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Less than 12 months from now, America will have elected its President for the following four years. We don’t yet know who will win next November. But we do know that, in all likelihood, it will be one of two men who have already occupied the Oval Office: the 46th and incumbent President, Joe Biden; or his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. The other candidates are playing for spoils.

In a year with a generation-defining Presidential election, four criminal trials of a former President, and dozens of consequential House, Senate and gubernatorial elections, expect much of the world’s attention to return to the United States of America.

The Democratic nominee

Joe Biden is all but a sure thing to be his party’s nominee. An incumbent President has never lost a primary nomination in modern U.S. history, mostly because high-quality candidates almost never challenge a President of their own party, instead clearing the field for their President to win a second term.

First-term Presidents almost always seek that second term.

In 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson declined to seek re-election, informing his shocked country: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” His decision was so surprising because it was so rare; no first-term President had taken that path since Rutherford Hayes in 1880, and every President since has sought re-election.

When Biden announced in 2019 that he would run for President, it was thought to be virtually inconceivable that he would run again.

“If Biden is elected”, a prominent advisor to the campaign told Politico, “he’s going to be 82 years old in four years and he won’t be running for re-election.” Biden was described as a “transition President” — the best chance America had at defeating Trump before handing over the Presidency to a younger, more diverse, more exciting candidate, ushering in a new generation of leaders. Though Biden declined to pledge publicly that he would not seek a second term, he privately assured his wary aids and donors that his would be a one-term Presidency.

Roll the clocks forward four years, and Biden — four years older, four years less steady on his feet and four years clumsier with his words — is running. Two weeks ago he told a crowd at a campaign fundraiser: “If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running.” But Trump is running. And Biden truly believes — likely attributable to the arrogance and relentless ambition it takes to become President, and to the optimism required for the pursuit — that he is the best chance to stop what he describes as an existential threat to American democracy.

An August CNN poll found that 67 per cent of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic preferred another nominee, with Biden’s age, health, mental competence and ability to handle the job their main concerns. The same voters could not agree on an alternative preferred candidate. (Vice President Kamala Harris, the most obvious choice to succeed Biden, is thought to have performed poorly during her tenure). Faced with only minnow challengers in the form of unknown Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips and the spiritual author Marianne Williamson, the only thing that would prevent Biden from securing his party’s nomination and competing in the general election is illness or death.

Despite his age, actuaries say his imminent demise is pretty unlikely; the fact that Biden has already reached 81 means the President is more likely than not to live for another 10 years.

The Republican nominee

Donald Trump is the frontrunner to be the next Republican nominee for President. Words that were scarcely believable four years ago are today inevitable. A decision by the Colorado Supreme Court this week barring Trump from the Republican primary ballot is set to go to an appeal to the US Supreme Court, who will be asked to determine whether Trump is disqualifed from the race under the 14th Amendment’s insurrection clause.

It all could have been so different. After Trump attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election — inciting a violent mob to storm the Capitol and scheming with lawyerly cronies to mobilise fake electors and prevent swing states from certifying the results — the United States Congress could have prevented him from seeking re-election.

One week after the January 6 riots, the House of Representatives approved one article of impeachment: “incitement of insurrection”. Fifty-seven senators voted “guilty” at the trial — a majority that included seven Republicans, but short of the two-thirds required for conviction, which would have barred Trump from ever seeking re-election. Instead, he is free to run again.

Today, more than ever, the Republican Party is the party of Trump. Of the six remaining candidates in the Republican field, Trump is polling at 59.3 per cent. The former President was leading the polls at the same time during the last election, but most pundits were sceptical; even the polling gurus doubted their own data, urging the concerned masses to wait until the Iowa caucuses.

This time there is no such doubt.

Trump’s nomination is a fait accompli. The man thought to be his most dangerous rival — popular Florida Governor Ron Desantis — languishes in second place at a measly 12.6 per cent, a 21.9 per cent decline from only nine months ago, when the misguided bookmakers had him as the favourite to be the next President. In third place is former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has emerged from the debates as the strongest candidate among so-called “Never Trumpers”. But in the party of Trump, these voters (whom Trump and his fans refer to as “RINOS” — Republicans in Name Only) are an inconsequential minority.

Some hold onto hope that if the remaining candidates were to drop out and coalesce around Haley, the race could tighten and possibly swing her way. Most accept that Trump will win in a cantor regardless.

Trump v Biden, the sequel

The stage is set for a rematch of the 2020 Presidential election.

It will all come down to a handful of states.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat – despite receiving over three million more votes – was primarily a result of her unexpected weakness in the Rustbelt. Clinton lost each of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than 1 per cent. White voters without a college education voted for Trump over Clinton by 39 per cent, and more than 60 per cent of rural voters chose the brash, billionaire populist. Trump claimed 306 electoral college votes to Clinton’s 232.

Four years later, Biden reduced some of those unfavourable margins among less educated and rural voters, and increased Democrats’ gains among other demographics. Some traditional Democratic blue-collar voters who had shunned Clinton returned to a candidate they viewed (perhaps unfairly) as more palatable. White suburban women did the same, and Biden substantially increased his party’s share of young voters.

The 46th President regained Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and flipped three additional states: Arizona, Georgia and Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District. This time it was he who won 306 electoral college votes.

Just as in 2016 and 2020, six battleground states will decide the election: three in the Rustbelt – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and three in the Sunbelt – Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

The mudslinging has already begun.

Biden says Trump is an existential threat to the country’s system of government.

“Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” he said at a recent campaign rally, imploring voters to listen to Trump’s own words, including a recent speech where he described immigrants as disease-ridden terrorists and psychiatric patients, “who are poisoning the blood of our country”.

Trump has described the 2024 election as “the final battle.” He touts his Supreme Court appointees who overturned Roe v Wade and says he will do the same with the Affordable Care Act. According to the former President, “This campaign is a righteous crusade to liberate our republic from Biden.”

Trump’s aspirations for his next Presidency have caused much of the American establishment to issue dystopian warnings. In the January/February issue of the influential magazine The Atlantic, 24 writers explore how Donald Trump could “destroy America’s civic and democratic institutions, including its courts, national political culture, and military if he succeeds in returning to the Oval Office.”

They predict that Trump will lead an autocratic regime, encourage misogyny, gut the Justice Department, accelerate a warming climate, deny science, endanger journalists, instal loyalist judges in the courts, enforce criminal punishments for abortion, sow corruption, and irrevocably change America’s character – splintering the nation into pieces.

It is a powerful, dystopian message.

The problem for Democrats is that voters don’t seem too much to care.

Biden’s approval rating is currently at 38.2 per cent – a near-record low. In polls released in November by The New York Times and Siena College to much consternation, Trump led Biden by between 4 per cent to 10 per cent in five of the six battleground states. (Biden’s sole lead was in Wisconsin, by 2 per cent.)

As Thomas Edsall observes in The New York Times, there are danger signs everywhere you look: Fraying support among core constituencies, including young voters, Black voters and Hispanic voters, and the decline, if not the erasure, of traditional Democratic advantages in representing the interests of the middle class and speaking for the average voter.

Some Democrats – mostly blind optimists or those unwilling to contemplate a Trump second term – deny the veracity of these and similar polls. They point to Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in the midterms, recent victories in major state-wide elections in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia, and even Barrack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, which – according to many pundits months before the election – seemed unlikely.

But these sceptics are misguided. In 2012, Obama’s supporters were worried despite the polls, which never showed the President behind. Today, Biden’s supporters are worried because of the polls, which correctly predicted the Democrats’ recent wins and were within the margin of error among most of the mid-term results.

The truth is that the polls have been pretty good. They show that Americans aren’t too concerned with intangible forecasts of a crumbling democracy. Instead, the state of the economy is front and centre.

It all comes down to the economy

A deeply pessimistic view of the U.S. economy is the driving force behind Trump’s lead over Biden in the swing states. Eighty-one per cent of registered voters say that the condition of

the U.S. economy is either ‘fair’ or ‘poor’, with more voters trusting Trump over Biden to improve things.

Biden’s campaigners are focused on touting ‘Bidenomics’ – a positive economic record they say derives from his signature, climate-focused piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, which has resulted in massive public sector investment in infrastructure and clean energy, directed funds towards childcare and public education, and led to greater competition and consumer protection.

In the past year or so, inflation has declined to around 3 per cent, the country has moved closer to full employment, and the U.S. dollar has strengthened. On a macro level, whether because of the success of Bidenomics, the Federal Reserve’s aggressive attempts to curb rising prices, or simply luck, the state of the U.S. economy is significantly better than most Western countries.

The voters just aren’t feeling it.

Perhaps they’re wrong. Perhaps, as is the view of some commentators, voters are insufficiently attuned to their wages rising higher than inflation, more focused on the still-very-high petrol prices that shine in neon lights from every other street corner, and the grocery and restaurant prices they experience almost daily – still rising, just not quite as much, and not quite as quickly.

The reality is that costs remain elevated for the things voters care about most. Plus, with mortgage rates the highest they’ve been in 23 years, homeownership is increasingly difficult – a brutal reality for insecure tenants in a market designed for landlords.

The economy is certainly improving, but if Biden stands any chance of being re-elected, his team will need to convince the voters to agree. If the election were held today, Donald Trump would be a very strong favourite to take back the Oval Office.

How things could change

The good news for Biden is that the election is still almost 11 months away. Here are four reasons for his supporters to maintain hope:

    1. Biden’s approval rating is no longer a useful yardstick. A significant chunk of Democrats — mostly progressives, including those who begrudgingly supported Biden in 2020 and others who disapprove of his handling of the Israel/Hamas war — contribute to his low approval rating but will, in all likelihood, vote for him in a race against Trump.
    2. Trump polls best when he stays out of the limelight. Despite holding a huge lead in the Republican primaries, he is mostly keeping quiet, sitting out the debates and letting his rivals, Republican and Democratic, do the talking. Without his attention-grabbing vulgarity dominating headlines, voters can convince themselves that Trump has mellowed. Once the primaries are over, the former President will have no choice but to take to the campaign trail, where inevitably his shock-jock statements will be front and centre.
    3. Abortion remains a primary motivator for Democratic turnout. Through his Supreme Court appointees, Trump is the architect of the end of constitutionally enshrined abortion in the United States, which Democrats will latch on to during the campaign.
    4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump is under four criminal indictments, with all four trials scheduled for next year.


“Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy”

The trials

On 4 March, the day before Super Tuesday (where dozens of states will hold Republican primaries), Trump’s first criminal trial — a federal case alleging that he engineered an effort to steal the election — begins in Washington D.C.

On 25 March (subject to change depending on the D.C. case), the New York state case begins, which alleges that Trump made hush money payments to buy pre-election silence from adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Sometime in May (also subject to change), Trump’s second federal case is set to begin, alleging that he mishandled classified documents.

On 5 August, the last of Trump’s criminal trials — and the one many believe is most likely to result in conviction — commences in Georgia, where state prosecutors allege Trump violated conspiracy laws to overturn his narrow loss of the state to Biden.

Almost all voters are aware of the forthcoming trials, for which the polls account. But it is one thing to be aware that a former President and current Republican frontrunner is under indictment; another entirely to observe him sitting in court day after day awaiting potential conviction. In the same November polls that showed Trump the clear favourite for President, voters were asked if their vote would change if Trump is convicted. Around 6 per cent of respondents across Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said they would switch their votes to Biden — enough, potentially, to decide the election.

It may feel inconceivable, but bookmakers (and many legal experts) suggest there is a strong chance of conviction, particularly in the Georgia case, which would almost certainly result in a prison sentence. So much is yet to come.

Eleven months out from a generation-defining Presidential election: it’s a tossup.

The Senate and the House

The battles for control in the Senate and House of Representatives tend to take a backseat in Presidential election years, but they are no less important. Unlike in parliamentary systems such as Australia and the U.K., where the Prime Minister’s party has control in the lower

house, U.S. congressional races are entirely separate. If Biden wins re-election, he will need Democrats to win majorities in Congress to pass any of his substantive partisan policies. The same is true for Trump and the Republicans.

Of the 100 seats in the Senate, 34 have elections next year. Democrats (and independents who vote Democrat) currently hold a majority of 51 to 49, which means they can only afford to lose one seat to maintain their majority (and none if Biden loses). It will be a difficult task.

Joe Manchin, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia, is retiring; Republicans will almost certainly take his seat. Democrats Sherrod Brown from Ohio and Jon Tester from Montana will need to cling on to seats in ruby-red Republican states, and Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona is entrenched in another tossup. Losing just one of these seats will cost Democrats the Senate majority, a daunting reality compounded by their extremely limited opportunity to win a seat off any Republicans; Ted Cruz’s Texas seat is perhaps the best, but still difficult, prospect.

Everything will need to go the Democrats’ way to maintain their Senate majority for two more years.

Over in the House, it is the Republicans with a slim majority, 221 to 213 (with one vacancy). All 435 seats are up for re-election.

Democrats are angling for a takeover, but a flood of retirements of party stalwarts from Republican states and swing districts makes their job tricky. It’s too early to predict, but the race for the House, too, appears a nailbiter.

Looking ahead

Once the Christmas lights turn off, primary season begins. Soon enough, the nominees will be chosen, the Conventions finished, the candidates’ campaigns will be in full swing. Assuming the Republicans choose Trump, he will need to divide his time between boisterous rallies in swing states and stern contemplation in courtrooms around the country. It will be a bizarre and compelling spectacle.

Come November, everything will be on the line.

Stay tuned for more.