A Biden vs Trump replay in 2024 is almost certain

While both candidates are backed by their base, neither has age particularly on their side

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (L) in Wilmington, Delaware, and US President Donald Trump (R) in Washington, both during an election night speech early November 4, 2020. AFP
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A 2024 Biden-Trump presidential campaign rematch may not be the contest that most Americans want. But in all likelihood, it is what they will get.

US President Joe Biden’s situation is complicated. Polls show that Democrats have a favourable attitude towards the President and approve of his job performance. But largely due to concerns about his age, the polls also show that nearly one-half of his own party would like someone else to be their standard bearer in 2024. That might have posed a problem for the President’s re-election, except for four factors.

First, as Mr Biden has had a successful and drama-free two and a half years in office, no serious Democrat is willing to challenge his re-election.

Second, the most likely successor to Mr Biden might be Vice President Kamala Harris, but her ratings are so low that Democrats see Mr Biden, despite his age, as a much safer bet in a general election against any Republican.

Third, other Democrats who might have emerged as serious Biden alternatives all come from the same centrist wing of the party, meaning any challenge to the incumbent successful President would be based on personal not policy differences and would be frowned upon by the party establishment.

The final factor that makes a challenge unlikely is the way the Democratic Party leadership has changed their presidential primary schedule to better suit Mr Biden’s chances to win. A few months ago, the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body, voted to end decades of Iowa and New Hampshire being the first states to hold contests in the election process, replacing them with South Carolina, which is now mandated to go first.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have long been viewed as problematic by the Democratic establishment. These two states have frequently catapulted insurgent candidates into the national spotlight, upsetting or making it more difficult for the establishment’s favourites to coast to victory.

This is what the anti-Vietnam candidacy of former US senator Eugene McCarthy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1972; what Ted Kennedy’s progressive challenge did to Jimmy Carter in 1980; what the charismatic Barack Obama did to Hilary Clinton in 2008; and what Bernie Sanders’ progressive populist campaign almost did to Ms Clinton in 2016.

If Trump were to lose what would be a bruising primary battle, the victor would emerge bloodied and without the support of Trump faithfuls

With Iowa and New Hampshire – both of which handed Mr Biden defeats in 2020 – out of the way and replaced by South Carolina which he easily won in 2020 and proved to be a turning point in his campaign, the party establishment feels confident that they have paved the way for a Biden repeat in 2024.

Even with these factors in Mr Biden’s favour, his current polling numbers are not strong. In national matchups against a variety of Democratic opponents, Mr Biden rarely breaks 40 per cent. While the Democrat’s rank and file may have reservations, their concerns have been overruled by their party’s establishment.

The Trump story is almost the exact reverse. As was the case in 2016 – when Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination and went on to win the White House – the GOP establishment appears uncomfortable with his 2024 bid to return to office. But their efforts to find an alternative are being upended by the powerful hold that Mr Trump continues to have over a substantial plurality of the Republican rank and file.

Since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decisive re-election victory in November 2022, the GOP establishment have been hoping to elevate him as their standard bearer. But not only has Mr DeSantis continued to lag in the polls, in the last two weeks more than one-half of Florida’s Republican congressional delegation have publicly endorsed Mr Trump’s candidacy, with most of that state’s remaining members of Congress not yet endorsing anyone.

Republican elected officials are eager to support Mr Trump simply because they fear the wrath of alienating both him and his fervent supporters. Mr Trump’s base is firm in their attachment to him. He can be indicted or exposed in any number of scandals – financial, sexual, or otherwise, including inciting violent insurrectionary acts by his supporters – but they continue to be with him, condemning those who attack him, whether it’s the media, law enforcement or Democrats.

Mr Trump’s base will even strike out against other Republicans who oppose him, accusing them of traitorous behaviour. Mr Trump once famously said that he could shoot someone in public on New York City’s 5th Avenue and still retain the support of “his people”.

Mr Trump’s leadership is a result of not only his cult-like hold over his base into whose alienation and anger he has so successfully tapped, but also his relentless attacks against those who dare to challenge him. And so, as Mr DeSantis’ star fades – in part, as a direct result of Mr Trump’s attacks and the fear other Republican elected officials have of crossing him – though unlikely, a few others may yet emerge as claimants to the throne. But, as was the case in 2016, even though some of these aspirants may be heralded for a time as the new “flavour of the month,” they will likely be no luckier than Mr DeSantis.

At this point, there are only two scenarios that would prevent Mr Trump from emerging as the Republican nominee: if he decides to step aside and cast his support for someone else (which is almost inconceivable) or if he is incapacitated and unable to run.

If, in the unlikely event, Mr Trump were to lose what would be a bruising primary battle, the victor would emerge bloodied and without the support of many of Mr Trump’s faithful followers.

As of now, 2024 looks like a replay of 2020, but with a difference. Both candidates are older. Mr Biden has become more cautious and less gregarious than he was in the past. But he continues to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate with both his record and his “working class Joe from Scranton” appeal.

Mr Trump, on the other hand, is still harbouring the delusional and dangerous notion that the last election was fraudulent and using that grudge to incite his faithful. His behaviour will guarantee that 2024 could be even uglier and potentially more dangerous than the 2020 contest.

Published: May 04, 2023, 5:00 AM