From the Center
Nine months before the first presidential primaries, there are already two emerging truths about the 2024 campaign.
Joe Biden is the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump.
And Donald Trump is the only Republican who would lose to Joe Biden.
These two statements would suggest that the president’s advisors should be rooting hard for Trump to maintain his sizable lead in GOP primary polls and emerge as his party’s nominee for the third consecutive election cycle. Superstition – and the ghosts of 2016 – prevent White House aides from publicly stating their rooting interests, but Biden’s own frequent and joyful use of the term “MAGA Republicans” exposes their clandestine preferences.
Their quiet hopes for a Biden-Trump rematch are well-founded. Biden is the only national Democratic figure who has demonstrated an ability to successfully communicate with the white working class voters who helped Trump carry the Rust Belt in 2016 and who switched sides four years later. If Biden were to decide not to run for health-related or other reasons, it’s difficult to imagine Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg or Gavin Newsom achieving the same type of cultural connection with these voters that Biden possesses.
(Emerging upper Midwestern governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania may share Biden’s gift, but they are probably one cycle away. Ron DeSantis’ recent misadventures are a timely reminder of the political vertigo that can strike when state-level politicians try to ascend to the national level too quickly.)
Biden’s other unique advantage among leading Democrats is that his long career as a centrist establishment figure makes it much more difficult to caricature him as a dangerous liberal. Biden went to great lengths in 2020 to make it clear that he did not support the “defend the police” movement and has also distanced himself from his party’s most ardent progressives on immigration, energy and budget policy. He might be to the left of many mainstream voters, but few see him as a radical.
But that same nonthreatening persona that keeps Biden from scaring swing voters also prevents him from doing much to inspire his party’s base. Liberal Democrats whose hearts belonged to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren dutifully fell in behind him during the 2020 primaries because they correctly saw him as their best chance of defeating Trump. Biden is still incapable of exciting the Democratic base, but he and his team understand that ability is less necessary when the threat of Trump can provide an even greater motivational effect for the party faithful
For most of his career, Biden has told voters “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” This lesser-of-two-evils formulation has never been so suitable than for his campaigns against his predecessor. But it leaves the president ill-equipped for a campaign against another GOP opponent for whom the electorate has less rigid opinions. Ardent Democrats can whip themselves into a high dudgeon against DeSantis or Mike Pence, but many casual voters would find such a general election matchup much less interesting. As a result, Democratic turnout could suffer.
The other unique benefit that Biden realizes against Trump is that his advanced age is much less likely to matter to voters in a matchup of elderly pre-boomers. Biden is a few years older than Trump, but the contrast against a younger candidate like DeSantis or Nikki Haley would be far more noticeable – and much less flattering. Republicans consciously selected Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who at 40 years old is precisely half of Biden’s age, to deliver the party’s response to Biden’s State of the Union address this year. The generation gap could not have been more apparent, and it could work to the GOP’s advantage if repeated over the course of a long, arduous presidential campaign.
Just a few months ago, Trump appeared to be facing a difficult primary challenge in the face of a surging DeSantis. But the former president’s indictment has provided an improbable boost to his fundraising and grassroots support. Despite the fact that fewer than half of Democrats want Biden to run again, he is not likely to face a credible primary opponent. So barring a health crisis or other unexpected change of direction for one of the two men, we should prepare for Biden-Trump II. It is only the advanced age of the two combatants that will keep these sequels from being as numerous (to cite another 20th century artifact) as the Rocky movies.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Deputy Blog Editor Isaiah Anthony (Center Bias).