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Will 2024 be a personality contest or a policy debate?

GOP presidential nominee should remember independents lean right on economic issues

Former President Donald Trump playing golf on May 3 at his Trump Turnberry course in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
Former President Donald Trump playing golf on May 3 at his Trump Turnberry course in South Ayrshire, Scotland. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Here are a few thoughts this week as we await the outcome of the debt ceiling battle.

What will the 2024 election be about?

It may seem obvious to ask this most basic of questions about the next election, but the answer will likely decide its outcome. So, perhaps, a better way to assess both the primary and general elections is by asking: “Will this be an election driven by personality or by policy?”

Obviously, the answer depends on who ends up with the parties’ presidential nominations. But in this very early stage of the Republican primary season, the GOP candidates are wrestling with their own derivative of my question. Asking themselves: “Should I try to ‘out-Trump Trump’ when it comes to the former president’s inevitable personal attacks or rise above the fray and focus on issues?”

For Republican primary voters, clearly there is at least an initial dynamic as voters look to see which candidate can survive the likely Trump attacks and name-calling coming their way.

Historical context matters.

Most primary voters remember this point in the 2016 election, and the failure of the other Republican candidates to overcome this dynamic especially in the debates. But Trump also remembers the success of his on-stage dominance through sharp attacks, exchanges and interruptions. He melded the dynamics of stage presence and content into a singular narrative, taking apart his opponents one-by-one. It was a strategy that proved to be an advantage for him in those bruising 2016 primaries.

But the 2024 crop of likely candidates remember 2016, too. The question for the other Republican candidates is whether to engage with Trump and try to beat him at his own game, or try to create a different environment in which his attacks are inappropriate and less effective.

Redefining the playing field would likely come through a change in a campaign’s content through a significant focus on policy, not personalities. That is no small mountain to climb for Trump’s opponents. Each must identify the two or three key policies at the center of their agenda — policies that work in the primary with base voters, but can also be effective in the general. Policies that let them differentiate themselves from Trump and policies that Trump would rather not discuss in depth. The recent CNN town hall with Trump showed such policy differences do exist.

While Trump is a known quantity to both primary and general election voters, the other Republican primary candidates are not. Each will have to devise their own strategic approach to keeping Trump in the policy arena — where voters want the campaign to be.

On the Democratic side, Biden’s situation is much different. He’s unlikely to face a serious primary race so when it comes to his reelection strategy, he faces both a personality and policy challenge.

First, he must effectively address the question of his ability to physically and mentally handle another four years in the presidency. When asked about this question, Biden usually comes back with: “Watch me.” Well, voters are watching.

How his campaign and the White House use his schedule to shape and manage this issue will be key to what voters decide. Like all presidents, he has to walk a fine line between political and presidential appearances, most of which can be controlled to put him in the best possible light. But unlike his predecessors, as the oldest president running for a second term and a president with a long audition tape of gaffes, this will be a challenging task.

Second, on the policy side, Biden is also likely to focus on his legislative “accomplishments.” Here his challenge is how to balance economic policies with broad voter appeal with his long list of progressive legislation and record overspending, which are driving inflation. Managing the expectations of his party base while preparing for the general, where independents will play the decisive role, is no small hill for the president to climb, either.

The last president who faced this scale of inflation was Jimmy Carter, who lost by a wide margin in 1980. So far, Biden seems to have embraced a progressive ideological strategy. For proof, look to his reelection campaign announcement video. Biden never mentioned the economy or inflation, focusing instead on base issues. Trying to make voters’ top issue, inflation, not the No. 1 issue is usually not a winning strategy. This signals the Biden team believes they can take inflation off the table by next year.

Because we’re in the primary season, pundits and pols tend to focus on base issues and ideology. That’s a mistake. Presidential primary strategies in the past have often operated under the assumption that campaigns can play to their base and “tack to the middle” in the general. But now, given social media, that insular strategy seems no longer viable.

If the race does end up a rematch between Biden and Trump, both candidates go into the rematch with a significant challenge among independents. In the 2022 exit polls, Biden’s favorable-unfavorable rating among them was 37 percent-60 percent, while Trump’s favorable-unfavorable was 30 percent-66 percent.

Both candidates have to reconnect with the political center without alienating their base. The same is true for the non-Trump primary candidate field.

If the general election campaign is about policy rather than personality, that poses a real challenge for Team Biden, particularly if economic concerns remain front and center. But then, the age issue is a problem for them, too.

To win, Republicans have to improve their standing with the political center by reaching out to independents with solutions to bring down inflation, their top issue. This is where Republicans enjoy a political advantage.

Independents tend to be economic voters and are center-right on fiscal policies, which aligns their views more toward Republicans. Another reason for Republicans to focus on policy not personality.

That’s what this election should be about.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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