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Biden and Trump set for battle of the ages in 2024 election

Cutouts of Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the backdrop of a boxing ring with the Statue of Liberty holding a round card
Jess Frampton

Well folks, it’s official: He’s running.

On the fourth anniversary of his 2020 campaign launch, President Joe Biden formally kicked off his long-expected bid for reelection on Tuesday with a video framing the 2024 contest as being about “more freedom or less freedom, more rights or fewer.”

“Every generation of Americans has faced a moment when they’ve had to defend democracy, stand up for our personal freedoms, and stand up for our right to vote and our civil rights,” Biden said in his video message featuring images of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and protests of the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights. “This is ours.”

Biden’s announcement sets up a battle for the ages – and of the ages – with former President Donald Trump, who launched his own candidacy for the Republican nomination last November. Biden’s decision to highlight issues like democracy and freedom, which also formed the centerpiece of his 2020 campaign, signals two things.

First, that he sees Trump as his most likely foe in 2024 (fact check: true). And second, that he intends to make the election yet another referendum on Trump and his “MAGA extremists” (fact check: oy). I’m already tired … and it’s barely even started.

Americans are decidedly unenthusiastic about a Biden-Trump rematch. Polling shows that most voters really don’t want to make either of them president for another four years, viewing both candidates unfavorably.

Only about four in 10 Americans approve of Biden’s job performance, with nearly two-thirds saying the country is on the wrong track. Few voters – including a minority of Democrats and independents – are eager about him running for reelection, citing his age and mental fitness as a major concern. Already America’s oldest president at 80 years old, Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term (the oldest president before him was Ronald Reagan, who left office at 77).

Full disclosure, I recently spent time with Biden and while he’s definitely slowing down physically, mentally he’s still there. But will he still be there at the end of a second term when he’s 86? No knock on the old man, but I’d bet against it. After all, this is one of the hardest, most demanding jobs on earth. You don’t want to give it to someone who is statistically expected to literally expire a year after his term ends.

For his part, Trump is passionately disliked by much of the electorate, even more so than Biden. At 76 he’s too old, too, but age is not as much a liability for him as is his general and moral unfitness for office. At the end of his tenure, his job approval was lower than any other president’s in US history. Looking to 2024, 70% of Americans and nearly half of Republicans (!) don’t want him to run again.

All this makes Biden vs. Trump the most unwanted sequel since National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure.

Yet barring any dramatic surprises, Biden vs. Trump is the contest we’ll see.

While Biden is the opposite of exciting and many voters feel uneasy about his age, he is the incumbent president and has the full support of his party’s establishment. Most Democratic voters correctly recognize that Biden, a known quantity with proven electability and a 1-0 record against Trump, is their best chance of keeping the White House. Unless his health unexpectedly deteriorates, he will most assuredly be the Democratic nominee.

The Republican nomination, by contrast, will be a bit more … contested. But while the first primaries are nearly eight months away and much could change between now and then, Trump is the undisputed frontrunner and more likely than not to be the nominee.

For a while, the Republican establishment darling, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, looked like he could challenge Trump. But his bid is already running into trouble before it’s even official. DeSantis’s inability to parry Trump’s attacks has made him look weak with the base, and he has made several missteps that are turning off some of his biggest donors. His polling has accordingly faded just as Trump seems to be cementing his lead despite (or perhaps thanks to) his legal woes, with the former president now commanding a 28-point lead over DeSantis.

Four other Republicans – former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, talk radio host Larry Elder, and conservative entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy – have already entered the fray. Several more, possibly including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are said to be preparing to do the same. All of them face long odds of catching up to DeSantis – who at the very least enjoys high national name recognition – let alone Trump.

The fact is that the sheer size of Trump’s voter base – around a third of Republican primary voters, or 10% of the general electorate – and their undying loyalty to him give Trump a floor of support any other GOP hopeful will find nigh impossible to win without. A recent poll found that nearly 30% of Republican voters would support him even if he ran as an independent. In other words, Trump owns the GOP.

Biden is the favorite. History shows that as an incumbent with approval ratings in the low 40s, Biden starts with a slightly better than 50/50 chance of reelection. But there are several factors that swing the race further toward him.

For starters, Trump already lost to Biden in 2020 – and that was before he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection and before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. A recent poll found that “preserving democracy” is now the second most important issue for Americans behind the economy, and reproductive rights remain a priority for suburban, young, and college-educated voters. The prospect of a Trump return and the growing salience of abortion, which arguably cost Republicans the House in the 2022 midterms, will give Biden an edge with moderates.

The president also has a legitimate legislative record to run on, including $2 trillion in pandemic relief and billions’ worth of generational investments in manufacturing, infrastructure, clean energy, and semiconductors. And unlike Trump, he doesn’t face an internal party battle. Perhaps most importantly, the economy is chugging along, with the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 60 years and inflation showing signs of easing after two years of being stubbornly high.

Still, Trump can win. Given the distribution of electoral college votes and how polarized the US two-party system is, any Republican candidate has a meaningful chance of winning the election by virtue of being the Republican candidate. Biden has little margin for error or misfortune.

Should the economy tip into recession as the Fed continues to hike interest rates amid persistently high inflation, or should Biden’s health or mental fitness suffer a significant slide, Trump could very well become president again.

Considering the implications of that for American institutions and global stability in the context of an international environment beset with crises, that’s a risk no one should be willing to overlook.


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