Okay, actually it is 11 months until the next United States presidential election. I have been writing and rewriting this article for a month now. Every time I get a draft put together, things seem to change. Well, overall, things aren’t really that different in the big picture and it was only the smaller things that have changed.
Right off the bat, this series of posts is predicated on how Democrats can retain the Presidency. I’m not a Democrat but it should be obvious why I want a Democrat to win and if it isn’t obvious to you, this post is not for you.
When we last checked in three four months ago, I concluded that the conventional wisdom of a Biden vs. Trump rematch was still the mostly likely. And at this point, it still seems the most likely. But I wrote about the volatility of the situation and that volatility has only increased since.
Let’s start with the Republicans since they don’t have an incumbent. Except they sort of do with Trump. That’s their whole conundrum: is Trump the de facto incumbent since he was President before, says he wants to be again, and is not term limited? The polls sure seem to indicate that he is the de facto incumbent with massive leads over all the others. And if the primary were today, it’s obvious he would win it.
However, the primaries are still a month away from starting and Trump’s inevitability is showing cracks. He’s shown mental failings more often when he confuses Obama and Biden and confuses the Bush brothers. And after starting off with his “retribution” comment, this past week he told Hannity that he would be a dictator on the first day in office even as Hannity tried to negate that in real time. And we still don’t have a good sense for whether any of the trials will actually have any revelations or consequences that could impact the primary voting.
Meanwhile, the battle for second place has many fewer candidates than last time I checked in. Pence, Scott, and couple of governors have bowed out. (My first draft of this was in late October when even George Will was encouraging Tim Scott to drop out.) It’s pretty clear that Ramaswamy’s 15 minutes of fame is just about up and after this week’s run-through of the conspiracy theories he believes I don’t see how he gets elected to anything – he’s too much of a loon even for MAGApublicans. Christie continues dropping truth bombs but they go right past most of the intended audience entirely unexploded so his days as a candidate are numbered.
That leaves DeSantis and Haley as the only two viable contenders remaining. And their lanes are quite far apart. DeSantis wants to be next Trump in the Trump-mode GOP. He’s aiming to lock down second place from Trump voters which means he is hoping for Trump to drop out or drop dead and pick up where Trump left off. Haley wants to be the post-Trump candidate even though the GOP is still in Trump-mode. She is hoping Trump drops out or drops dead and his supporters go away and the spell over the GOP breaks and Trump-mode ends. So if Trump really did drop out or drop dead, which way would things go? It’s really hard to predict. If we figure that Trump has locked up maybe 2/3 of the GOP currently, how many of them are Trump-only versus how many of them are MAGA-only versus how many would realize they had been just released from a cult? And how many outside of the former Trump supporters would suddenly activate and try to re-take their party? I think part of the answer largely depends on who Fox News would give time to and we don’t really know that at this point. But considering that Haley is ascendant and she has been doing a really good job in debates of walking the line between some truth-telling while also still tossing out some red MAGA meat, my bet would be on her.
3rd Party Candidates & Democrats
Also ascendant is the crop of “3rd party” candidates. Robert Kennedy Jr. is now running as an independent. Cornel West is also running as an independent. Jill Stein who helped Trump get elected in 2016 is running again showing she didn’t learn her lesson. Liz Cheney is talking about possibly running. And the No Labels party is looking to field candidates. Although it is absolutely impossible that any one of these candidates can win, the preponderance of 3rd party candidates does show that a number of people sense general discontent among the electorate for having a Biden vs. Trump rematch. If both Biden and Trump were extremely popular, either 3rd party candidates wouldn’t want to get in the race or they might still want to but find few people willing to financially support them. And while none of these candidates will get elected, they will definitely impact the final vote tally making it even harder to predict the general election outcome.
Biden does still have challengers in his own party. Dean Phillips is causing some noise but even if Biden were not in the campaign, I don’t see that Phillips would be a realistic candidate. Neither is Williamson. Without any serious opposition in his own party, Biden would be expected to coast to the Democrat nomination, even if some Democrats are privately a bit more concerned.
Evaluating the Match-Ups
Now let’s try to put all the pieces together and look at the potential match-ups. For starters, we’ve got Trump as the likely GOP nominee and Biden as the Democrat. The polls for that matchup don’t look great for Biden. Although derided, the NYT/Siena poll of the swing states is alarming. It shows that the Republican attacks against Biden are working and that Biden has failed to make his achievements known. That’s well-illustrated in an Axios poll in which people were asked about the economy overall and answered that it was bad while simultaneously reporting that their personal financial situation was good. In other words, the Biden presidency has served people well but they buy into the Republican message that there is trouble.
There’s also the main issue that the expectations between Trump and Biden are asymmetric. As a 50 year politician, Biden is expected to be perfect policy maker and any deviation from perfection becomes the whole story. Trump, on the other hand, as a reality TV buffoon is merely expected to deliver ratings which he does exceedingly well. It’s the difference between an apple, and, well, an orange. (yes, that’s a dig at Trump’s use of bronzer)
The messaging machines between the two parties are completely mismatched. Trump’s business and his family were literally profiting from his presidency while he was in office. Meanwhile Biden’s older son, a veteran, didn’t live to see his father elected President and his younger son attempted to trade on his name and was ultimately charged for a minor weapons charge and for a past tax evasion which he had already repaid. But if you were to ask the typical voter, they would say something about the “Biden crime family” while having no realization that the Trump business is quite literally a crime family. That’s the failure of Democratic messaging. How Democrats don’t literally talk about the “Trump crime family” every day is a mystery to me.
The question of Biden’s age is a combination of the expectation and messaging asymmetry. One the one hand, you have Biden who is 81 and occasionally seems a bit like he’s in his 9th decade but generally seems entirely capable of being the President and can even joke about his age. On the other hand, you have Trump who is 4 years younger than Biden and constantly saying the wrong thing and is obviously mentally unstable. But the common perception is that Biden is old and weak while Trump is vigorous and strong. And unfortunately, in politics, perception is reality.
The messaging problem and the expectation problem work against Biden to yield a tight race in the only states that matter. That’s what the NYT/Siena poll shows and there is legit reason for concern.
What happens if Trump is actually found guilty of something?. What happens if Trump were to physically fail in some obvious way? What happens if he shows mental failing by saying something that is too bad to be taken back or too wrong to be covered over? It is possible that voters might start to swing away from Trump toward either DeSantis or Haley, although that window is closing. Super Tuesday is March 5 and that’s only 3 months from now. If Trump hasn’t dropped out or dropped dead before March 5, he’s the nominee. But let’s talk about what the general election would be like if it were Biden vs. DeSantis or Biden vs. Haley.
In a Biden vs. Haley matchup, there’s just about no question that Biden would lose. She’s younger, she’s better looking, she appeals to at least some Republicans, and for those with no party affiliation, she’d be a clear winner. Personally, I hate many of her policies but I do recognize that she isn’t as bad as DeSantis or Trump so I can see how if you were anti-Biden, Haley could be an alternative. And while those who were excited to elect the first woman President were already voting for Hillary Clinton, it’s reasonable to see how some independents who might have been Clinton voters may be Haley voters.
A Biden vs. DeSantis matchup isn’t quite as doomy as Biden vs. Haley but since DeSantis is effectively a one-for-one replacement in the eyes of MAGApublicans, his numbers would be similar to Trumps. Therefore, based still on the NYT/Siena poll, the news is still not good for Biden.
I should also make at least an attempt to factor in how the 3rd party candidates might impact the race.
Assuming Trump is in the race and Liz Cheney runs, she might succeed in accomplishing the goal of steal votes from Trump and kneecapping him. But if there is a No Labels candidate running like Manchin, that may already be covered.
That’s not to say that a No Labels candidate will hurt only Trump. In fact, a No Labels candidate is more likely to hurt Biden. Manchin might get voters that Cheney gets but he’d get more voters that would have gone to Biden. If No Labels were to proceed with a candidate like Manchin, and both Biden and Trump remain in the race, it’s a definite win for Trump.
Kennedy will definitely steal votes from both candidates. Given his populist message combined with his anti-vaccine background, he might draw from Biden and Trump equally. So he may not end up much of a factor at all.
Cornel West and Jill Stein, however, are real problems for Biden. They will take votes only from Biden and they need to be encouraged to drop out right away. Stein has shown an inability to face reality but hopefully at least West can be convinced. And good luck to Dick Gephardt and his Citizens to Save Our Republic in at least convincing voters not to vote for them.
Yes, uh-oh. Biden has a tough path to re-election. His best case scenario is to go up against Trump or possibly DeSantis. And even in that scenario, he needs the 3rd party candidates to take more votes from his opponent than from him and he needs to shown no signs of failing health. Even with that best case scenario, the NYT poll shows him losing now because the only states that matter (which is a topic for another post) show him losing 5 out of 6. That means the economy needs to stay strong and the messaging of the Democrats has to improve.
I know Biden thinks he can win and good for him for thinking positively, but does he really want to go through the campaign? Especially considering that if he were to drop out, the pressure on his family would subside? He said that the reason he is running is because Trump is running and he might not be in the race if Trump weren’t. He got grief for saying that publicly but I wonder if that was his way of also giving himself an out if Trump were to dropping out/dead.
And here I need to remind you that I will be immensely pleased if Biden were to win re-election so don’t shoot the messenger but… the Democrats need a contingency plan. And that plan should not be Williamson or Phillips. Or even Harris. As I wrote before, Harris was brought in to the 2020 ticket to help broaden his coalition, not because she is a match for his politics. She hasn’t been given much opportunity to define herself as a VP which means the public view of her is still the California progressive that ran against Biden in the Democratic primary. The Democrats need a contingency and it isn’t apparent that they have one yet.
If Trump drops out/dead, Biden should drop out too so that’s the most straightforward reason for a contingency. Another reason would be in case of a physical health issue for Biden. Or Biden might have a “McConnell” moment in the next year and although I’m no fan of Nate Silver’s politics, he’s right that it would be an effective end to Biden’s political career and his candidacy.
What happens if…
Brookings had an article about what happens if a candidate dies during the presidential campaign. (Again, I’m not hoping for anything; but for important events like selecting a President, it’s negligent to not think about all possibilities.)
If Trump or Biden were to get out before January, theoretically, others would take their place. But realistically, with only a few weeks until January, there’s no time to spin up a new campaign and Biden and Trump are already set to be on the ballots so that ship has sailed.
If Trump or Biden were to get out during the primary season, that’s a mess. In some cases, new candidates might be able to get on the primary ballot but in others they wouldn’t. Some candidates might be able to make deals that a vote for so and so is actually a vote for so and so but that’s super confusing.
However, after the primary voting is done and before the convention, that’s a time when a candidate can get out with less mess. Because the convention is where the nomination actually happens and if Trump got the most votes but then couldn’t continue because of a conviction, the convention could simply choose Haley or DeSantis instead. And this is where I’m thinking the Democrats better be ready with a last minute substitution. Because if Biden runs into any of the issues I mentioned above, here’s where they could say “thank you for voting for Biden and since he isn’t in the race any more, we nominate so and so”.
After the nomination at the convention, it’s a bit more difficult to change nominees. But it can be done by the party. It’d look a little more sketchy so that wouldn’t be a time when you’d want to make a change just based on improving your chances since the change itself would reduce your chances. Also, it wouldn’t give much time for that new candidate to be ready to campaign or debate.
After the election, frankly, I don’t care. The Electoral College would likely follow the rules of succession and therefore, the party elected wouldn’t change. If the election went to a Democrat, I’m relieved and it doesn’t matter who it is. If the election went to a Republican, at least it would no longer be Trump which can only be a net positive for the country.
Next up, Primary Season
Primary season starts in a month with no changes expected before then. We’ll all be watching what happens with Trump’s court cases and we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed that Biden’s health remains good.
Trump will win the primaries and Haley and DeSantis will come n 2nd and 3rd, respectively (since DeSantis is in direct competition with Trump whereas Haley is picking up the non-Trump votes). DeSantis may get out before the South Carolina primary since he stands no chance of winning in that primary. His campaign is a mess and he just doesn’t come off presidential. Or he may stick around in the hopes that Trump drops out and he can scoop up all of the Trump votes in the subsequent primaries – or even go all the way to the convention in case Trump drops out.
I’ll check back in in a couple of months after the primaries have started and we’ll see how my predictions are faring and see if Trump’s trials have resulted in any changes to my predictions.