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As long expected, US President Joe Biden will face his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, in the 2024 election.

Last Tuesday [5 March] was effectively the final chance for their rivals to put up a fight — to cause a surprise upset and demonstrate themselves to be a realistic alternative to the Trump/Biden rematch that few desire. It came to nothing.

“Super Tuesday” saw voters across 15 states pick their preferred Republican or Democratic candidate for President. It was by far the biggest day on the primary calendar.

In the Republican primaries, Trump won 14 of the 15 states over his last remaining rival, former U.N Ambassador and South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley. He claimed most of those by more than 50 per cent, including Haley’s neighbouring state of North Carolina. Haley’s sole victory (by just 4 per cent) was in the tiny state of Vermont — the state with the fewest delegates available on the day. Just hours after her massive defeat, Haley dropped out of the race, leaving Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee for President.

A similar story played out in the Democratic primaries, where Biden won all 15 states on offer, most by more than 70 per cent. His only competitive rival, Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips, failed to muster a fight, and he too dropped out of the race soon after.

The real campaign starts now.

Eight months to go

The average time between when an Australian Prime Minister calls an election and when the election is held is between one and three months. These months are exhausting and gruelling for the candidates, campaigners, journalists and political enthusiasts, but soon after they begin, it’s all over.

Americans do things differently.

Now that the presidential candidates are set, the U.S. public (and indeed much of the world) will be treated to an eight-month campaign that will dominate news, advertising and the general agenda. More than US$10 billion is expected to be spent on political advertising, and every sneeze, stumble and minor scandal will be treated as a seismic event.

Late Thursday evening U.S. time, Biden was given the perfect platform to launch his campaign when he delivered the annual State of the Union address in front of a full sitting of Congress and an estimated 30 million viewers at home. While a typical State of the Union address is often a long laundry list of the administration’s accomplishments and plans for the future, Biden’s speech was a fully-fledged campaign launch, deriding Trump (to whom he referred only as “my predecessor”), and emphasising the issues he believes are most important to his campaign: defending American democracy, protecting and enshrining reproductive rights, aiding Ukraine, lowering the cost of living, achieving bipartisan consensus on immigration, and standing up to big corporations.

Biden was loud, emphatic and at times angry, goading Republicans and relishing the chance to defend and promote his agenda. Though he occasionally stumbled, Biden avoided the much-feared major gaffe that Republicans (and the media) are only too keen to jump on, outperforming his low expectations, which might just play in his favour.

The President is well aware that his approval rating is extremely low largely due to his age. A popular presidency is as much about effectively communicating an agenda as it is about delivering one, and Biden’s frailty and frequent gaffes have made him a less than effective communicator, affirming the view of many that he is too old to be President.

Just hours before the State of the Union address, a Trump-aligned super PAC (Political Action Committee) aired an ad that posed the question: “Can Biden even survive to 2029?”

Biden and his team were ready to respond:

“The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are.”

Expect to hear a lot more of this as team Biden hits the campaign trail, travelling across the country to deliver speeches across the swing states over the next few weeks.

The state of the race

If the election were held today, Donald Trump would win. He leads all the major polls, both in the national race and in most of the key swing states, with voters repeatedly saying that they disapprove of Biden more than they did four years ago, and that they don’t think he has been an effective President. A material number of voters who chose Biden four years ago say they will change their vote, mostly young men and Black and Hispanic voters, all of whom traditionally vote blue.

Biden has plenty of time to engage these often less-engaged voters; plenty of time to emphasise the dangers his predecessor poses and to make clear his accomplishments. But he will need to do so from an historically difficult position.

Can he convince voters that his age is no barrier to effective governing?

Can he convince voters that Trump really does pose an existential threat to democracy at home and abroad?

Can he continue to make access to abortion a winning issue for Democrats?

Can he convince voters that despite rising prices, America’s economy and Americans’ own personal economic situations have improved, both relative to four years ago and relative to the rest of the world?

Can he balance the fine line between sufficiently supporting the Palestinians’ plight in Gaza in order to appease progressive and Muslim voters, while also defending Israel’s right to defend itself in a way that appeases the large, Democrat-leaning Jewish community?

And finally, can he convince voters that it is the Republicans, not Biden, who have caused a crisis at the border by blocking common-sense bipartisan immigration reform?

Outside a totally unexpected scandal or surprise, the answer to these questions will determine the Presidency.

Trump’s court battles

Perhaps the biggest unknown of the election is what will come of the four criminal trials in which the former President is the defendant.

Already the United States Supreme Court has granted Trump one significant victory, overturning the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision that ruled Trump is barred from running for President because he engaged in insurrection, and in doing so, ending any and all speculation that Trump would be ineligible for President.

But the four criminal trials remain. One of those — a federal case in Washington D.C. alleging that Trump engineered an effort to steal the election — was meant to commence last week, but Trump has successfully convinced the Supreme Court to decide whether he is immune from criminal prosecution for any actions taken while in office. Even if the Supreme Court rejects this sweeping argument (as it is expected to do), its decision to take on the case means that the D.C. trial isn’t likely to start until at least September.

The other federal case — alleging that Trump mishandled classified documents — is set to begin in July or August, but it is unclear whether voters consider the charges sufficiently serious to have an impact on the race.

On 25 March, the New York State case commences, alleging that Trump made hush money payments to buy pre-election silence from adult film start Stormy Daniels, though many experts dismiss this case as legally dubious.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Trump’s re-election campaign is the trial in Georgia, where state prosecutors allege that Trump violated conspiracy laws to overturn his narrow low of the state to Biden. The trial was meant to commence on 5 August, but it recently emerged that District Attorney Fani Willis — the prosecutor who brought the claims against Trump — had a romantic relationship with a lawyer she hired to manage the case. Another judge is currently deciding whether Willis should be disqualified from the proceeding, which would upend the trial timetable and potentially put the entire trial in peril.

Many polls show that if Trump is convicted in one of these trials before the election (and especially either of the stolen election cases), enough voters would change their votes to swing the election. But due to the savvy efforts of Trump’s legal team, the Supreme Court’s appetite to somewhat assist these efforts, and the poor personal choices made by key prosecutors, it is looking increasingly likely that no jury will have the chance to decide on Trump’s guilt before the voters make their choice at the ballot box.

What next?

The campaign is underway. Trump and Biden are presenting their opposing visions for America. Trump is balancing his time between fiery campaign rallies and solemn court attendances, while Biden must also manage hugely consequential wars in Europe and the Middle East. The next eight months will be intense.