44.8 percent to 44 percent). The trial heats have been stable recently; nearly all of them over the last year have shown a popular-vote margin for one candidate or the other less than Biden’s 4.5 percent advantage in 2020.
The latest New York Times–Siena survey provides some good insights into the dynamics of a Biden-Trump rematch and what we might expect going forward. Much like the polling averages, this poll shows a dead heat, with each candidate at 43 percent. Biden’s job-approval rating is a not-so-great 39 percent (the RCP polling averages put it at 42.1 percent), though a good portion of job-disapprovers are Democrats who may vote for their party’s candidate eventually. The two candidates’ favorability ratios are very similar (Biden: 43 percent favorable, 54 percent unfavorable; Trump: 41 percent favorable, 55 percent unfavorable). Biden has a narrow lead among the 16 percent of voters who dislike both men; Trump’s sizable win among similarly dyspeptic voters was a key element of his upset win over Hillary Clinton in 2016, with Biden doing much better in 2020 among the “haters.”
Essentially, Biden’s low job-approval numbers are almost perfectly balanced by majority sentiment (51 percent to 35 percent) that Trump has committed “serious federal crimes.” Short of an unlikely comprehensive exoneration of the former president, that sentiment would seem to put a cap on his support, whereas it’s entirely possible — particularly if the economy continues to improve — that Biden’s job-approval numbers will get better. Still, as Nate Cohn suggested, Trump could definitely win:
Mr. Trump doesn’t appear to have sustained disqualifying damage — at least when matched against a president with a 39 percent approval rating. For now, it suggests that the Biden campaign can’t necessarily count on anti-Trump sentiment alone; it may need to do some work to reassemble and mobilize a winning coalition.
Based on prior polling, the Times political analysts note Biden is slowly but surely improving his position among Democratic-leaning voter groups. They are increasingly reconciled to his nomination, despite continuing to worry about his age (39 percent of Democratic primary voters in the Times-Siena survey volunteered Biden’s age as a concern) and the condition of the economy:
Mr. Biden appears to have escaped the political danger zone he resided in last year, when nearly two-thirds of his party wanted a different nominee. Now, Democrats have broadly accepted him as their standard-bearer, even if half would prefer someone else.
But excitement for Biden remains low; the new poll shows only 20 percent of Democratic primary voters are “enthusiastic” about voting for him in 2024. Tellingly, a higher percentage, 26 percent, would be “enthusiastic” if Kamala Harris were the nominee. And there are signs of particular enthusiasm problems among key voting groups that sometimes don’t turn out proportionately: 9 percent of under-30 voters, 9 percent of Black voters, and 8 percent of Latinos said they wouldn’t vote if Biden and Trump were their only choices. You have to figure that Team Biden will continue to work on building appreciation for the president’s accomplishments while reminding young voters and people of color why they dislike and even fear Donald Trump.
There are more wild cards than you can count in anticipating a Biden-Trump rematch. Will overall turnout match that of 2020, when states (in many cases temporarily) made voting easier in various ways? Some states made “convenience voting” reforms permanent while others killed them off, and meanwhile, Republicans (and even Trump) are reversing their 2020 opposition to early voting by their own rank and file. Will Biden get credit for inflation abating, or will he continue to be blamed for the generally higher cost of living since he took office? And in a generally sour voter environment, will Biden bear the full burden of wrong-track sentiment, or will Trump, an incumbent president himself so very recently, share it?
Perhaps the biggest imponderable in 2024, other than Trump’s legal status, is issue salience. Will this be an election in which specific issues really matter? If so, that could be good for Democrats, as appeared to be the case in 2022. The Times-Siena survey shows that 61 percent of voters favor legalized abortion; 57 percent favor additional assistance to Ukraine; and 65 percent favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. These are not MAGA-friendly positions.
It’s possible, of course, that individual issues won’t much matter, and that a Biden-Trump rematch will mostly revolve around positive and negative perceptions of big cultural and demographic trends. And more importantly, we have no particular reason to assume that Donald Trump will accept a close defeat in 2024 any more than he did in 2020. The key question may be whether this return engagement from hell will turn off or madly motivate various categories of voters. The best bet remains that red and blue America and their old-guy champions will go right down to the wire and perhaps beyond.