Eighteen months out, some moves have been made but plenty more remain to be made for the election of President of the United States. I believe the typical current punditry discussion is too short sighted and doesn’t give enough consideration to how things may yet change as the next 18 months play out. So here’s where we stand now and what I see happening over the next year and a half.
As dumb as it is, the conversation does indeed start with Donald Trump. One would think that after 2 impeachments, he’d be damaged goods but his cult following has only became more attached to the demagogue through the impeachment trials and the fact that the Senate didn’t convict him means he isn’t barred from holding public office again. I still don’t understand why Mitch McConnell couldn’t just get a few of his cronies to vote to convict Trump in the 2nd impeachment, if for no other reason than for the sake of making Trump irrelevant politically and simplifying their future. But McConnell caved to the pressure at the time and now he has to deal with the consequences of having the loose cannon out there simultaneously calling him names and also looking like the frontrunner for the Republican nomination which he has already said he would support.
But there are a number of other Trump wannabees that are hoping to ride his coattails without upsetting Trump too much and simultaneously sneaking past him. As though they were all walking together around the musical chairs and all chummy but when the music stops, they slide into the last chair and give Trump a shrug of “oh well”. Primarily, these are Nikki Hailey and Tim Scott. They can’t say anything bad about Trump and they don’t have much to say on their own. It is possible that one of them does indeed win the musical chairs game and sit before Trump does but I think it’s more likely that Trump just goes and sits on them and pretends they were never there.
Ron DeSantis is his own special case here. He has obviously patterned himself after Trump and is following the same playbook. He has even adopted Trump’s speaking quirks and hand gestures to the extent that Trump should sue for copyright. But DeSantis is also unique in being the only Trump acolyte who is now actually fighting against Trump. And it’s particularly interesting because DeSantis hasn’t yet announced he is running for President. So he is able to test the strategy before he commits and see if he thinks he stands a chance before he actually jumps in. That allows him a lower stakes contest than Trump is involved in now. If it doesn’t work out for DeSantis in 2024, it’s fine, he can wait until 2028 to try again and the 4 more years would add to the inevitability of a DeSantis Presidency – that is assuming that the country continues to be the political miasma it has been and remains now.
Trump may be currently enjoying his best prospects of winning in 2024 now. It’s hard to see how things improve for him from here. The indictment in New York City did help with fundraising and money does help win. More money can mean a better ability to spew nonsense more loudly. But regardless the outcome of the trial, I think it ends up hurting him. I don’t think the conviction would matter too much but the weeks or months of a trial would color the impression he leaves with voters. Some will say that if Trump wins the New York case, that it makes him stronger but I don’t think so. Trump’s whole brand is winning despite persecution but he has never had to be dragged to trial like this and the more people see video of him as on the wrong side of the law, the bigger hit his brand takes among those who are not in his cult.
And obviously, there are the 3 other cases Trump is facing. The Georgia election fraud case (needing to “find” votes) might also be less than a slam dunk but it gives the news media plenty of opportunity to replay the audio clip of him begging for election fraud – not a good look for somebody running for election. And then there is the case of documents found at his golf club and the obstruction of retrieving them and the case of whether Trump incited the Jan 6 riot, both of which seem more likely than the other 2 to land Trump in actual trouble. Again, his cult followers would not be swayed by any guilty verdict but they aren’t going to be swayed regardless – they are truly lost causes. The only people that matter are reluctant Trump voters.
The point is that Trump’s candidacy lasting through the primary is far from a given at this point. And even if he does get through the primary, I think the Trump wannabees will suck enough votes away from Trump that Trump doesn’t win the primary. And when you consider that there are likely to be other Republicans running like Larry Hogan or Chris Sununu who are anti-Trump and comfortable saying so, it’s hard to see a way that Trump wins the Republican primary.
The most interesting thing to me is how Trump ends up ending his run. He could quit but present it as a “the Democrats are tying me up in too many junk lawsuits so I need to temporarily suspend my campaign to focus on the trials”. Or maybe he stays in the race to the end but is “too busy” to participate in debates and instead holds his own rallies so he can be with the people or some other nonsense. Whatever he comes up with, it will be that he is a victim and isn’t allowed to do what he should so he needs to do something else. The narrative will be created to support whatever the reality of his situation is.
And assuming Trump does not get the Republican nomination, does he push forward as a third party candidate? I think he does, at least initially. The only thing he is good at is holding rallies and he makes money doing it so why not. He will do that as long as he can. And he might even keep it up through the election just so that he can keep up appearances of not having “lost” or “quit”. Or maybe there will be a story that can be created to cover his eventual exit. It may not be legal to campaign and collect money if you aren’t really running to be President but since when as doing something illegal that is hard to prove stopped Trump from doing something?
As for the Democrats, Joe Biden isn’t as certain a candidate as Democrats would like to think he is. The two things that impact Biden’s 2024 candidacy are his age/health and his opponents.
His age is the thing that gets the most attention and with good reason. He’s old for a president. The years that he is going through now are the ones where cognitive decline and physical limitations are common for men. In a job where you need to be mentally sharp publicly and where the voting public wouldn’t accept somebody using a cane to get around, any sign of weakness would be disqualifying for Biden.
I had all this in mind before his State of the Union speech this year. And after watching how deftly he handled things there, I actually did give some second thought to it. After all, even if you assume that Biden went into the speech fully prepped for the possible outcomes and what to say as a retort, the fact that he pulled it off with the right timing was impressive. Biden was mentally sharp and after the long speech hung around chatting with people for a while proving no failing health and no failing mental acuity. Impressive. I hope to be running that well when I’m Biden’s age.
Maybe Joe Biden is going to buck all the trends and be the most healthy almost 82 year-old at the time of the election next year. Great. But odds are not in his favor. And the bigger issue, frankly, is that most people will assume he won’t make it 4 years in office. That’d make him 86 at the time his term would end in 2028 and the odds are definitely stacked against that. Sorry, Joe, it’s nothing personal, it’s just looking at the numbers.
Which is why people are naturally looking at who the Vice President will be. And it seems really unlikely that Biden would choose a different Vice President than he has now. Some have speculated that he might change from Kamala Harris to somebody that polls better. But the act of switching itself would have too negative a response so I think he is “stuck” with Harris.
Harris has not had an easy time of the VP job. As a trailblazer, she gets grief for just not looking the part that traditionalists expect, even if those traditionalists don’t know that’s why they are giving her grief. But she also hasn’t exactly been deft in the position. Her public speaking has moments of success but also some clunkers. And she’s been shoveled some of the most challenging issues like resolving the root cause of so many people wanting to come to the US – so she needs to somehow continue to make the US successful while also fixing the problems in Central and South America that lead to people wanting to leave there. A truly impossible task. Regardless, that’s where she is now and the result is the reality: she’s not a net positive for Biden with swing voters.
Which means if Democrats stick with Biden and Harris, they have a super old guy who is only getting older and a poorly polling VP who becomes more important as Biden gets older but a VP who can’t be swapped. Rock, meet hard place.
So should the Democrats nominate somebody else and if so, when? That all depends on the Republican opposition. As Biden is fond of saying, you don’t need to compare him to the almighty, just to the alternative. And it also depends on what other Democrat could win against who ever that Republican might be.
First, no, Biden shouldn’t jump out now. He has to continue with plans to be the next President. If he doesn’t, he becomes a lame duck too early on. There’d be too much distraction with who the other candidate would be. There’d be too much speculation about why he isn’t running again. And he wouldn’t have the power he’d need to continue his policy work, such as it is with the Republican controlled House. So he needs to continue to be the Democratic nominee for 2024 for now.
But Biden and Democrats will need to continue to reassess. Not only regarding Biden’s own ability to win but also in regards to who his opponent is shaping up to be. If Biden’s opponent ends up being Trump or a Trump wannabee, there may not be as much urgency to Biden switching out. Although one debate where Biden looks old and unable to keep up with his opponent could be fatal to the campaign. And you can’t let it get so close to the election that you can’t change out. And the Biden team needs to keep in mind whether his opponent might be a Trump who is so batshit that Biden just has to show up in a suit and not fall over and he will win or a Trump who is really on his game and able to make Biden look like a fool. Or maybe Biden can skip a debate with Trump saying Trump has proven before that he can’t follow the rules so Biden doesn’t need to debate him. That might seem like a cop-out but that might be better than taking the risk of what kind of Trump shows up to the debate and how Biden manages to keep up.
What if the debate opponent is Mike Pence? That could be riskier because Pence can hold his ground in a debate and look the part better than Biden can and even though Biden might be attempting to say something real while Pence is full of hot air, Pence might come across better.
An even greater debate risk and opponent for Biden would be a “moderate” Republican like Sununu or a fake moderate like Glenn Younkin. Biden would almost certainly lose a debate to either of them and while those Republicans might not get all of Trump’s voters, they would get many of them and they’d get a healthy share of the swing voters too. That could be a fatal blow to Biden’s candidacy.
At that point, the Democrats would need to pivot. Biden would need to say “I’ve looked at the next 4 years and I just don’t think I could be an effective President and I owe it to the American People blah blah” and get out. The real challenge there is who comes in as the replacement? My pick would be Amy Klobuchar who proved she is not polarizing, and can mostly escape the rancor. Personally, my politics would work better with Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth Warren but both of them are too polarizing to be “better” than Biden in such a scenario. Or maybe there is a Democrat out there somewhat flying under the radar who has a bit of a pugilistic quality but isn’t so well known that they are immediately polarizing.
There is a possibility that the No Labels party or the Forward party or both could field a national candidate. But at this point, either of them would likely just be noise. It is possible that either of them could actually siphon votes off from other candidates to impact the election but zero chance that any 3rd party candidate could be elected. And that includes Trump if Trump were to decide to try to be a 3rd party candidate.
Where does that leave us? Republicans are already on the only path they can be on with Trump in the picture. And each week can bring new developments in the trial and Trump is going to lurch unpredictably in his reactions. So that party continues to be all about Trump and whatever mercurial moves he may make. All Republicans can do really is wait and react. Which is why DeSantis really has the right approach right now with his “wait and see”. Of course they could show mental fortitude by taking back control of the party themselves but they’ve shown repeatedly they are incapable of doing that. (I know, I had a hard time typing that without laughing.)
Democrats, however, can’t sit back once Biden announces his reelection. They should have contingency on top of contingency with a well-mapped out flowchart and tons of decisions points and check points. They need to be vetting, evaluating, and polling as many possible candidates as they can without making it look like that’s what they are doing. They need to have the dates figured out for the point of no return for Biden and be ready to switch gears before that if they think they need to. They need Biden to be ready to take one for the team if that is in the best interest of their party (and the country). And they need Harris to be on board with all of the above so she supports whoever the nominee might be.
With all of these moving parts, it’s impossible to make a prediction. But I’d say odds are better than even that Biden does not end up actually the Democrat nominee due to concerns about age/health. And I’d say odds are better than even that Trump is not the Republican nominee due to tapering support as his trials advance. Who does that leave!? I have no idea!! DeSantis vs. Klobuchar? Sununu vs. Julian Castro? It will be interesting for me to keep coming back to this post in the next 18 months and see how close I’ve come and see who the nominees end up being.