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The chaos of the 2024 election campaign

As the 2024 race unfolds, unpredictability and chaos seem to be the only reliable themes

President Joe Biden addresses the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Memorial Day 2023. As the 2024 election approaches, unpredictability seems to be the prevailing theme.
President Joe Biden addresses the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Memorial Day 2023. As the 2024 election approaches, unpredictability seems to be the prevailing theme. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Today, chaos could easily describe the American condition, with people struggling to make sense of an economy driven by inflation, rising interest rates and instability.

They get up every day to a new calamity or scandal delivered by a media driven by financial pressures and the need for eyeballs 24/7. Meanwhile, their leaders seem bent on putting partisanship above all else, making political arguments increasingly personal.

Historian Will Durant warned, “Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty and dies with chaos.”

I wonder what Durant would think about the dismal state of political discourse in American politics today?

If the headlines and the polls are any indication, our “civilization” is on the verge of slipping into the chaos that Durant foretold decades ago, if we haven’t already arrived at this most dangerous of moments. It certainly feels like chaos to most people, especially to the more than two-thirds of Americans who tell pollsters today that the country is on the wrong track.

We have to go back to 2009 to find a time when the standard right track/wrong track question, asked in most surveys, actually was positive — and that didn’t last long.

Someone once called chaos theory the “science of surprises … and the unpredictable.” A couple of math academics described it as “… predicting the behavior of ‘inherently unpredictable’ systems.” If that doesn’t describe the state of the 2024 election campaign, I don’t know what does.

The scary thing is we may be trapped in this state of almost constant chaos for the next 16 months because this campaign is driven by more variables than perhaps any other presidential election in history.

The leading candidates for both parties are the very definition of unpredictability — some of their own making, some not. Together, they have injected a level of chaos into the campaign that doesn’t serve either candidate, their parties or the country.

The Biden variable

President Joe Biden himself is his biggest variable. His economic policies are unpopular with the majority of Americans, who no longer find his constant boasting about the success of those policies credible. When shoppers see prices still going up, even if more slowly, they don’t find Biden convincing.

They also are increasingly concerned about his age and health. His frequent gaffes on everything from Chinese spy balloons to claiming to have cut the deficit by $1.7 trillion call into question whether he misspoke or actually believes what he is saying. The fact that his misstatements have earned him “bottomless Pinocchios” from even the liberal media makes people wonder whether this president is up to the job and being straight with them.

At the same time, they wonder the same thing about Biden’s choice to take over should something unpredictable happen: Vice President Kamala Harris.

Harris’ job approval is even worse than Biden’s after people have seen her inability to handle a portfolio of issues, cringed at her problematic rhetorical style and heard the constant rumors of mismanagement. She is not the wild card Biden needs at this moment.

The continuing focus on Hunter Biden’s alleged behavior is yet one more variable looming over the Biden reelection effort.

While a majority of voters don’t want Biden to run in 2024, including 32 percent of Democrats (Economist/YouGov July 8-11), Biden continues to insist he can handle the duties of the presidency. The fact that he has two primary opponents and has gotten off to a slow start after his announcement only adds to the chaos of the Biden campaign.

At the moment, Biden’s two best arguments for reelection are Harris and former President Donald Trump, who has his own set of problems.

The Trump variable

To say that Trump embodies the word unpredictable is an understatement. For many of his supporters, that’s why they back him. They love his style and his willingness to stand up to what they see as the elite “deep state.”

But that loyalty is about to be tested, as it appears there will be at least two more sets of indictments coming at the former president — one related to the 2020 election in Georgia and one dealing with Jan. 6.

You expect the unexpected in campaigns, but the indictment of a leading presidential candidate is an unprecedented situation. Its long-term impact is truly impossible to know.

Will there be a cumulative effect if we see a stream of charges in different jurisdictions? What about the evidence? Will we see incriminating emails or more audio tapes?

When are the various trials going to be scheduled? What happens if there are convictions? Will Trump be seen as a victim by his supporters, or will pragmatism at some point in the process overtake voters’ personal commitment to the former president?

Trump has benefited, as he did in 2016, from a large but so far ineffective field of primary opponents. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has drawn some blood talking about Trump’s record, but he has paid a price for that criticism.

We saw Trump get a bounce from the earlier two indictments, but will it last? Biden continues to lead Trump in many head-to-head matchups but loses to a generic Republican candidate.

Ironically, Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who brought the first charges against Trump, may end up kingmaker in this chaotic campaign.

The question is, which king?

Americans are tiring of both these men and a media that operates on the theory that more chaos is good for business. People want normalcy: a presidency without drama, without scandal and without destructive partisanship that gets things done.

In other words, end the chaos. Can you blame them?

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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