Even as President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump move toward a rerun of the most turbulent White House race in modern history, many voters are pining for a break from the past – and the present.
A new CNN/SSRS poll shows that 6 in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents want their party to nominate someone other than Trump in 2024. A similar slice on the other side hopes for a nominee other than Biden.
Those findings suggest that voters are ready for the days of presidential campaigns when one generation passed the torch to the next. A Biden versus Trump race would raise questions over whether a bitterly polarized political system, where democracy itself is at stake, has lost the capacity for self-renewal that has always been an American strength. And it would suggest that the heady appeal of an outsider, which produced presidents in 1992, 2008 and 2016, has for now been kept at bay.
Of course, it’s early. And the 2022 midterms offer a still fresh reminder that in a volatile, partisan age shadowed by crises at home and abroad, logic, history, polls and pre-race predictions months ahead of time often don’t count for much.
But the race is on, whether voters want it or not. Early perceptions of the contenders’ strengths are important since they shape the decisions of potential rivals and donors in the early money chase. Trump is already a declared candidate, although he could use a relaunch after a tepid start, and Biden is giving every sign he plans on running, suggesting he’ll let the country know for sure early in the new year.
The midterm elections, in which Democrats held the Senate and Republicans won a tiny House majority, help explain the poll’s findings. Voters hoping for a return to the normality Biden had promised after generational public health and inflation challenges weren’t exactly enthused with the president, whose low approval numbers largely kept him off the campaign trail in battleground states. But they didn’t trust a GOP still largely under Trump’s sway to fix things either.
The poll also hints at one of the emerging paradoxes in the nascent 2024 race. Even though they are the most powerful figures in their parties, both Biden and Trump seem oddly vulnerable at the start of the two-year campaign, and could face complications from a shifting political environment, outside factors or age.
Trump’s appeal seems to be fading. A disastrous midterm election for many of his candidates in swing states, which reflected the fatigue over his incessant whining about 2020, meant voters rejected his brand in consecutive national elections. Trump’s talent for thwarting accountability is, meanwhile, facing its toughest test from twin special counsel probes. And some Republicans are looking elsewhere. The CNN poll shows that when GOP voters are asked who they’d prefer, 47% have an alternative in mind. Nearly 4 in 10 of them pick Florida Gov Ron. DeSantis, who is untested on a national stage but already looms as a big threat to the former president.
As for Biden, it’s hardly flattering to a president that a majority of his own voters would like to see someone else as their candidate. Any commander in chief with a sub 50% approval rating like Biden is typically vulnerable in a reelection race. And there’s never been a presidential election when an 80-something president is asking for a second term. Biden has said he’s a great respecter of fate – a hint that he understands that, at his age, the good health needed for a campaign is not taken for granted.
But the president ends the year in better political shape than Trump, and appears to have stabilized his slump. This summer, only 25% of Democrat-aligned voters wanted him to be their nominee. Now that figure is 40%. And among those who want someone else, 72% say they’ve got no one particular in mind, further bolstering the advantage a sitting president usually has against a primary challenger.
Trump at a crossroads
Republican politics may, or may not, be at a moment of transition. How things shake out in the next few months will be critical to Trump’s prospects. On the one hand, more and more Republicans – prompted by the failure of many of the ex-president’s hand-picked candidates in the midterms – are saying it’s time to move on.
And Trump’s dinner with extremists with a record of antisemitism like White supremacist Nick Fuentes and rapper Kanye West at Mar-a-Lago is bolstering their arguments that his general election viability is damaged beyond repair. Trump’s so-far lackluster campaign, which looks like it was declared to make it easier for him to portray criminal probes into his conduct as persecution, isn’t convincing anyone so far.
And yet, the former president’s allies, like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Jim Jordan of Ohio, will be hugely influential in the new GOP House majority. Paradoxically, the failure of Republicans to do better in November means that a thinner majority will be easier for extremists to manipulate as they seek to turn Republican control of half of the Capitol into a weapon to damage Biden and help Trump in 2024.
Another campaign will test whether there’s been any erosion in Trump’s base. But even if his mythical connection to those voters might not be enough to win him the presidency, it could still carry him to his third straight nomination. The unwillingness of most Republican lawmakers to repudiate Trump over comments like his recent call to terminate the Constitution suggest that they are still under the sway of the ex-president’s supporters at home. The same can be said for House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who has found ways not to condemn Trump’s recent associations with extremists in his desperate bid to win the speaker’s gavel next month.
Trump was regularly winning big primaries in 2016 with between 30% and 40% of the vote in a large field. In the CNN poll, 38% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they want Trump as the nominee again. (And even two-thirds of those said they’d prefer someone else said they’d definitely or probably back him in the general election if he were the nominee.)
GOP hopefuls will see that 38% – the lowest point of three CNN polls on the topic this year – as an opening for an anti-Trump candidate. But another big field could splinter opposition to the ex-president among untested potential foes.
While DeSantis, for instance, has impressed conservative voters by seizing on hot button culture war issues like immigration, transgender rights, anti-Covid 19 measures and supposed voter fraud, he has not yet come face-to-face with Trump. The Florida governor, who won an easy reelection race last month, has not said whether he will run against Trump, who set him up in his first gubernatorial race with an endorsement. But a string of primary debate clashes with Trump would test his capacity to take a blow, his ability to think on his feet and his willingness to counter-attack a former president who still benefits from a personality cult among GOP base voters.
Trump, after all, is at his most ruthless and politically effective with an enemy in his direct sights. And DeSantis has a lot to lose.
Biden isn’t going to start listening to polls now
Biden’s best answer to those Democrats who would prefer another candidate is that he’s already beaten Trump in 2020 and staved off the traditional first-term shellacking for first-term presidents in the midterms, partly by warning Trump’s ultra-MAGA forces were mustering for another assault on American democracy.
It’s nothing new for Biden not to have the confidence of his party. His previous two presidential campaigns fizzled early and his 2020 effort was in disarray until a win in the South Carolina primary rescued his White House hopes. Heading into the midterms, the conventional wisdom was that Biden’s low approval ratings and raging inflation would deal him a devastating blow. But the Republican red wave never came and Democrats added a seat to their narrow Senate majority – even if the White House’s relief did obscure the liability it will face from a radical GOP-controlled House with investigative powers.
So a president who has constantly defied expectations about his political vitality is unlikely to pay much attention to polls that suggest voters want someone else. Biden also recently reinforced his firewall against a primary challenge by shaking up the Democratic primary season, downgrading the Iowa caucuses – where he’s never done well – and elevating his beloved South Carolina to the first spot in the primary race. The lack of a strong alternative Democrat also helps Biden. Vice President Kamala Harris hasn’t performed strongly enough to have her party clamoring for Biden to step aside in her favor. And other Democrats with an eye on the White House will be loath to damage a sitting president of their party.
After the midterm elections, a president looking for a rationale for reelection can find plenty. The CNN poll shows Biden on an upward trajectory and in a better position in his party than Trump is in his. And economic indicators this week, which showed the high cost of living might be cooling, could also insulate Biden.
Still, any president is deeply vulnerable to unexpected outside events that could splinter his approval ratings and chances of reelection. And the oldest president in US history will have to confront the age issue every day. Republicans will seize on any slackening of the campaign trail pace, or even a cold, as proof he’s unfit for a second term. And while Biden appears healthy, the chances of an adverse event increase for people in their 80s.
The question of his age, however, might be less important if Biden faces Trump, who is already 76. But the current commander in chief might be vulnerable to a youthful Republican challenger like DeSantis, for instance, who is in his 40s.
Maybe the idea of leadership shifting between generations will be a potent 2024 possibility after all.