In politics, it can be tempting to extrapolate grand assumptions from individual electoral events and assume that they’re applicable until further notice. Doing so, however, can also be risky. Since 2016, it’s been abundantly clear that much of the received bipartisan wisdom about how to win elections is actually bunk. If Donald Trump becoming president isn’t an occasion to throw old assumptions out the door, then surely nothing is.
After last November’s midterms, however, much of the conventional elite wisdom about American politics yet again has reasserted itself. Among other things, Trump’s continued visibility had clearly hurt the GOP, and Democratic and Republican operatives alike began to envision a 2024 cycle that restored the familiar patterns and moved beyond him.
For Democrats, the result was cause for celebration but also affirmation of the long-standing centrist belief that elections can only be won by appealing to suburban moderates. To elite Republicans, it was an opportunity to finally cast off the Trumpian albatross and anoint a less mercurial figure like Florida governor Ron DeSantis — who could presumably be counted on to throw red meat at the base during the primaries before making the standard general election pivot toward the center. Normalcy or something approximating it, so it seemed, had finally returned.
Barely a few months later, such impressions have proven short-lived.
As he launches his campaign for president this week, it’s DeSantis who now looks like a diminished figure. Though his polling never matched Trump’s to begin with, it’s only grown weaker as he’s become more nationally visible — the former president currently enjoying an average lead of nearly forty points in the aggregate of major polls. DeSantis has hemorrhaged endorsements and is already looking more like Jeb Bush than a Trump slayer-in-waiting. Even in DeSantis’s would-be Florida fiefdom, key officials are giving him a pass.
On the Democratic side, meanwhile, it’s difficult to understate how shaky Joe Biden’s reelection campaign really looks. He enjoys a considerable lead over both Robert Kennedy Jr and Marianne Williamson, but the fact that either are even registering above single digits in the polls is less than stellar for an incumbent president.
A poll in February suggested that 62 percent of Americans believe Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little to nothing” in his first term thus far. Having officially declared his intention to seek a second, his approval rating is now at a record low, and a majority of Democrats don’t even want him to run. If an election were held tomorrow, Biden would probably lose a head-to-head matchup against either Trump or DeSantis. Perhaps just as importantly, he also trails the former by a considerable margin on voters’ perception of his handling of the economy.
With the Federal Reserve continuing to hike interest rates in an effort to drive up unemployment, it seems unlikely this impression will improve. At the same time, Biden’s reelection pitch — with its familiar appeals for restoration and healing of the country’s soul — looks set to follow a template similar to 2020, albeit in less auspicious circumstances. Were it not for a global pandemic, there is good reason to believe that Trump would have beaten Biden and secured a second term. And even with a COVID handicap, the latter’s electoral college victory came down to no more than about forty-four thousand votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. If he is indeed the Democratic candidate for president in 2024, the available evidence suggests that Biden will be running the same playbook with fewer advantages and less popularity.
It is becoming terrifyingly easy to imagine a second Trump term. In 2016, Trump rode a combination of liberal complacency, heterodox rhetoric, and wall-to-wall media coverage to an improbable victory over Hillary Clinton — making clear in the process that the normative guardrails hitherto assumed to exist were an illusion. There’s little reason to believe things are any different today. In spite of everything, polling suggests Trump very much remains a viable candidate for 2024. A Democratic Party intent on resting its hopes and strategy on the same old, conventional assumptions is making a dangerous bet that history won’t repeat itself.