Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Jason Allen, Associated Press

From the Center

We are now just under six months from the 2024 election, which seems like a good time to take a step back and look at the presidential campaign from a broader perspective. Here’s what we know:

First, the race is extremely close. Trump has maintained a small lead for most of the past last year, but Biden has slightly closed that gap since high-profile court cases on abortion rights in Florida and Arizona have attracted significant amounts of media attention and the number of undocumented immigrants crossing the Southern border has seasonably declined. 

Second, Trump’s legal problems seem unlikely to have a major impact on the race. It now appears that three of the criminal cases against the former president will be delayed until after the election. While the one remaining trial is getting wall-to-wall news coverage at the moment, it appears to be carry the smallest impact with the voters, who see it as less relevant than the charges tied directly to the outcome of the 2020 election.

Third, Biden and Trump are still the least popular presidential nominees in history, and it’s difficult to see that changing for either one. This is the first time two candidates have run against each other a second time since the 1950’s and the first time two presidents have faced off in over a century. Which means there’s not much left for the voters to learn about either one.

Fourth, this will be the first peacetime election in modern history (defining “peacetime” as when there are no American troops in battle, since the term clearly does not address ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere) in which the dominant issue for voters is something other than the economy. Immigration currently ranks as the most important policy matter for the electorate, followed closely by abortion rights. The issue that motivates more voters will decide the election.

The animosity for the two nominees comes from two different places. Trump is widely disliked by the swing voters who occupy the center of the political spectrum, while Biden’s biggest problems are with the progressive base of his own party. That requires Trump to reach out beyond his core of loyal supporters to suburban voters, women and other groups that are skeptical of him but have not completely ruled him out. Meanwhile, Biden must find a way to convince young people and other progressives that despite their deep dissatisfaction with him, they would still be better off with him in the White House than Trump.

As I mentioned earlier, there are few voters who don’t know enough about the candidates to make them swing voters in a classic sense, who make their decisions based on what they learn about their choices as election day draws closer. There is nothing Trump can tell a suburban woman about his own record that will persuade her to cast a ballot for him. Similarly, Biden will not be able to motivate alienated anti-war protestors by reminding them of his accomplishments.

In both cases, the candidate will only sway those target audiences not by convincing them of their own attributes but rather by frightening them about the prospect of their opponent’s election. I have written in this space before about the concept of “negative partisanship”, a trend in which voters make their decisions based not on the candidate whom they most admire, but against the candidate who upsets or angers them more. This trend has grown throughout the 21st century, but this election seems poised to push the theory to new heights—or new lows.

This seems like a recipe for a sour, vicious, and desultory campaign season—nasty, brutish and unbearably long. Both party nominees know that their only path to victory is by eviscerating their rival. Biden will attempt to do so most visibly on issues relating to abortion rights, and Trump will similarly prioritize immigration policy, both knowing that the majority of voters agree with them on their preferred means of attack. But both sides will employ a full range of policy, political and personal weapons to portray their foe in the most terrifying light possible.

The winner will be sworn in next January with the smallest base of political support that any newly-inaugurated president has ever had. He will preside over the most deeply divided country in modern history. Neither man will have the tools nor the standing to bring us back together. The good news is that the 2028 presidential election is only 54 short months away. 

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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 Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Jason Allen, Associated Press