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It Can’t Be Happening!

In America the anticipated Trump-Biden rematch remains too close to call

By: /
27 November, 2023
Never before has it been felt that American democracy itself was on the ballot. Image by Pete Linforth/Pixabay. Never before has it been felt that American democracy itself was on the ballot. Image by Pete Linforth/Pixabay.
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

People are asking everywhere, “what is going on with America?” The world has always followed US presidential elections. But never before has it been felt that American democracy itself was on the ballot.

So is, for that matter, US world leadership. The US is the world’s major showcase of democracy, and defender of the cooperative international rules-based order. But Donald Trump is a vivid isolationist internationally, and an autocrat at home who contests democracy’s checks and balances that limit the President’s power. 

Is it plausible that enough Americans want him back as President? Until the election on Tuesday, November 5, 2024, Open Canada will report monthly on the 60th quadrennial presidential election race, and on the state of the American psyche, as events unfold.

As it stands today, most analysis concurs that Biden and Trump both have locks on their party nominations; and the race between them is a coin toss.

But expect the unexpected to intrude. The race is already less static than it appears. What will not change is the unusual importance of this election for America, the world, and Canada.

Trump, who in 2021 was believed to be terminally discredited, probably would win an election held now. A NY Times/Siena poll in early November caused shock waves with its reveal that Trump is ahead in five of the six states considered crucial to win the electoral college. 

However, polling today is unreliable as a predictor of the vote a year away. Instead, they capture more of a “vent” of the negative national mood, the belief the country “is on the wrong track” that has for twenty years disapproved the job of incumbents.

Campaigns, of course, also make a difference and this one is just beginning. At this point, previous election winners – Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992, and Obama in 2008 – trailed even farther behind in the polls. But they were challengers, just becoming known, not the incumbent. Running for re-election in 2011, incumbent Obama had similar low job approval numbers to Biden’s. But he had the energy and charisma needed to turn the race around.

Joe Biden has mainly counted on his sound first-term record as the case for his re-election. A costly early bump was the disorderly and abrupt evacuation from Afghanistan in August, 2021 which triggered a sharp polling decline that has endured. Since, his team of Blinken, Sullivan, Austin, Yellen, and Burns has recovered, and restored the international respect that Trump’s erratic tenure lost. But Biden himself doesn’t get much electoral credit. Foreign policy is anyway seldom a lead electoral issue for Americans, except for costly foreign wars, from Vietnam to Iraq.

James Carville’s adage for Clinton’s 1992 campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid,” indicates America’s usually dominant election preoccupation. Here, Biden can point to 14 million new jobs created; GDP growth today at 4.9%, leading the industrialized world; inflation wrestled back to 3.2%, down from 7.1% in March, without denting record-high employment. Wages are keeping pace and gains are for once generally spread across regions and income levels. While enduring income disparity preoccupies progressives, average household net worth is up 37%.

Biden also enabled significant legislation despite a toxically divided partisan Congress, notably a massive infrastructure and climate-change finance package that offers exemplary global leadership.

Why, then, given the contrast to Trump’s chaotic prior record, is the election too close to call? Because it’s not about Biden’s record. It is turning primarily on the personal suitability of the candidates. Polls indicate that a clear majority of Americans would prefer to see different candidates on the ballot. So, between Biden and Trump, who is the one most Americans want least?

Biden’s vulnerability is the passage of time. 81 now, he would be President until 86. Among hundreds of democratically-elected postwar world leaders, only German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stayed in office later, leaving at 87. Biden tries to vaunt the resilience, patience, and wisdom that experience can bestow. But in today’s mediatized and performative politics, appearances are everything. To many, he appears frail, somewhat “small” compared to the hyper-energized and exaggerated personality of Donald Trump who calls him “weak,” an abhorred image for the American political arena.

Bur Biden is confident that he will again trounce Trump who turns 78 next June. And if Trump was to be elected he would become the oldest American ever elected President. “Don’t compare me to The Almighty,” Biden urged in September 2022, just before the US midterms,  “Just compare me to the alternative,” clearly referring to Trump.

Indeed, Trump stands indicted 4 times on 91 felony counts in several jurisdictions. While he exploits them as merely vindictive political prosecutions so as to firm up loyalty and contributions from his base, they pose real legal jeopardy, especially the Atlanta charges of trying to overthrow the 2020 election, and thus, American democracy itself. Estimates are that likelihood of conviction could diminish his support by 6%. Then again, he appears undaunted, posting on the social media platform Truth Social in August that he needed just “one more indictment to ensure my election.”

Given Trump’s public approval rating is even lower than Biden’s, not much beyond his base support of about 36%, Trump might normally try to enlarge his appeal to median voters, and to independents. But he seems almost manically in thrall to his personalist movement, ramping up inflammatory messaging to keep his hold on the media. His refusal to accept the 2020 election results has fuelled a paranoid populist antagonism to US institutions, elites, and normative governance practice. “I am your retribution,” he promises his base of rural, older, evangelical, and essentially white and less-educated supporters. Reinforced by echo chambers like FOX News, they celebrate Trump’s promise of soft totalitarian vengeance against “the threat from within,” the “elitists” and adversaries he described recently as “vermin” who needed to be “rooted out.” 

However, political dividing lines are not static. Trump’s extremism drives moderate Republicans and fiscal conservatives toward the “independents” column, or to sitting the election out. But he is picking up more working class voters, Hispanics, and even some blue-collar Blacks.

Trump’s scorning of the GOP candidate debates also indicates the extent to which he considers the Republican Party his personalized electoral vehicle and that his nomination is locked up. 

Under his control, the GOP has abandoned most former conservative principles to become what UK analysts call a “triple P” – populist, polarizing, and post-truth. The GOP didn’t even bother to present a party platform for the 2020 election. More recently, the formerly-classically conservative Heritage Foundation is preparing a second term blueprint, “Project 2025” that The New York Times warns “would upend some of the long-held norms of American democracy and the rule of law.”

As the more strident message isn’t moving the needle toward a decisive majority, the Trump campaign itself has downplayed expectations of a more radical second term. But so far, the candidate hasn’t gone along.  

His nomination could also turn into a real race if the most plausibly centrist of Trump’s opponents, ex-Governor Nikki Haley, builds on her impressive debate performance, wins an early primary, such as New Hampshire’s in January, to emerge as the GOP alternative.  

As for Democrats, their campaigns to protect abortion rights and democratic safeguards have done well in mid-term and off-year elections. They are increasing their percentage of the college-educated. But the 19 to 29 year-old cohort that Biden won decisively in 2020 seems turned off by the ‘green light’ he seemed to give Israel to smash Gaza Palestinians in “self-defence” after the appalling Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7.

Nevertheless, President Biden firmly believes he has proven to be the surest bet to beat Donald Trump, even though polls show that a generic Democrat would fare better. Given Trump’s first term performance and what he heralds for a second, the risky closeness of the race, and the massive stakes, former Obama adviser David Axelrod said aloud what many Democrats believe – that President Biden should be content with his one successful term and declare he must focus now on national challenges and managing the dangerous Ukraine and Mid-East crises, leaving political campaigning to a successor (from among successful Democratic Governors, such as Pritzker of Illinois, Shapiro of Pennsylvania, Newsom of California, Whitmer of Michigan, or Senators). Biden responded badly to the suggestion, but it’s out there now.

So, predictions of any kind are premature.  A third “No Label” party entry is in the works, that could further scramble the numbers, having already secured ballot access in thirteen states.

Meanwhile, the democratic part of the world is biting its lip, and Vladimir Putin is rubbing his hands. As for us, only 14% of Canadians had a favourable view of Trump in 2021. Today, among much else, he proposes a 10% tariff on all US imports. We need to stay closely tuned.

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