To the surprise of no one, Donald Trump won the Republican Iowa Caucuses on Monday night, officially opening a presidential primary campaign expected to progress, swiftly and decisively, to a rerun of 2020’s general election race: Trump vs. Biden, The Sequel.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey finished far behind, in second and third, a fatuous and unavailing political spectacle, since the pair of alleged Trump challengers both pursued the novel strategy of barely criticizing, let alone attacking, the prohibitive front-runner against whom they purportedly are running.
Terrified of offending Trump’s voters, with the cult-like devotion they bestow upon their leader, DeSantis and Hailey in Iowa instead performed a kind of campaign ape dance, assailing each other while ignoring the ferocious 800-pound gorilla who dominates the primary landscape.
The next act of political kabuki is the January 23 New Hampshire primary, as the campaign moves, apparently inexorably, towards a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the Nov. 5 general election.
Here is a look at three key factors that shape that crucial and foreboding contest.
The election nobody wants. It seems only an exogenous event – say, one too many cheeseburgers, or a geezer trip-and-fall, or a killer asteroid, maybe – can prevent the 2024 presidential election from manifesting as an ominous replay of 2020.
It is hard to overstate the aversion most people feel about this scenario.
Poll after poll after poll has shown what a recent, representative example reveals: Fewer than one-in-four (24 percent) of those surveyed in a November AP-NORC Center poll said Biden should seek re-election, while fewer than one-in-three (30 percent) said Trump should seek a return to the White House, results aligned with an NBC News poll taken six months before.
So unhappy are Americans with the match-up that, when CNN polltakers offered this mano-a-mano choice in a survey last summer, 31 percent of those interviewed simply refused to express support for either candidate.
Despite widespread misgivings, however, Monday’s authoritative RealClearPolitics polling average reportshowed Trump leading among Republican voters nationally with 61.4 percent, far ahead of Haley (12 percent) and DeSantis (10.7 percent); among Democrats, Biden similarly dominates, with 69.8 percent, over rivals (check notes) Marianne Williamson (7.9 percent) and a Minnesota congressman named Dean Phillips (3.2 percent), whose smiling face was believed last seen on a milk carton.
So here we are.
State of play. For much of American history, voters have treated presidential re-election bids as up-or-down votes on an incumbent’s first term, basing their decision in large part on the state of the economy – think President Jimmy Carter swept from office by Ronald Reagan in 1980 – or whether they thought things were moving in the right or wrong direction – viz. President Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984.
In this century, however, unpopular chief executives twice have won second terms by relying on negative campaigning to frame the race, not as a referendum on their own performance, but as a choice between their administration and the specter of a dangerous challenger; thus George W. Bush’s 2004 “swiftboating” victory over Democratic challenger John Kerry, and Barack Obama’s successful portrayal of GOP foe Mitt Romney as an avaricious plutocrat in 2012.
Biden, who began 2024 as among the least popular incumbents in history, throughout his long career often has wielded a campaign mantra – “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the Alternative” – on which he will have to rely heavily in framing 2024 as a contrast election, rather than a plebiscite on his handling of the presidency.
A just-out ABC News poll reports that only 33 percent of adults approve of his performance in office, compared to 58 percent who disapprove -- worse than Trump’s lowest point as president (36 percent) and the worst rating for an incumbent since Bush in 2008 and the Great Recession.
The good news for Biden is that voters credit him for being more honest than Trump – by 41-to-26 percent; the bad news is that pervasive concerns about the 81-year-old president’s age led voters to favor the 77-year-old Trump, in judging who “has the mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president” – by 47-to-28 percent.
Worse for Biden, voters continue to pan his handling of the economy, disapproving by a 31-to-56 ratio, an apparent reflection of sustained high prices for groceries, gas, and other essentials; it’s worth noting that his numbers on the issue have improved slightly since a previous ABC poll in September, as macroeconomic data show inflation still declining from its high in 2022, and all other economic indicators strong.
Add it up, and Trump holds a tiny lead over the president in national popular polls: 45.8-to-44.7 as of today, according to the RealClear average, despite voters’ negative opinion of the Republican and rejection of him four years ago.
For Democrats, that’s worse than it looks on the surface.
As every school child knows, the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in five of the six elections in this century -- but only captured the White House three times -- because of the Republican’s structural advantage in the Electoral College; Democrats typically need to prevail by three or four percent in the popular vote to secure an Electoral College victory.
Bottom line: the U.S. is headed for another white-knuckle election, with the outcome decided by a few hundred thousand votes across the half-dozen or so states that remain true toss-ups, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
A would-be strongman. In the Before Times – back before Trump descended his golden escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015 – a candidate facing 91 felony counts in four different cases, who accepted money from foreign governments for his personal business while in office, who’s been denounced by multipleformer cabinet members and aides who worked with him up close, and who, oh yeah, ended the nation’s previously unbroken streak of peaceful transfers of power, on January 6, 2021, would not have been viewed as qualified to manage a Popeye’s franchise, let alone fit for the highest office in the land.
But, hey, that was then.
In 2024, Trump is moving even further away from the traditional norms of American politics: of course, he not only continues to claim, endlessly and falsely, that Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election, but also now promises to govern in a second term as a very un-American strongman, using the power of the government to imprison political enemies and the military to put down domestic dissent, while ending the traditional independence of the U.S. Justice Department and sacking tens of thousands of civil service public employees in favor of people loyal only to him.
And, in callbacks to 1930s-era fascist rhetoric, he’s saying the quiet part out loud.
“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” Trump said in a Veterans Day speech. “They’ll do anything, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America and to destroy the American Dream.”
“The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within,” he added, saying his political enemies pose a greater threat than “Russia, China, North Korea.”
Or, as he famously told his former Chief of Staff John Kelly, "Hitler did a lot of good things."
It’s for such foreboding reasons that political scientists already have characterized 2024 as “the most important election since 1860.”
Former Republican House member Liz Cheney, daughter of ex-Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was a Before Times conservative icon, saw her political career wrecked as she became a GOP pariah, after voting to impeach Trump over Jan. 6, 2021, and then leading the congressional investigation into his role in the violence.
“We will be voting on whether to preserve our republic,” she wrote in “Oath and Honor,” her recent memoir covering those events. “As a nation, we can endure damaging policies for a four-year term. But we cannot survive a president willing to terminate our Constitution.”
Further reading. Doug Sosnik is a 67-year old political strategist who served in the Clinton White House, whose occasional, disinterested, big picture political memos are must-reading in Washington. This one, on how education has become the most critical dividing line in American politics, is a salient and dispassionate guide to the 2024 political landscape.
A version of this analysis was published this week in the Santa Barbara Independent.
Image: Joe Biden-Donald Trump photo illustration from NBC News.