ANALYSIS — Blinded by positive polling numbers, recent election results and tradition, both parties are willingly lining up behind weak presidential nominees.
Democrats are poised to renominate President Joe Biden despite questions about his age and how he’s performed in office.
At 81 years old, Biden is still the oldest president in this country’s history. When asked specifically about his age, 76 percent of voters said they were concerned about Biden’s “ability to serve another full term as president if re-elected,” according to a late August CNN poll. When asked their biggest concern about Biden in an open-ended question in the same survey, 63 percent offered his age, mental competence or health.
Since age-reversing technology doesn’t exist yet, Democrats are probably better off getting voters to focus on something other than Biden’s age rather than convincing them that he’s young and spry. The good news for Democrats is that Biden won’t have another birthday before Election Day 2024.
Biden is also an unpopular incumbent seeking reelection, with a job rating that has been underwater for more than two years. He had a 39 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average as of Sunday.
Some Democrats believe that Biden’s standing will improve once his campaign engages with voters who will hear about the president’s work on the economy, and they point out that President Barack Obama was underwater a year before he was reelected in 2012. But Biden is in a deeper hole with his job rating and hasn’t shown the same rebound Obama had started by this point in his first term.
While Biden blocked President Donald Trump from a second term by winning in 2020, Biden’s nomination could deliver a second Trump term in 2024. So why are Democrats lining up behind him?
Democrats are blinded by their own success. They defeated Trump in 2020, so it’s harder for them to imagine him losing to Trump. If there had been a red wave in 2022 in the face of Biden’s poor job rating, there would have been more pressure on the president to pass on a reelection bid. Instead, Democrats overperformed in the midterm elections, including expanding their majority in the Senate and minimizing their losses in the House. Obama and President Bill Clinton survived catastrophic midterm elections, but they were relatively young, charismatic figures viewed as the future of the party. Biden is neither of those things.
More recently, Democrats had a great set of elections in 2023. Biden’s unpopularity wasn’t enough to drag down a Democratic governor in Kentucky. Democrats took full control of the legislature in Virginia, expanded their legislative majority in New Jersey and held the Republican governor of Mississippi to a 3-point victory. And Issue 1 passed overwhelmingly in Ohio in another big victory for the abortion rights movement.
Yet, the best thing for Democrats’ chances of winning the White House in 2024 would have been for Biden to forgo a second term and announce his decision in early 2023. That would have taken his age and job performance out of the direct spotlight in the general election and given Democrats time to sort out a primary.
With filing deadlines coming and going, time is running out to switch candidates, absent a historic convention swap. If Biden falters, Democrats will likely look to someone other than Rep. Dean Phillips to carry their banner. For now, Democrats have chosen a unified party behind a flawed nominee instead of dealing with a messy replacement process in the absence of an heir apparent.
At the same time, Republicans appear determined to nominate one of the most flawed candidates in history. With seven weeks to go before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses, Trump is the clear front-runner in the Republican primary.
It doesn’t appear to matter that he’s a twice-impeached former president and just the second president to lose reelection in the past 40 years. And since he’s left office, Trump has been indicted on 91 charges in four different criminal cases and could be on trial and potentially convicted during the campaign next year. He’ll also be 78 years old on Election Day, and outlandish comments are routine for him.
Trump is the GOP candidate most likely to distract voters from Biden and his record, which is what Republicans should want the 2024 election to be about. So why is the GOP likely to go with Trump for a third consecutive time?
While a minority of Republicans might be concerned about Trump topping the ballot again, most Republican voters like him and don’t care about potential political fallout. They’ve heard that Trump was a losing cause before and he won (in 2016). Most GOP strategists believe Trump’s problems are baked in or will be overshadowed by Biden’s poor standing (or a combination of both) and are emboldened by selective election results.
Even though the GOP underperformed in 2022, the party still won the House majority, which kept Republicans from questioning why they didn’t also win the Senate. Republicans weren’t concerned enough by Trump-backed nominees losing winnable general elections to turn away from Trump, and they aren’t particularly worried that Trump could be dinged by voters after his Supreme Court justices overturned Roe v. Wade.
More recently, Republicans are encouraged by polling that shows Trump leading Biden in the most important 2024 states, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. But that advantage could be artificial as Trump has been out of the spotlight, relatively speaking, and the general election will likely be more focused on a choice between the two nominees rather than a simple referendum on the incumbent. While Trump’s legal issues and controversial comments are part of his persona, no one can confidently predict how a trial during the campaign will affect voters.
Even if Republicans become more interested in nominating someone without Trump’s liabilities, it might be too late to change horses. If Trump is not the GOP nominee for some reason, there’s a good chance Republicans will have a turnout problem. If even a small percentage of Trump loyalists don’t vote because their man isn’t on the ballot, then Republicans will likely suffer significant losses up and down the ballot. Since the GOP has backed him up to this point, they might be stuck with him.
So while both parties are going through the motions of modest primaries, the consequences could be realized later next year after the nominations are settled and the stakes of the general election are even higher.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.