What will happen in the 2024 US presidential election?

Joe Biden's age, Donald Trump's criminal indictments and the state of the US economy will all play a role

Voters in Ohio during a 2022 local election. Getty Images / AFP
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The 2024 presidential election promises to be as consequential as any other, with everything from the economy, the future of Ukraine, the US stance on climate change and America's role in the Middle East ultimately on the ballot.

Beyond these far-reaching issues, some observers also see another crucial issue at stake: the future of American democracy itself.

And whatever happens on November 5, next year is shaping up to be a particularly odd election season, even by the wacky standards of US politics.

Donald Trump, the current front-runner to become the Republican nominee, faces dozens of state and federal felony charges for allegedly mishandling state secrets, trying to overturn the 2020 election results and a host of other charges that he denies.

But this alleged misconduct only appears to have galvanised his supporters. He is polling neck and neck with President Joe Biden who, barring an unforeseen event that would force him to exit the race, will be running as the Democratic candidate for a second term in the White House.

Here is a preview of 2024's election season:

The candidates

The two main US political parties will dominate the elections, as is always the case, but Green or independent candidates could siphon votes in key states and affect results.

Mr Biden announced in April he is seeking a second term and no serious challenger from the Democratic Party has emerged, despite concerns about his viability as a candidate.

The Republican field is more competitive. Mr Trump holds a commanding lead over his challengers, but former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is making inroads, including in New Hampshire, home to the first primary race of 2024.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was once seen as the next Republican leader, but his disastrous campaign has been punctuated with unforced errors including a perception that he wears high heels inside his cowboy boots to appear taller.

Mr Biden, 81, is the oldest president in US history and frequent stumbles have led critics to say he is declining. But at 77, Mr Trump is no youngster and he has made several verbal gaffes at rallies.

The primaries

In US politics, presidential hopefuls must win the backing of their political party through a series of state primary elections and more informal caucuses.

The first of these is on January 15 in Iowa, where Republicans will hold caucus meetings to decide who should represent the party. Democrats are caucusing by mail in Iowa and the results won't be released until March.

Iowa holds outsize influence because it is the first caucus location in any election cycle, meaning politicians spend big bucks there. The predominantly white Midwestern state is not seen as a true litmus test however.

New Hampshire voters will select their candidate on January 24. The pace picks up ahead of Super Tuesday on March 5 when almost a third of all available delegates will decide who they want to run.

What do the polls say?

Opinion polls consistently tie Mr Biden and Mr Trump, or else giving the former president the lead.

But US polls are not always reliable, particularly in capturing the intent of younger voters.

Mr Trump has done little to make himself more appealing to the general electorate, and he lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020, while his party underperformed in the 2022 midterms.

He also faces federal and state prosecutions for his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election and for his handling of state secrets, some of which he allegedly kept in a bathroom at his Florida mansion.

How those charges play out is a big unknown for 2024. And Mr Trump has already been barred from the ballot in Colorado under a Civil War-era insurrection clause, though that ruling will probably be overturned by the US Supreme Court.

What are the main issues?

“It's the economy, stupid,” was a phrase coined by Bill Clinton adviser James Carville during Mr Clinton's run for the White House in 1992. Ronald Reagan asked a similar question in 1980 when he challenged Jimmy Carter, asking voters if they thought they were “better off” than they had been four years earlier.

In 2024, too, the economy will be a defining issue for US voters.

Since Mr Biden came into office in 2021, the US economy saw rapid inflation and soaring food and petrol prices. But wages have also grown and inflation is under control, thanks to aggressive rate increases by the Federal Reserve that have also led to mortgage and loan rates hitting 8 per cent.

Financial markets are touching record highs and job growth is better under Mr Biden than under Mr Trump. The question is whether voters will feel good about the economy on Election Day.

Other domestic issues include immigration across the southern US border, abortion and culture war fights.

The Israel-Gaza war is also emerging as a key issue.

Most Americans disapprove of how the Biden administration has handled the conflict and many Arab Americans have vowed not to vote for Mr Biden. But a Trump administration would be even more hawkish for Israel and the former president famously issued a ban on travellers from Muslim countries.

Ukraine's future is also on the line. Mr Biden has vowed to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes”, whereas Mr Trump has repeatedly attacked the war effort and the Nato alliance.

On energy, Republicans have pledged to expand oil and gas production in the US, already the world's second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China. If Mr Trump is elected, he will probably look to reduce America's commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

Democracy in the US

Mr Trump, who never conceded his 2020 loss to Mr Biden and who allegedly conspired to overturn the election results, has said he will rule like a dictator during the first day of a second term.

Mr Biden has portrayed his rival as an existential threat to US democracy and cited that as one reason he is running again.

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Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:00 AM