Voter and candidate psychology in Election Year, USA
The likely Biden-Trump rematch in 2024 will further expose a divided America
The US enters 2024 in the apparent semi-hysteria of what Frank Bruni calls “apocalyptic partisanship, in which your opponent is the agent of something like the End of Days.” However, Trump’s divisive approach to politics as an “us/them dominance game” may have less appeal than it did in 2020.
Biden has declared “There’s something dangerous happening in America,” citing as cause “the guy who claims law and order [who] stands for lawlessness and disorder.” Trump improbably counters that it is Biden who is “the destroyer of American democracy” and if Biden wins, “we won’t have a country anymore.”
A large majority of voters in the United States indicate they would prefer new candidates altogether. Half the country believes Trump is unsuited to be President. But Biden inspires less enthusiasm than any prior President seeking re-election. Nonetheless, each seems to have his nomination locked-up.
Trump also brims with confidence and that he now “owns” the Republican Party. Indeed, since winning the Presidency in 2016, he has made unconditional loyalty to him a requirement for advancement of insider Republicans’ political careers. Plus, he has the endorsements of over 100 members of the House, while his still far-behind rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have 5 and 1 respectively.
However, the mood of voters has changed from 2016, according to Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson in the New York Times. Then, Republicans welcomed candidate Trump’s promise to “shake things up,” and “drain the Washington swamp.” But Trump’s four chaotic years as President persuaded voters to vote in 2020 for the safer non-chaotic candidate, Joe Biden. Today’s post-Covid voters, including many Republicans, prioritize risk avoidance – be it with their finances, the national economy, border security, or the world.
Consequently, Trump is trying now to brand Biden as the real agent of chaos, stoking his own base with populist rhetoric that demonizes radical democrats. He believes it still hits the spot with “left-behind” working and middle class people, mainly white, who revere him as their champion against any change in America that they believe rewards educated urban and coastal elites, and upwardly mobile minorities and immigrants at their expense.
Trump’s revisionist self-identification as the “stability candidate” is propounded by Mattthew Schmitz, of the American Conservative, who declares Trump to be “perceived by many voters as a pragmatic if unpredictable kind of moderate,” not as an authoritarian. Schmitz contends Trump’s supporters conclude “he’s not so bad,” and “less an ideological warrior than a flexible-minded businessman” who favours negotiation and compromise, citing Trump’s less draconian positions on health care, social security, abortion, and LGBT rights.
This normalized depiction of Trump ignores that on top of his unprecedented election denial, he has heralded a very right-wing and nationalist second-term. According to reporting from Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman, and Charlie Savage in The New York Times, he would: weaponize the Department of Justice against opponents; effect sweeping crackdowns on illegal migrants, deporting millions; go protectionist on world trade by installing baseline tariffs on most imports, while intensifying economic conflict with China; undercut NATO; establish a thoroughly Trump-loyal federal work force; and eliminate institutional checks and balances to presidential powers, including enabling deployment of US troops on domestic soil to counter mass protest.
Meanwhile, Trump has so far exploited with some success the four criminal indictments against him, including for contributing to an insurrection, and various state attempts to exclude him from the ballot. Still, polls (Wall Street Journal, Yahoo News and YouGov) predict that if a criminal conviction actually appears likely, the defection of moderates would drain his support by 5-7%. This explains why in her come-from-behind nomination challenge to Trump, Nikki Haley assures Trump voters she would as President pardon him if he is convicted.
Doubt about Trump’s narcissism, wilder claims, and hate agenda does rattle even some Republicans. Haley’s more civil approach to political combat and willingness to seek consensus on divisive issues will now face the party ballot.
In the Republican Iowa caucus primary, set for January 15, Donald Trump remains the landslide favourite. But Haley has momentum, more than doubling her poll standing since September, while erstwhile lead challenger to Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has faded. If Haley comes second in Iowa, and then presses Trump for first in the January 23, New Hampshire primary, the media, which has virtually conceded the nomination to Trump, will belatedly declare that a race is on.
Haley would still be a long shot for the nomination, though arguably a better Republican candidate for the general election. Trump dismisses her as a mere annoyance, calling the ex-Governor and ex-UN Ambassador “birdbrain.” But if she then wins in South Carolina in February, and, as the state’s ex-Governor, she just might, then the probably decisive showdown will occur on “super Tuesday,” March 5, when 16 states choose delegates to the Republican Convention in Milwaukee in mid-July.
Democratic strategists who have been confident in Biden’s superior performance as President, scoff at Trump’s concoction that Biden is the chaos candidate because of instability from post-Covid cost of living increases. They expect steadily lower inflation heralds a soft economic landing, reinforcing strong US national economic indicators that already lead the industrialized world. The ever-important price of a gallon of gas is down to $3.00! No President running for re-election with a bullish economy has ever lost.
However, our disinformation age fails to credit data once considered reliable. A majority of voters, for example, remain unconvinced that Biden offers better economic leadership over Trump. The prevailing belief about the President is that he is just too old at 81. Concerns over Vice President Kamala Harris as a hypothetical successor harden the sense of risk.
Biden seems, however, to abhor the notion of giving way to a younger nominee, even though he ran in 2020 for only one term as a “bridge candidate” to the next generation. Today, he would probably withdraw his confidence from whoever suggests he defer now to the age factor, drop out, and focus on the serious challenges before the country, which could secure a well-earned legacy.
Is Biden’s stubbornness about stepping out of the race, while there is still time for an effective Democratic governor to complete a generational change, a symptom of “King Lear syndrome?” Shakespeare’s Lear was blinded to reality by senile dementia. Biden isn’t, but nor is he entirely objective, or without vanity. He is running again because, as Bruni puts it, “the unendurable specter of Trump back in the White House leaves him no other choice.” If this infers a delusion of irreplaceability, Biden supporters consider it less delusional than Trump’s “fake, indeed fraudulent claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.” Democratic insiders hope at least that Biden will make a stronger personal projection to overcome the impression too many voters have that he is not in control.
Biden’s team is particularly frustrated by assertions of his alleged “weakness” abroad, radiated by FOX News, that ignore how effectively he has mobilized concerted international support for Ukraine’s sustained resistance to Russia’s invasion. At a time when America’s post-Cold War unipolar geo-political supremacy has given way to a more disputed multipolar era, the world sees Republican defection from continued support for Ukraine as a stunning potential retreat from US cooperative leadership.
Trump’s counter-projection of protective nationalism and utmost border security reflects the inward emphases among Republicans on immigration, household finances, and conservative cultural and identity issues. 81% of white evangelical Christians (14% of the population) support Trump. They applaud his scorn for Democrats’ plans for liberal and inclusive democracy they consider to be infringements on freedom, but also celebrate his more isolationist foreign policy stance. In asking “what’s wrong with American evangelicals,” Atlantic writer Tim Alberta reports a dissenting evangelical critic’s answer as “America. Too many of them worship America.” Biden too boosts America. But he is much more alive to US responsibility to engage other global points of view.
The current conflict between Israel and Hamas has also become a partisan issue, with Republicans more supportive of the Israeli hardline approach, while a Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats’ sympathies are more evenly split between Israelis and Palestinians, though with younger Democrats being more critical of Biden’s reflexive unconditional support for Israel. Biden understands how Israel’s trauma from the October 7 Hamas onslaught compelled a hard IDF security response to end the Hamas threat. He has urged Israel to minimize the military campaign’s catastrophic effect on civilians that so dismays opinion internationally and in his own Democratic party. While Israeli PM Netanyahu ignores his advice, events in weeks and months to come may still validate Biden’s position, but at the moment, despite enormous investment by the Administration to end the violent conflict, many in the Democratic party see Biden as too equivocal in his balancing act.
Biden’s team maintains optimism that more buoyant economic and international trends will turn voter opinion around. But they know his re-election needs an energetic and optimistic Biden campaign performance to staunch the leakage of younger, Hispanic, and even Black, voters from the coalition that won for him in 2020. Convinced that Trump’s aberrant personality will finally crash on the rocks of law and public opinion, they would much rather run against him than Haley, and polls suggest they are right.
The only thing that is certain is that the campaign in 2024 is going to be uglier than 2020’s, possibly exposing the divided American mind at its worst. Continue to expect the unexpected.