The 2024 Disaster Scenarios for Democrats and Republicans

Photo: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Everyone involved in political analysis has pretty much assumed that no matter who wins the 2024 presidential (and for that matter, congressional) elections, it will be close. The reasons are obvious: with the arguable exception of 2008, when the size of Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain was almost certainly enhanced by the proximity of Election Day to a collapse of the financial system, every presidential contest since 1996 has been extremely competitive. That includes a surprisingly close outcome in 2020 featuring the same two candidates who will meet this year. More generally, the two major parties appear to be in steady equipoise when it comes to partisan affiliation. And while there’s aways a fierce ongoing battle over swing voters, the size of that portion of the electorate remains smaller than it was in much of the last century.

Current indicators also show a close contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. For all the interminable Democratic panic over Biden’s standing in the polls, Trump’s lead in the national RealClearPolitics polling averages is under one percent, and has only breached four percent once (very briefly) in the entire cycle. As close as 2016 and 2020 turned out to be, there were ebbs in flows in the polling those years that were a lot more dramatic than anything we’re seeing lately.

So you’d be tempted right now to treat the presidential contest much like an NBA game wherein it’s usually safe to ignore the score until the very end. But as a thought experiment, it’s worth imagining scenarios that could blow open this tense election year in one direction or the other, and what might produce them.

By “disasters” I don’t mean truly catastrophic events like the death or disability of Biden or Trump, a shooting war involving U.S. troops, another financial crash, or a new pandemic. The criminal conviction of Donald Trump and the wildly uncertain fallout from it, though, is a reminder that it’s wise to expect the unexpected.

It’s pretty clear the Biden campaign has counted on closing the small but consistent gap with Trump by getting some help from fresh publicity over his past and recent misconduct. The moment for that to happen has arrived with the 45th president’s conviction on 34 criminal counts. Indeed, since this is the only Trump criminal case that will probably come to trial before Election Day, it could be now or never for a political accountability moment benefiting the incumbent.

So what if it comes and goes without any game-changing effect on Trump’s appeal? Anticipatory polling has shown that the impact on swing voters might not be profound, and we have an important precedent: the Access Hollywood tapes of October 2016, which initially looked like a late-campaign knockout punch for the Republican nominee. GOP elites, including even Trump’s running-mate Mike Pence, went into a panic … but then voters seemed to yawn. Hillary Clinton got a quick polling spike in the week after the tapes came out, but it soon subsided (helped, as it happens, by the release of the Comey Letter suggesting renewed law enforcement interest in Clinton’s email accounts). Subsequent talk about “Teflon Don” was exaggerated, but there does seem to be something about the former president that insulates him from the kind of reputational damage that would take down other politicians.

The one thing we already know for sure is that Trump’s criminal conviction is producing an intense backlash from MAGA activists and Republican pols generally, along with a major boost in GOP fund-raising, which that party really needed. If swing-voter reaction is meh, the net effect of Trump becoming a convicted criminal could be positive for him, which would be very negative for Team Biden. The Democratic campaign’s no-doubt-vast plans to go negative on Trump’s misconduct may need to be reconsidered as November approaches, and that, too, would be a bad sign for Biden.

It’s gospel among political scientists that some basic voter perceptions become fixed well before Election Day, and we may be approaching that point with very negative perceptions of the U.S. economy (and the toxic sub-topic of living costs) and of conditions on the southern border. If so, it’s unlikely that Biden’s chronically subpar job approval ratings (hovering just above or just below 40 percent for the last eight months) are going to significantly improve. Here, per Gallup, were the job approval ratings of every postwar president in June before they faced voters in a reelection bid: 40 (Truman), 72 (Eisenhower), 74 (Johnson), 59 (Nixon), 45 (Ford), 32 (Carter), 54 (Reagan), 37 (G.H.W. Bush), 55 (Clinton), 49 (G.W. Bush), 46 (Obama), and 41 (Trump). With the sole exception of Truman, whose reelection is regarded as the greatest political upset in U.S. history, any president in Biden’s territory has lost.

Yes, Trump is a different kind of opponent who makes it easier for an unpopular incumbent to avoid a straight referendum, but it’s tough to win a second term if voters think you’ve performed poorly on such highly salient issues.

Other than Trump’s criminality, the factor Team Biden has counted on most is the emergence of issues that help rather than hurt the incumbent, first among them abortion. That’s still an assumption that’s a bit shaky. It’s now been nearly two years since the Supreme Court that Donald Trump shaped in order to reverse Roe v. Wade redeemed his promises to the anti-abortion movement–and he’s still leading in the polls. Yes, his efforts to take the issue off the table in the presidential election by embracing a states rights position are deeply cynical and not to be trusted. But they might work, or at least mitigate the damage that unpopular Republican positions on abortion might otherwise wrought. At this point it’s hard to see Biden winning states like Arizona and Nevada without a big collateral impact from abortion rights ballot measures voters in those states are likely to encounter, but no one really knows if the spillover will happen in such an atmosphere of partisan polarization.

If abortion fails to serve as a silver bullet for Democrats, other issues could turn sour for Biden. If conditions in Ukraine get worse, it’s not clear the Biden administration will be able to do anything about it. And if the war in Gaza drags on and continues to represent a humanitarian disaster, that’s all bad for Biden.

Speaking of Gaza … there are much-discussed subcurrents in the polls this year that may simply represent a temporary estrangement of pro-Democratic voting groups unhappy with Biden’s handling of the economy, the border, or Gaza. The president’s team hopes that they may at least partially return to the Democratic column once the alternative fully sinks in.

But there is another possibility that could represent really bad news for Democrats, not just this year but for the foreseeable future: an actual realignment of estranged groups, including the long-feared loss of the overwhelming Democratic advantage among Black and (to a lesser extent) Latino voters. If, after all, a chronic race-baiter like Trump is performing better among nonwhite voters than anyone since George W. Bush or even Richard Nixon, there may be a problem bigger than anything Joe Biden is doing wrong.

Aside from losing the White House if Trump defeats Biden, there’s a very significant risk Democrats would emerge from this election on the losing end of a trifecta. The contest for control of the House is pretty much a tossup that could keep the chamber Republican if the presidential race goes south. And thanks to a strongly pro-Republican landscape, the odds are quite high that the Senate will flip no matter what happens to Biden and Trump. A GOP trifecta would give the incoming Trump administration the use of budget reconciliation tools to get its agenda past any potential Democratic Senate filibuster, while giving Team Trump rubber-stamped executive and judicial appointments that it is likely to use and abuse.

The unprecedented nature of the jury verdict in Manhattan means that “Teflon Don’s” imperviousness to scandal may not continue. Biden is counting on making the election comparative rather than a referendum, and nothing may quite crystalize his efforts to focus attention on his opponent than the sobriquet of “Donald Trump, convicted criminal.”

Yes, Trump has worked hard to convince his Republican base that all the prosecutions he is facing represent a partisan weaponization of the judicial system rather than any sort of normal operation of law enforcement to bring down a bad guy. But it’s not so clear that this framing of the situation will be convincing to swing voters, particularly the normally Democratic and relatively disengaged voters on which Trump has built his fragile lead over Biden, as the New York Times’ Nate Cohn explains:

In [a recent] Times/Siena poll, 21 percent of Mr. Trump’s young supporters said they’d back Mr. Biden if there were a conviction. In comparison, only 2 percent of 65-and-older Trump supporters said the same. Similarly, 27 percent of Black voters who backed Mr. Trump flipped to Mr. Biden, compared with just 5 percent of white respondents.

If it sticks that’s the sort of trend that could wipe out Trump’s lead in the polls for good.

Even as Trump has led in a majority of polls, there have been signs that the categories of voters most likely to turn out, notably college-educated voters, are leaning towards Biden, continuing an inversion of past turnout patterns. As we get closer to November and pollsters begin to screen respondents for likelihood to vote, Biden could pull into a steady lead. Again, Trump’s criminal status might well solidify the disdain of some traditional Republican voters who are very likely to show up at the polls and rise up against the MAGA-fication of their party. If Biden can dispel perceptions he’s feeble or even senile during the candidate debates he has eagerly proposed, he could well re-build his winning coalition of 2020.

Another possible byproduct of Trump’s criminal conviction and the pounding he is sure to take from a well-financed Biden campaign is a bleeding of support to independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is also very much running a campaign against the status quo in all its forms and may have a special appeal to conservative voters still enraged by COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Even if Kennedy fades down the stretch as indie candidates typically do, some of his supporters could stay home rather than going with either of the tainted major-party candidates.

Still another possible by-product of the Trump trial fallout is that his campaign’s focus on vengeance for his alleged victimization in 2020 and in 2024 will begin to obscure the issue advantages he has developed over the unpopular incumbent. This factor could be aggravated if the Trump campaign becomes so focused on mobilizing its base that it forgets the margin of victory will come (if it comes at all) from voters upset about the economy, the border, crime or Gaza. In particular, Trump’s regular threats of another challenge to the outcome could begin to offend Americans who badly want to consign politics to a smaller part of daily life.

It’s also possible that some of Trump’s issue advantages will fade in any event as conditions improve. How long can swing voters fail to notice stable prices, very low unemployment, falling violent crime rates and reduced border crossings? And can Trump entirely escape his party’s unpopular positions on taxes on the wealthiest Americans and businesses, on Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare, and most of all on abortion? From the moment his Supreme Court appointees helped overturn Roe v. Wade, pro-choice forces have compiled an unbroken winning streak on ballot measures. They could help Biden and other Democrats win in Arizona, Nevada and perhaps even Florida.

Any presidential defeat, particularly if it’s sizable enough to discourage post-election challenges of the results, would leave the GOP at sea. A Biden popular vote win would mean that Republicans have been on the short end of the national popular vote in eight of the last nine presidential elections; that’s quite a losing streak. A second Trump loss, moreover, would kill the much-discussed idea that the 45th president has somehow figured out a way for his party to build its own winning post-Reagan coalition that extends beyond angry white reactionary voters.

A Trump loss would very likely mean a Republican loss of the House as well. And it’s even possible that in a good presidential year for Democrats, they could overcome a terrible Senate landscape and win their own trifecta in Washington, with all the benefits that would provide. Above all, there’s no question the GOP would have to undertake a dark night of the soul over its Trump-less future and the ideological direction of the party he has come to dominate.

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