In a week where Republicans tore chunks out of each other in a bruising primary debate, the clear frontrunner, Donald Trump, was in New York, battling to save his crumbling Manhattan Empire. Meanwhile, Biden has come under increasing scrutiny from his own party, seen as more of a liability than an asset. Biden is trailing Trump in the polls, with his age leaving uncomfortable questions for Democrats. The stage is set for a tumultuous 2024.
As GOP presidential hopefuls gathered in Miami on November 8th, the real race seemed to be for second place. Perhaps they are holding out for a vice presidential consolation prize, or desperately clinging onto the possibility that they may be able to take over the reins should Trump not survive his 90+ felony charges.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley fought tooth and nail to claw away support from Trump’s protégé turned chief adversary, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, brandishing her hawkish foreign policy credentials – a hangover of the bygone Bush era. DeSantis once represented a credible challenge to the former president, but his support has since plummeted, now just 14% to Trump’s 57%. Haley is ascendent, reviving her stagnant campaign to a ‘respectable’ 8.7%. The other candidates on stage seemed to have lost their raison d’être. The provocateur Ramaswamy was the only unifying force on stage, drawing the ire of all his competitors. Haley labelled him ‘scum’ under her breath in one particularly heated moment. As the candidates wrangled about who had cosied up closest with Chinese businesses and who does or does not use TikTok, one could not help but think of the farce of it all. Where was the real leader of the Grand Old Party?
In fact, Trump was a mere 10 miles away, already campaigning for the presidential election. Earlier that week, however, the former president was testifying in New York. The man who built his identity around being a successful billionaire businessman now faces the prospect of losing control of his empire. The presiding judge has already ruled that Trump regularly lied on his financial statements and exaggerated his net worth. Trump – despite decrying the ‘witch hunt’ – voluntarily appears in court, conscious that every time he is indicted, the campaign donations come flooding in, and his popularity rises with his core base. Judge Engoron has lambasted the former president’s political posturing, ordering his lawyer to control his client, stating: “This is not a political rally”.
Trump faces mounting legal difficulties across the country, with his greatest peril in Georgia, where he is being pursued by the state, not the federal government. If convicted, he would not have the ability to pardon himself as president. The racketeering (RICO) case centres on the ‘fake electors’ plot and the infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, where Trump asked him to “find 11,780 votes”. In recent weeks, Trump’s co-defendants have been peeling off, one by one, mafia-style, to save themselves, pushing Trump further and further into legal peril. Trump faces the genuine prospect of either prison or the presidency – a cell or the Oval Office come the end of next year.
If Trump does find himself imprisoned, the GOP will find itself at a dangerous crossroads – they can either rally around another candidate or they can follow their leader into the abyss. The guardrails of American democracy were badly damaged by Trump’s election denialism in 2020 and the country has only grown more divided. In a recent speech on Veterans Day, Trump was widely accused of echoing fascist rhetoric as he centred his vitriol on the “vermin” who “lie and steal and cheat on elections”. If Trump were to lose the next election, he would surely cry foul. If Trump were to be imprisoned, his chokehold on the Republican Party could lead his followers to take up arms. And if Trump were to win the next election, we would likely see a further erosion, or indeed the destruction, of the democratic norms that have come to define the United States. There seems to be no eventuality that does not further divide the nation.
The existential threat posed by Trump also seems set to push the GOP further into the abyss as Republicans fight for the soul of their party. In Miami, Ramaswamy openly called on Ronna McDaniel, the Chairwoman of the Republican Party, to resign citing the spate of recent electoral failures. In Washington, far-right House Republicans ousted their own speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and then struggled to fill the very void they opened. Given all this turmoil, shouldn’t President Biden be cruising to another victory?
It appears perhaps not, with a recent NYT/Siena Poll putting Biden’s prospects of re-election into question. Trump leads Biden in five of the six major swing states. David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama’s presidential campaigns, made headlines when he questioned whether it was in the country’s best interests for Biden to run for re-election.
Of course, polls one year out from an election hardly predict the outcome (if they did, we would likely be coming to the end of eight years of a Hilary Clinton presidency), but the poll has exposed some uncomfortable trends for the Democrats. Perhaps the most concerning is the breakdown in Biden’s “Grand Coalition” of supporters: non-white voters and the young. While incumbents can often struggle to reinvigorate their base, Biden is doing especially badly, with the New York Times noting, in its Times/Siena poll: “Overall, Mr. Trump earns more than 20 percent [support] among Black voters, a tally that would be unprecedented in the post-Civil Rights Act era”.
It is the apathy among young voters to turn out and vote for an octogenarian that has fuelled debate over whether the Democrats should replace Biden with a more youthful candidate. Indeed, the same NYT/Siena poll recorded that while 44% of voters in battleground states would vote for Biden, 48% would back any ‘generic Democrat’. In a new CNN poll, Biden’s approval rate stood at 39%, and 58% say that his policies have made economic conditions worse; 67% of Democrats say the party should nominate someone other than Biden. Biden faces continual questions about his age and mental acuity, draining energy from his campaign and raising uncomfortable questions for Democrats: if Biden is such a liability, why don’t Democrats make the switch?
Despite Biden’s legislative successes, including passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, voters are not so generous in rewarding long-term and incremental improvements. Establishment Democrats are reticent to field another nominee given Biden’s unique position as the only person who can claim to have beaten Donald Trump in a presidential election. Moreover, there is simply not much time left; the little-known Democratic congressman from Minnesota, Dean Phillips, put his head above the parapet, only to be swiftly criticized, sidelined, and ridiculed by the Democratic Establishment. With the DNC changing the presidential primary calendar to favour Biden, it is clear there is little appetite for change. Likewise, nobody wants a repeat of the Ted Kennedy fiasco in 1980 when the Democratic congressman launched a campaign against incumbent President Carter, only for Carter to win the primary, but his campaign mortally wounded.
Herein lies another paradox. Despite Biden’s perilous approval ratings and the apparent collapse of his coalition, the Democrats keep winning big. After halting the arrival of the mythical, but much heralded, ‘red wave’ in the 2022 midterms, the Democrats have successfully used the issue of abortion rights to galvanize support. The night before the third Republican primary debate, the Democrats swept to victory in several states – motivated to protect abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling in 2022 which removed the federal right to an abortion. Voters in Ohio, the quintessential purple state turned Trump stronghold, voted 56.6% in favour of establishing a constitutional right to abortion. In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s aspirations for a 15-week limit were thwarted when Republicans not only failed to capture the State Senate but lost the House of Delegates.
In Kentucky, it is almost unbelievable that the same state that produced Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul re-elected their Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. Daniel Cameron, his Republican rival, tried to link him to Biden, but Beshear did not bite. It seems that at least in red country, Biden proved more of a liability than an asset. The issue of abortion rights may very well be the Democratic Party’s saving grace if they can successfully energise young people to go out and vote while also reminding voters that it was Trump who appointed the very judges who would go on to rule in the pivotal Dobbs case. To quote the political commentator Dean Obeidallah, forget Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. It’s abortion, stupid.
Thus, one year out, the 2024 presidential election is a tale of paradoxes. Democrats keep winning big on the issue of abortion, but Biden looks set to lose the election to his deeply divisive predecessor. Likewise, Republicans continue to engage in destructive infighting while the clear GOP favourite battles to stay out of prison. The United States, once the great paragon of democracy and stability, looks set to face its most existential threat since the Civil War. Now, the country must ask itself: “Quo Vadis”?