Wednesday, April 17, 2024
    HomePoliticsBiden vs. Trump is both static and unstable. What could change things?

    Biden vs. Trump is both static and unstable. What could change things?

    By current indications, America is heading toward a close presidential election in November. The two major candidates are well defined, most voters have made up their minds and, despite some significant events, little has changed over recent months in the balance between President Biden and former president Donald Trump.

    Yet as static as the political environment appears, there is also an underlying instability born out of the frustration that many voters feel about the choice. What could shift the balance before November? Are there known unknowns that yet could make a difference?

    Some unknowns are obvious. A health episode affecting either Biden, 81, or Trump, 77, both of whom qualify as the oldest candidates ever to seek the presidency, would have a dramatic impact. Some unknowns are harder to evaluate, a principal one being the potential for independent or third-party candidates to siphon off enough votes in enough states to materially affect the outcome.

    Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, when asked about all this, quickly ticked of 10 questions, the answers to which are unknown today but which he said conceivably could affect public attitudes enough to change the trajectory of the race.

    Among them: Will inflation fall enough for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates and thereby give consumers and borrowers a sense that the worst is over? Will crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border slow to the point that immigration is a lesser factor in the minds of voters? Will the war in Gaza subside enough to allow Biden to heal the wounds in his fractured base?

    Similarly, will Trump be convicted of a major crime before the election? Will the former president have enough money to wage a campaign against Biden and Democrats flush with cash? Will the disarray among Republicans in states like Michigan and Arizona affect Trump’s vote count? Will Nikki Haley’s voters really recoil from supporting Trump in numbers enough to cause his downfall?

    Biden and Trump both run as incumbents, one currently in office, the other having served four years before losing reelection in 2020. Just about everything to know about them is already known, or so it would seem.

    The Biden team is betting that Trump’s strength in polls is attributable to amnesia within the electorate. They will spend hundreds of millions of dollars reminding people in the battleground states of the worst of Trump’s presidency and personality. If their bet is right, that could move undecided voters into Biden’s column.

    Some Republican strategists see the issue matrix as almost fully baked and in a way that is bad for Biden. They acknowledge the good economic news — the stock market continuing to surge, the jobless rate at a 50-year low; the U.S. economy stronger than any other in the world.

    But Republicans argue that, for many Americans, the prices of gasoline, groceries and home mortgages, all higher than when Biden took office, weighs most heavily in how they judge the economy and their own well-being. To financially stressed families, they say, the reaction to current conditions can be summed up in four words: Things cost too much. Biden has only a few months to change those perceptions.

    World events have not played to Biden’s advantage. His work assembling the allied coalition to support Ukraine in its war against Russia won praise at the time. Today, he struggles to get Congress to approve substantially more assistance to the Ukrainians at a time when it is badly needed.

    The war in Gaza has divided Democrats. Biden is caught between his longtime support for Israel and demands that he do more to pressure Israel to take steps to alleviate the humanitarian crisis for Palestinian civilians trapped in the war zone. China and Iran add to worries about international instability.

    What if something else were to happen? Typically, a foreign policy crisis in the waning months of a presidential campaign would help an incumbent president, due to the rally-round effect. Today, some Democrats worry that any new crisis could be costly to Biden, adding to perceptions of international chaos on his watch.

    Some voters have told pollsters that, if Trump is convicted of a crime, they might reevaluate their support for him. No one knows if that is really the case and, if it is, how many voters would be so inclined. In contested battleground states, shifts among a small number of voters could change results.

    Few analysts see the New York case involving hush money to an adult film actress and alleged falsification of business records as rising to the level of political significance. That leaves the two cases about subverting the 2020 election, one federal and one in Georgia, and the one about Trump’s mishandling of classified documents. It’s not clear when those trials will begin and whether any will be concluded before the election. Trump’s legal strategy of delay so far has worked.

    There is a counter-theory among some Republicans about the impact of a possible conviction, which holds that all of the charges and penalties could turn Trump into a more sympathetic figure among some unaligned voters. That’s preposterous to many people who see Trump as finally having to face justice for his deeds and lacks empirical evidence.

    The indictments solidified Trump’s support among core Republicans, which rendered the GOP nomination process a nonevent. Trump and his allies are now working to persuade the persuadable that he is a victim of piling on by a weaponized criminal justice system. This is plain to see in his complaints about the charges overall and now the nearly half-billion-dollar bond he is supposed to post.

    One of the biggest unknowns is the impact of independent and third-party candidates. Voters unhappy with the choice of Biden or Trump could be looking for an exit ramp. One choice is simply not to vote, or not to cast a presidential ballot but vote in all other races. A second could be to align with one of the independent candidates.

    At present, the independent candidates include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Cornel West, the liberal African American academic. All are seeking to qualify for ballots in the states. In addition, the group No Labels has been searching for a candidate to run independently.

    In 2016, Trump and Hillary Clinton accounted for about 94 percent of the total popular vote, leaving 6 percent that went for other candidates. In 2020, Trump and Biden accounted for a shade over 97 percent of the vote.

    Will the independent share of the popular vote in 2024 be closer to 2016 than 2020? More than one strategist believes it will be and that, because of unhappiness with the choice between Biden and Trump, it could be closer to what it was when businessman Ross Perot ran as an independent. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected, Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote. In 1996, Clinton and Bob Dole combined for about 90 percent of the popular vote, Perot got 8 percent and the rest was scattered.

    One other possibility, though not yet a probability by any means, is that Kennedy qualifies for the presidential debates by hitting the 15 percent polling threshold in the specified number of polls. Though he has flirted with that threshold in some surveys this year, his support could well decline during the final months of the campaign, as voters focus more on Biden and Trump, which has happened to independent candidates in past years.

    No one can say at this point whether Kennedy would draw more from Biden or from Trump. The Kennedy name alone presumably would draw some Democrats, but his anti-vaccine stance could appeal to those in Trump’s orbit. The worry among Democrats is that third-party or independent candidates looking for an off-ramp would take away more from Biden, if only because his overall support today is softer than is Trump’s.

    Galston brought humility to the exercise. “I’ve been wrong so many times, I kick my own tires harder than I used to,” he said, only half joking. The same should apply to everyone trying to scope out the coming months.



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