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Voters got first true 2024 week with Trump on trial, Biden on the trail

Outcome still likely decided by kitchen table issues, Democratic lawmaker says

Former President Donald Trump at his criminal hush money trial with his legal team in Manhattan.
Former President Donald Trump at his criminal hush money trial with his legal team in Manhattan. (Jabin Botsford/Getty Images pool photo)

ANALYSIS — The unprecedented 2024 election cycle came into focus last week, with President Joe Biden ordering milkshakes and sandwiches on the campaign trail while Donald Trump was admonished by a criminal court judge during jury selection.

Biden worked rope lines in Pennsylvania while Trump observed a lineup of potential jurors being questioned by his legal team and New York state prosecutors. The incumbent visited a steelworkers’ union and two popular Pennsylvania convenience stores. His expected general election foe spent most of the week in a Manhattan courtroom, but squeezed in a campaign stop at a Harlem bodega.

The week’s running drama, as Trump’s first criminal trial got underway, marked a new phase of the 2024 campaign, showing how the presidential election will play out in courtrooms as much as campaign rallies and impromptu stops at local businesses.

With the New York hush money trial marking the first time a former U.S. president was a criminal defendant, lawmakers and strategists described the side-by-side activities of the two likely nominees as striking, but argued predictions about November were difficult because there was no precedent in U.S. history.

Focus voters on opponent

Republican strategist Brian Seitchik said last week highlighted that the election will turn on which candidate can keep the voters focused on his opponent.

“The more it’s all about Trump, the better it is for Biden. The more it’s all about Biden, the better it is for Trump,” he said. “It’s really just that simple. If Trump wins, that means the election was a referendum on Biden. And if Biden wins, that means his campaign made the election a referendum on Trump.”

Some lawmakers were skeptical the surreal spectacle of a sitting president running for reelection against a former one on trial is what is on most voters’ minds.

“I think I can answer that question best in November,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “With all the litigation fights that have been ongoing for months and months now, we just continue to see Trump’s numbers climb higher and higher. So there’s a point of diminishing returns because his numbers are continuing to climb as more and more Americans get frustrated with what’s happening in the courtroom.”

But when asked about Biden’s recent polling uptick, including in the swing states expected to again decide the next president, Lankford was more muted. “I mean, that’s just going to be the ebb and flow of a campaign,” he said. “It’s hard to get a good read on any day exactly what all the issues are.”

Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a sometimes-Biden critic, said he thinks “it helps the president only to the extent that he’s talking about real issues that people care about — the price of food, the price of child care, the price of gas and what he’s doing to help lower those costs for Americans.”

“They want us to be talking about pocketbook issues. So in that sense, it gives the president opportunity to focus on what matters to people. I think we should be focused on addressing the economic issues, addressing the issues of national security, addressing the issues of having secure borders and yet being welcoming of immigrants. And also letting the legal process play out,” Khanna said.

Khanna, who last year criticized Biden and his aides for not allowing voters to “see the authentic President Biden,” said Biden’s recent polling surge is directly tied to what he detects is a recent communications strategy shift among senior White House and campaign aides. “Whoever wrote his State of the Union speech, and maybe he did himself, really did a phenomenal job,” Khanna said, citing a “recalibration” since that March 7 address to Congress.

As Trump was drawing warnings from Judge Juan Merchan multiple times for muttering as jurors were speaking or violating courtroom rules by using his phone, Biden was taking jabs at his top political opponent.

Biden told supporters at a rally Thursday in Philadelphia that Trump “already promised to be the dictator on day one — his own words — and call for — you know, he means it — and he calls for another bloodbath when he loses again.” Trump earlier this year said his first day back in the Oval Office would be dictator-like, so he could seal the U.S.-Mexico border and open domestic energy drilling beyond the record level under Biden.

Tight race in polls

Recent polls have shown a very close race, both nationally and in key swing states — with Biden narrowing Trump’s advantage in several of those battlegrounds. A recent national Emerson College poll of registered voters gave Trump a 4 percentage point lead over Biden when other candidates were added to the question, and a 3 percentage point lead in a head-to-head matchup.

A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls in seven battleground states gave Trump a lead of less than 1 point in those states — but the 45th president’s biggest lead was 4.5 percentage points in Arizona, according to the organization’s calculations.

At his stops in Pennsylvania, among the most important of a handful of swing states, the Catholic Biden continued the effort to make access to abortion a thorn in Trump’s and other Republican candidates’ collective side. And he kept up his descriptions of a second Trump term as eroding democratic norms.

“I see an America where we defend democracy not diminished,” the president said Thursday. “I see an America where we protect our freedoms, not take them away.”

Meantime, Trump was back in court on Friday.

“It’s a rigged case. And it’s a case that was put in very strongly because of politics. So instead of making Pennsylvania or Georgia or North Carolina or lots of other places today, I’m sitting in a courthouse all day long,” Trump said before the day’s proceedings began, according to a pool report. “This is going on for the week and it will go up for another four or five weeks. And it’s very unfair. And people know it’s very unfair.”

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Photos of the week ending May 24, 2024