One Year To Go: Will Trump Return to the White House?
Today marks exactly one year until the 2024 US presidential election, which is shaping up to be a rematch showdown between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. So, who will win?
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Who is going to win the 2024 presidential election?
The answer is this: I don’t know.
But there are better and worse ways to go about trying to answer that question. Let’s get rid of one important misconception: the past is not a good guide to this election.
That’s rather an important misconception, because all the forecast models, pundits, pollsters, and analysts that opine on the subject are basing their evaluations almost exclusively on past data to make future predictions.
That’s wise if the dynamics being analyzed are stable across time, or what’s formally known as “stationary.” But, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume explained centuries ago, you can run into quite a bit of trouble if they’re not. Or, as he more charmingly warned: you get into trouble if you rely too much on “the presumption of a resemblance betwixt those objects, of which we have had experience, and those, of which we have had none.”
There is, thankfully for America and the world, little resemblance betwixt Donald Trump and other US presidents, so understanding him—and elections featuring him—requires a slightly different set of tools. One of those tools is an understanding of The Land of Authoritarian Politics, which, due to the shifts in the Republican party, is now unfortunately the land we inhabit. Another newly necessary tool is understanding criminal law, because unlike past contenders for The White House, this one might soon be in prison, which is, I presume, rather an inconvenient place for governing.
So, to most effectively gaze into our crystal ball, cloudy with the uncertain mists of time that it may be, we must first try to answer the following questions:
Why won’t Republicans—voters and politicians alike—break with Donald Trump?
Why is Biden, despite some striking governing successes, relatively unpopular? And, bizarrely, why is he even in the same ballpark of unpopularity to Trump?
How will Trump’s criminality affect the elections—and why does the timing of the trials matter less for the primary, but more for the general election?
What are Trump’s main pathways to electoral victory?
Why won’t Republicans break with Trump?
There is a debate in politics over whether voters shape elites or elites shape voters. This is one of those both are true dynamics. There’s a feedback loop—and they shape each other. If either Republican voters or Republican politicians soured on Trump, he might actually lose enough support to watch his political career die as pathetic a death as Trump Airlines. Why doesn’t that happen?
Republican voters remain devoted disciples to Trump. Crucially, they never face any cognitive dissonance from their party because the politicians in the GOP are too cowardly to risk their jobs to stand up for decency and democracy. Every time a politician sees Trump behave like a vile authoritarian bigot, they look around at the political graveyard of Jeff Flakes (remember him?) and Liz Cheneys, or the pariah status of Mitt Romney, and they make yet another craven choice. Their fear of the MAGA base—and the electoral incentives they produce—keeps them in line.
Conversely, every time a GOP voter starts to doubt whether Trump might actually not be a paragon of human virtue, they look to their political leaders for guidance—or to the talking heads on right-wing media outlets—and most are calmed back to supporting him. After all, the powerful zealots in suits and ties made a strong case (with a healthy dose of confirmation bias!) that Trump is just being misunderstood. Or, you can absolve yourself of your concerns because “the Democrats are worse.”
These warped dynamics are partly structural and partly due to the authoritarian cult of personality that Trump has constructed for himself. The structural elements are derived from an insidious combination of: Gerrymandering + Low Turnout Primaries.
Most general elections for Congress are noncompetitive. This is due to a combination of gerrymandering (a form of election rigging in which politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their politicians) and demographic sorting (in which like-minded people tend to cluster, which reduces competition). Here, via Ballotpedia, are the average margins of victory from the 2022 midterms.
Out of 435 races for the US House, only 40 (a rate below 10 percent) were truly close. The average margin of victory was 28.9 percent, which is an electoral blowout. Think about that: the average race was a 65 percent to 35 percent landslide. At the national level, most politicians only fear primaries, not general elections.
That’s a problem, because relatively few voters cast ballots in primaries. In the last several midterm primaries, for example, voter turnout has hovered around 20 percent, though it dipped below 15 percent in 2014. (If you want to know why we get the wrong politicians, this is part of the story: 8 out of 10 voters don’t show up to choose the candidates).
But there’s a bigger problem: those who vote in primaries are extremely unrepresentative of the general population. They’re older, yes, but they’re also more politically extreme. And on the American right, the people who show up to vote in Congressional primaries overwhelmingly support Donald Trump.
In noncompetitive districts (which is most of them), Republican politicians cannot lose if they unequivocally back Trump. They will lose if they don’t. It’s that simple. When you add the cheerleaders on Fox, Newsmax, OANN, and the zealots on influential MAGA podcasts, it solidifies voter support, which reinforces the incentives for Republican politicians.
Then, there’s the power of cognitive dissonance: if you didn’t break with Trump over, say, January 6th, then every other transgression seems comparatively minor—and you’d have to admit that you were wrong, for years, in order to reposition yourself politically. It’s less mentally taxing to just keep supporting him, no matter what.
On top of this, Trump isn’t properly understood just as a popular figure in a conservative party. No, he’s the demigod of an authoritarian cult of personality. I’ve written on this here and here, but before we move onto more electoral forecasting, suffice to say that:
The adulation for Trump isn’t about policy or anything instrumental—it’s about the leader, who can do no wrong—which makes it much harder to undermine his grip on the party with facts or evidence of objective failure. Scandals, no matter how dire, don’t matter to the true believers.
Cults of Personality involve loyalty tests (2020 election denialism functions as one in the modern GOP). But disciples like to signal their loyalty through visible means such as flags, hats, and weird emblems on their pickup trucks of, say, Trump riding an eagle—no, not one of those knock off “golden eagles” or the lovely looking but suspiciously foreign Philippine eagle—but a proper Made in the USA Patriotic Bald Eagle™, all while he’s firing an AR-15 handed to him by Jesus.
The bottom line is this: Trump can count on the support of Republican politicians, media cheerleaders, and voters through the 2024 election, no matter what.
But will that be enough?
Why is Biden—Despite Governing Success—Unpopular?
If Trump has a solid floor of support, why does it seem that Biden has such a firm ceiling that he can’t break through, even as countless objective metrics tip in his favor?
There are three main reasons, I suspect.
First, let’s just say it: he’s pretty old—and some voters are worried about that. Biden is 80 years old. Trump is 77 years old. Now, for those of you who lack advanced mathematical training, I’ll helpfully point out that the difference there is just three years. Biden was born the year that “White Christmas” and the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” topped the charts. Trump was born the year that “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and the “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” topped the charts. (These are not different eras. They both involve multiple Choo’s).
Second, many voters don’t know what Joe Biden has accomplished, which is partly a problem of messaging and partly a problem of the media. Take climate change, for example. Joe Biden signed the largest climate investment bill in history into law, packaged as The Inflation Reduction Act. But most people have no clue about its climate provisions, so even voters who care about climate change don’t give him credit for it. It’s baffling. All of the items in the chart below are extremely popular. Fewer than a third of voters know about any of them. And just 27 percent of voters know “a great deal” or “a good amount” about the Inflation Reduction Act as a whole.
You can do popular things, but if voters don’t know about them, you won’t be popular.
Third, there’s an asymmetry in how the press portrays Biden and Trump—and those dynamics hurt Biden and help Trump. My recent edition on “The Banality of Crazy” got a lot of attention, because I was highlighting something that was both maddening and objectively verifiable. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post read that edition of this newsletter and decided to see for himself what media coverage was sparked after Trump cracked jokes about Paul Pelosi being nearly beaten to death with a hammer and formally called for extrajudicial killings of shoplifters in a speech. The answer:
No mainstream TV network carried his speech live or excerpted it later that night. CNN and MSNBC mentioned it during panel discussions over the next few days. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR and PBS didn’t report it at all. The New York Times wrote about it four days later, playing the story on Page 14 of its print edition.
But how does this affect my forecasting of the election? Well, here’s the good news: so far, Trump has benefited from being comparatively invisible. Of course, he’s constantly talked about in the press—he’s an inescapable force. But his speeches, his deranged social media posts, his authoritarian policy proposals—those rarely make news these days. That’s the Banality of Crazy. Instead, most of the current coverage is about events related to Trump: indictments, appearances in court, judges making statements, family members testifying.
That’s going to change—and fast—when the election swings into full gear. Voters are going to see Trump, warts and all, once again. And when they see him up close, his ugly character, his ignorance, his authoritarianism, well, about six in ten of us don’t like it very much. (I wish it was ten out of ten. Sadly, it’s not. But consider that Trump lost support during the early stages of the pandemic, when voters saw his ignorance on display in routine press conferences).
So, the press can and should do better at conveying magnitude, not novelty, and should take that responsibility seriously. But at some point, no matter what they do, the election will switch from being seen as a referendum on Biden to being seen as a referendum on Trump. It’s unavoidable. Trump is such a dangerous, polarizing figure that every time he runs for office, it becomes an up-or-down vote on Trump himself. (That was less true in 2016 because he was, to many voters, an unknown commodity, but every subsequent election has been mostly defined by pro-Trump/anti-Trump dynamics).
Today, a year out from Election Day, most voters aren’t in comparative mode. Instead, they’re in that classic mode of US politics: do I have gripes?—yes!—and who’s in charge to blame? The schema that most Americans are currently using to understand politics is “Do I think Biden is doing a good job?” Another schema will soon replace it: “Do I *really* think it’s a good idea to have Donald Trump back in the White House?” That’s a question that Biden wants voters to ask themselves—and they inevitably will.
Will Trump’s Criminality Hurt His Electoral Prospects?
So, what’s going to happen to the polls—and Trump’s voter support—when he’s on trial for various felony indictments and faces the threat of being imprisoned?
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