“If ya smell … what The Rock … is cooking.”
That’s how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s entrance theme begins when he makes periodic appearances in the WWE, the sports entertainment company that propelled him to Hollywood superstardom. As the iconic phrase finishes, his entrance theme song is nearly drowned out as fans in packed arenas jump to their feet, screaming wildly as the “Brahma Bull” walks onstage.
The sunglasses. The eyebrow. The muscular physique. The catchphrases. The reaction of his millions — crowd adds: “And millions!” — of fans. The smile. The charisma.
Some Democrats looking for an alternative to President Joe Biden might have been tempted to reach out to the former WWE champion after a round of presidential election polls released earlier this week were anything but electrifying.
But then voters went to the polls Tuesday. Ohioans voted to establish a right to abortion, the latest ballot-box backlash after the right-leaning Supreme Court rolled back federal protections for the procedure. Virginians handed control of their commonwealth’s legislature to Democrats. And Kentuckians gave Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear a second term in the deep-red state — and by a comfortable margin.
So perhaps things are not quite as dire for Biden and Democrats who will join him on the ballot next November — even after a number of recent polls showed him trailing Donald Trump in key swing states and by large numbers on specific issues.
Still, if any influential Democratic figure had an urge this week to inquire about The Rock’s interest in a 2024 bid, it would be hard to blame them for doing some contingency planning.
Asked by CBS and YouGov if they expected to be better off financially if Biden or Trump wins next November, only 18 percent said they would be better off if the incumbent wins. Forty-five percent said they would be better off if Trump returns to the White House.
Perhaps more troubling for Democrats: 48 percent said they expected to be worse off financially if Biden wins again, according to the same poll, released Sunday. That’s compared with 32 percent of those surveyed who said the same about a Trump victory.
A New York Times-Siena College survey also released Sunday asked respondents which front-runner they most trust on the economy.
According to the Times-Siena poll, Trump’s edge on the economy in the five states where he also led in a head-to-head rematch topped 20 percentage points. Trump’s lead was 29 points in Arizona, 27 in Georgia, 24 in Nevada, 23 in Michigan and 22 in Pennsylvania. Biden’s edge on those issues was 8 points in Wisconsin.
Those bleak results led David Axelrod, a former political adviser to Barack Obama, to suggest Sunday on the social media platform X that Biden might need to consider other plans for the final year of his term. Several lawmakers, including a top Biden ally in the Senate, also openly admitted 2024 is becoming a source of indigestion.
“I was concerned before these polls, and I’m concerned now,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “These presidential races over the last couple of terms have been very tight. No one is going to have a runaway election here. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, concentration, resources.”
The Rock made plenty of electrifying saves of his fictional allies during his WWE career. Should Biden’s one-on-one poll numbers against Trump continue to lag, is it time for one in the political arena? Or by someone with equally deep personal finances, crossover appeal and instant name recognition?
Consider that in April 2021, 46 percent of those surveyed by Pipslay, a consumer research firm, said they wanted the five-time WWE world tag team champion — how’s that for reaching across the aisle — to make a White House bid. (The company surveyed 30,138 people nationwide.)
Let’s pause for an important disclaimer: This is not an endorsement of The Rock. Nor is it a call for Biden to reverse course and not seek reelection. Rather, it is the product of an assessment of months of polling data and Trump being mostly undamaged by his 91 felony charges. Trump is the true unicorn of American politics — any other candidate would have been toast by now. Biden has not resonated with voters.
Despite those dismal numbers, Biden could be correct that, among conventional Democratic politicians, he is the only one who could beat Trump in a one-on-one general election grudge match. Tuesday’s election results suggest voters are more aligned with what Democrats are cooking right now — and since Trump ascended to the head of the Republican table, Democrats have been the ones doing much of the winning on Election Days.
After all, the 80-year-old president is barely running. The 2024 election is still a full year away. He is mostly focused on official stops in swing states, and ones where he also can attend big-dollar fundraisers, to tout his administration’s economic agenda and its legislative accomplishments. To be sure, no other Democrat has enough cash on hand and national campaign apparatus to rival the Biden 2024 operation.
What’s more, despite his age, Biden seems to find a higher gear when he speaks publicly about a small handful of subjects. Among them are Russia’s war in Ukraine, Israel’s fight against Hamas and a 2020 campaign plank that warns of a global struggle pitting those who believe in democracy versus authoritarianism.
But another, likely the major part of his possible 2024 cycle closing argument, is his contention that Trump is a threat to America. Some of Biden’s strongest performances have come when he has railed against his 2020 foe for trying to overturn the last presidential election and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. The same is true when Biden has publicly argued a second Trump term could be a revenge tour that shreds constitutional norms and brings America’s representative democracy to its knees.
Those are big reasons why Biden and his team have been rejecting the notion that he might step aside.
But what if Biden concludes he cannot defeat Trump? Democrats would be wise to consider that to beat the ultimate unconventional candidate, they might have to counter with the unconventional.
Cue The Rock’s music? “If ya smell …”
The Rock might decide delivering political “People’s Elbows” or “Rock Bottoms” to the still-popular Trump would be too damaging to his future film- and money-making prospects. Last year he said he wouldn’t run because of family reasons.
Should Biden step aside and the “People’s Champion” decline a match with Trump, Democrats would have to think long and hard about the kind of candidate who could score an Electoral College pinfall on The Donald.
They might need an alternative who can match whatever spectacle Trump is a part of on any given day. Biden never promised to match Trump’s flair for the dramatic.
Monday offered such a juxtaposition. There was Trump, back in a New York City courtroom facing fraud allegations. And there was Biden, in Delaware touting Amtrak and rail investments. The 45th president looked every bit a defendant and the 46th looked like he was inside a child’s playroom, with shiny train cars and rail barriers flashing lights and workers in hard hats.
Trump roared at the judge and one of his attorneys roared to the press, telling Americans she did not take the judge’s guff “and you shouldn’t either.” Meanwhile, down the Amtrak line in Delaware, a soft-spoken Biden talked of improving rail service across the country. The issue, however, does not appear on any list of what voters are most worried about.
One veteran lawmaker once told this correspondent that an election cycle doesn’t really begin until the previous one ends. So, game on.
How much do polls, no matter how dismal for the president, really matter right now? After all, the question before voters next November largely would become a choice between Biden or Trump — not a poll-style question about this Biden policy or that one.
That means, politically at least, we may not find out what The Rock is cooking during this election cycle.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.