What if they held an election no one really wanted?

Well, that’s exactly what 2024 is shaping up to be.

Consider a late August Associated Press poll. Voters were asked to name a word or two that came to mind for each of the front-runners for their respective party nominations — President Joe Biden for Democrats and former President Donald Trump for Republicans.

The most common words for Biden? “Old.” “Outdated.” “Slow.” “Confused.”

For Trump, it wasn’t any better. “Corrupt,” “crooked” and “bad” led the way.

And these are the two people with massive leads over their prospective primary opponents! What must people think about the rest of the field?

At the same time, someone has to win this election. And the overwhelming odds are that someone will be named either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, whose victory or loss may be decided by several thousand voters in a quartet of swing states.

Faith and the candidates

So, how did we get here? And where are we going in a race in which one candidate is facing down four indictments and the other is seen by a majority of the American public as way too old for the job he is running for?

The right place to start is the Republican side of the aisle, where, as recently as a year ago, it appeared as though Trump’s grip on the party was loosening.

Think back to January 2021. Republicans watched as they lost not one but two runoff Senate elections in Georgia, defeats that cost them a chance at the majority.

The blame quickly fell to Trump. “Republicans turn on Trump after Georgia loss,” read a Politico headline that included these lines:

“The immediate recrimination is emblematic of the complicated GOP dynamics that have emerged after Trump’s loss in the November election. Fissures are forming as Republicans decide whether it’s useful to cling to Trump — even as he tries to subvert an election — or to distance themselves. And if the Georgia races are any indication, it appears Republicans are willing to turn on Trump if he can’t reliably turn out the vote for candidates in the months and years ahead.”

A very small number of voters in just four states could well hold the fate of the 2024 election in their hands.

Then came the 2022 midterm election where Republicans were, again, disappointed.  The Senate, which the party seemed certain to win back, remained out of reach. Yes, Republicans retook control of the House majority but with a far smaller margin than most people expected. The blame fell in large part on Trump.

In that same election, Gov. Ron DeSantis won the previously swingy state of Florida by almost 20 points. The contrast was clear.  DeSantis was the future. Trump just might be the past.

It was actually the second time in as many years that it appeared as though Republicans were on the precipice of moving on from Trump. The first time came in early 2021, when the Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump for his role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Mitch McConnell, leader of Senate Republicans, very publicly let speculation grow that he could vote to convict Trump — a move that could have also banned the former president from running for office again.

Except that, well, he didn’t.  

McConnell eventually cited a technical matter — Trump was now out of office and therefore could not be impeached — for his “no” vote. The fact that, after the vote, McConnell blasted Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the riot has been lost to history.

Late 2022 and early 2023 was another one of those moments. And then, within two months, the moment was gone. In March 2023, Trump was indicted in New York — on charges that he had paid off two women during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep them quiet about alleged affairs he had conducted with them.

And suddenly, the moment to oust Trump from his perch atop the party was gone. Rather than an embattled former president with a load of losses to answer for, Trump was suddenly back in his favorite role: victim. 

Trump, DeSantis lose some support in new poll of Utah GOP voters

And he played it to the hilt. This was no longer a presidential candidacy, this was a crusade. Trump wasn’t just fighting Democrats, he was now fighting the whole Deep State. This wasn’t about a case in New York, it was about the future of the country.

The base of the Republican Party — sensing a fight — immediately sided with Trump.  His poll numbers soared. And his primary opponents, fearful of ticking off that base, largely sided with him — insisting he was the victim of election interference by Democrats.

Around the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear that DeSantis — the man who was so hyped in January — was actually a would-be emperor with no clothes. His campaign took months to launch. When he did get into the race, it was via a disastrous (and glitch-filled) event on Twitter, now known as X.  On the campaign trail, he seemed wooden and nonhuman. And he and his campaign kept picking dumb fights — like arguing that enslaved people benefited from the skills they were taught during their bondage. 

As Trump rose, DeSantis stumbled. And what’s more, no one rose up to take DeSantis’ place as the Trump alternative in the race. Because the party didn’t really want an alternative. Poll after poll suggested that Republicans voters were a) perfectly happy with their choices, and b) flocking to Trump in droves. And the candidates not named Trump reflected that reality. No one this side of Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson — both no-shot candidates running on an anti-Trump message — dared to say a word against the billionaire businessman. And the longer their silence went, the stronger he got.

By the end of the summer, it was clear: Trump was in a historically strong position to be the Republican nominee. He was ahead by 40 points nationally — and by smaller but still wide margins in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

No one rose up to take DeSantis’ place as the Trump alternative in the race. Because the party didn’t really want an alternative.

Two numbers — taken from a CBS News national poll — confirmed, for me, the enduring grasp Trump has on the Republican Party. Almost 8 in 10 (77 percent) said that Trump’s indictments were politically motivated. Three quarters said that Trump’s legal problems were a major reason they were supporting him in the race.

Yes, his supporters are his supporters not in spite of the four indictments but, at least in part, because of the four indictments.

Biden’s path to the nomination, on the other hand, has always been assured — ever since he made the decision to seek a second term back in April.

But pockets of resistance remain. A majority of Democrats — in poll after poll — say that they would prefer a candidate other than Biden as the party’s nominee. Young people, in particular, are unenthused about the prospect of voting for him again. 

The problem? Biden’s age. At 80 — he will be 82 when and if he is sworn in for a second term in early 2025 — he would be the oldest person ever elected to the office.

And there are signs of Biden slowing — a more halting speaking style, a shuffling gait — over the past few years.

Talk to most Democrats and they will tell you that Biden is a nice guy but his time has come and gone — that it’s time for fresh blood in the form of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro.

Most of that talk amounted to whispers — until little-known Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips went public with his doubts about Biden.

“I want him to preserve his legacy, not to compromise it,” Phillips said in August. “And this is exactly why I’m asking — pass the torch, open the stage.”

The Phillips argument, distilled, is this: The threat posed by Trump is so serious that the Democratic Party can’t take a risk on the aged Biden in 2024.

“God forbid the president has a health episode or something happens in the middle of a primary,” Phillips has said — invoking the specter of what would be an absolute nightmare scenario for Democrats.

For all the attention he’s drawn to himself, Phillips’ calls for a contested primary have, largely, fallen on deaf ears.

Not a single elected official (or former elected official) has chosen to primary Biden. Instead, a political gadfly is the only one in the mix: Marianne Williamson.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., scion to the most famous Democratic political family in America, dropped out of the Democratic race in early October, announcing he would instead run as an independent for the presidency.

Williamson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 2020, is a fringe candidate at best with support in the single digits.

And so, Joe Biden — despite warning signs flashing all around his party — will be the Democratic presidential nominee. And the party will cross its fingers and hope he makes it through the general election without a major health scare — or worse.

Talk to most Democrats and they will tell you that Biden is a nice guy but his time has come and gone. 

All of which brings us to a general election starting — likely — some time next spring or early summer (Trump will have the nomination wrapped up by that point) featuring two candidates with deep weaknesses in the eyes of the general electorate.

The way I have come to think about that race is via a boxing metaphor. Two aging former champs, neither at their best, collide in the ring. Both lack the power to put the other one away — and so they lean and grab and sucker-punch whenever they can as they try to get the narrowest of advantages. It’s not fun to watch nor particularly fun to participate in. And yet, here we are.

While we can’t know exactly how a rematch between Biden and Trump will play out, we already have some clues.

Trump will paint a dark vision of America under Biden — a nearly-failed nation that only he can fix. (If that message sounds similar to how Trump ran in 2016, it’s because it’s the exact same.) He will work to paint Biden as a doddering puppet of a liberal elite, someone who, in Trump’s words, “doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Biden will, in turn, focus on the accomplishments of his first term — from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act — to counteract predictions of doom and gloom over the economy. He will, largely, try to ignore Trump’s antics (and there will be many) and instead focus on the notion that these are serious times that require serious people — suggesting, by extension, that Trump is not one.

We also know a few more things about the election to come.

Unbridled passions

First, it’s likely to be very, very close. Polling has consistently shown Biden and Trump running neck and neck. As of late September, the Real Clear Politics polling average gave Trump a slim, 1.6 point advantage.

Second, it’s going to come down to only a pittance of swing states. Unlike in past elections where we were talking about 8 to 10 states where the campaign was being fought, it’s likely that only half that number are truly competitive come November 2024.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan campaign tipsheet, said in its initial 2024 ratings that only four states — Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — should be considered true tossups.  

In 2020, Biden won all four of those states. But, the margins were tiny.  In Arizona, he won by less than 11,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast. In Michigan, Biden’s margin was 150,000 out of more than 5 million votes cast. In Pennsylvania, Biden won by 80,000 votes.  In Wisconsin, his margin was just over 20,000 votes.

Add it up and you see that less than 250,000 votes decided the presidency.  (Had Trump won all four states — and there 57 total electoral college votes — he would have been reelected.) Given polling — both nationally and in early states — that suggests a tight race between Trump and Biden, we could well be headed toward a repeat of the 2020 election. 

All of which gets us to a simple yet profound question: Who is going to win? As a journalist, I always shy away from predictions — because they are a) frowned upon by my industry and b) usually wrong. (I will admit I had NO inkling that Trump would win in 2016 and would have bet my mortgage on a President Hillary Clinton.)

But I will make a prediction (and not just because I promised my editors I would!) Before we get to it, let me say that — given the likely closeness of the race as I described above — that BOTH parties seem certain they will win next November.

Is some of that false bravado — a fake-it-until-you-make-it vibe that they have adopted out of necessity given the uncertainty of the race? Maybe! But I am still struck by the confidence they have based — as far as I can tell — on not all that much.

So, without further adieu, it‘s prediction time! (Let me AGAIN caveat all of this by saying that campaigns are defined by big, unpredictable changes. I expect this one to be as well.) I believe that President Joe Biden will be reelected next November thanks to the deep doubts among the swing portion of the electorate about Trump’s character. 

A lot of these swing voters have, I believe, already made up their mind that they won’t vote for Trump under any circumstances. Might that mean that they hold their nose and vote for Biden? Sure. But those votes count the same as one made with full adulation and confidence in Biden.

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One more prediction while I’m at it: Donald Trump will, again, refuse to accept the results of the election. And a significant chunk of the Republican base will, again, believe him. But, the impact of those conspiracy theories will be lessened because Trump, unlike in 2024, doesn’t have his hands on any of the levers of government power.

And one more prediction (I am feeling it!): If his health remains a nonissue, Donald Trump will run again for president in 2028 — and have a better-than-decent chance of being the nominee. Brace yourselves.  

Chris Cillizza is a political commentator and author of “Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency.”

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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