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2024: The Rematch
Why America Seems Fated to Undergo Biden v Trump II
The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico
—“The Duel,” by Eugene Field
When I was a child, I recall listening to Field's poem. It was about a gingham dog and a calico cat who so detested each other that one night they “ate each other up”—leaving not a trace of either to be found the next morning. Years later I read the climactic scene in “The Final Problem,” in which the detective Sherlock Holmes and the evil Dr. Moriarty, embracing each other in mortal combat at the edge of Reichenbach Falls, both fall to their deaths. Still later I marveled at the teachings of the great dualist prophets, who preached that at the end of time lightness and darkness would simply annihilate each other.
Now once again, as I contemplate the next U.S. election, I’m in the mood to put on the robes of Mani and be brave. Is the end of world nigh? Are you looking forward to seeing Biden-Trump 2024, the Rematch?
If you're like most Americans, you’re not. In April, according to NBC News, 70% said that Biden should not run for re-election and 60% said Trump should not run either. Another poll in July put these shares at 59% and 61%, respectively.
No one can recall two candidates who inspire such limited enthusiasm. In June, an astounding 36% of Americans viewed neither candidate favorably. Among registered voters who had an definite opinion, 21% viewed both candidates negatively—which, so far as we know, is a record. The runner-up may have been 2016, when 16% viewed both Trump and Clinton negatively. In 2020, the figure was only 5%. In 2012 (Obama v Romney), only 3%. And remember, these historical numbers were measured just before the election, after voters had been saturated with attack ads. So the recent 21% figure may climb a lot higher in the year to come.
We all know why voters are so negative. One candidate appears unfocused and infirm, the other self-obsessed to the point of derangement. One seldom appears in public lest he stumble while telling us what he believes. And the other will soon enter courtrooms swearing he really does believe things that judges, pollsters, state officials, and most of his own advisors repeatedly told him were untrue—something close to a plea of insanity.
Nonetheless, even while we avert our gaze, there appears to be no stopping the rematch scenario.
On the Democratic side, the outlook for Biden's renomination has gradually brightened over the last twelve months. Fears of imminent recession are easing, the SPY is again rising, illegal border crossings have ebbed, and Biden's approval ratings—while still awful (in fact, slightly under Trump's at this month of his presidency)—have at least climbed back over 40%.
Most importantly, Biden enjoys the advantage of incumbency and has already proven himself against Trump. Voters are nervous about seeing younger centrists like Amy Klobuchar or Jared Polis weaken Biden by contesting his renomination. And they fear that edgier progressives like Gavin Newsom or Raphael Warnock would cause Democrats to cede independent voters to the GOP. Biden maintains a strong lead when Democrats are asked to choose between him (64%) and his two announced rivals, Robert Kennedy, Jr. (13%) and Marianne Williamson (10%). And he has an even larger lead (74%) among party regulars who are most likely vote in primaries.
On the Republican side, where we might expect more uncertainty, the momentum toward Trump also looks surprisingly robust. Last year, in the 2022 midterms, pundits declared that the conspicuous failure of MAGA candidates (relative to their non-MAGA GOP rivals) would sink Trump's prospects. That didn't happen. This year, they declared that criminal indictments would sink his prospects. Well, we're now at 91 criminal counts in four indictments. And just the opposite has occurred: If anything, the indictments are boosting Trump's approval among Republicans—especially (again, just as we’ve seen with the Democrats) among the plugged-in party regulars who dominate primaries.
Indeed, the most striking finding of the recent NYT-Siena voter survey is Trump's utter dominance among Republican voters. When interviewed, Ruth Igielnik, the lead researcher for that survey, said she had trouble finding a single demographic category—by sex, education, region, ideology, or religion—in which a GOP competitor came close to Trump. Analysts used to think that Trump would win the 2024 nomination by taking advantage of a divided field. But it turns out he doesn’t even need that advantage. When potential Republican primary voters are allowed to choose among all fourteen alternatives to Trump—including, just to be generous, “someone else” and “don’t know”—Trump still attracts a 54% majority.
Nate Cohn, who usefully divides GOP voters into six subgroups, likewise points out Trump is warping them all to his advantage. Let's start with his “Moderate Establishment” Republicans (educated, affluent, secular, socially moderate—think Susan Collins or Chris Sununu). Sure, a large share of these are Never-Trumpers. But even here, Trump beats his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, 28% to 12%. Move on to “Libertarian Conservatives,” and they're not wild about Trump, either. But again Trump beats DeSantis in this group, 43% to 12%. Of course, if you move way over to the “Right Wing” Trump heartland, those who tune in daily to Fox News and Newsmax, it’s simply no contest. These voters represent roughly one-quarter of registered Republican voters and certainly comprise those most likely to campaign and show up for primaries. Among them, Trump beats DeSantis 71% to 10%.
Still incredulous that America is heading toward a rematch? It may help to know that those who wager money on the question also believe it's likely. According to PredictIt, Biden's odds of winning his party's nomination are currently 70%. Trump's odds are 57%, which is a pretty lofty number for a man who spends much of his time thinking about how to pay his lawyers and how to stay out of prison between now and election day.
To be honest, the most likely way we are going to avoid a rematch is through death or disability.
First, let's consult the actuarial tables for males of their ages and birthyears. Over the next 14.5 months (from now until election day: November 5, 2024), the probability Biden will die is 6.8%; for Trump, it is 4.5%. As for disability, the available research suggests that, for a healthy man around age 80, the annual incidence of dementia is around 2% and the annual incidence of physical disability is around 4%. Physical disability in this context means long-term inability to perform an “activity of daily living” (such as bathing, dressing, grooming, and feeding oneself). While none of these are per se requirements for the office of the presidency, it's fair to say that the public may regard some minimal level of physical function as a prerequisite for the highest office.
In recent years, to be sure, our fitness threshold may be falling. As office holders grow older and as parties desperately cling to popular or powerful incumbents, voters may care less about it. Senator Dianne Feinstein stays in office despite obvious memory failure as does Senator Mitch McConnell despite several falls and bouts of transient aphasia. Pennsylvania voters elected John Fetterman to the U.S. Senate despite a stroke-related speech impairment. Forty years ago, during his initial run for the White House at age 69, Ronald Reagan went out of his way to defend himself from charges that he was too old for the job. Today, at that age, no contender need bother addressing such charges.
Still, I think we can impute at least a 5% probability to some event or accident or revelation (Biden may already suffer from disabilities we don't know about) that would send one or the other party scurrying in search of a new candidate. Again, this number is clearly higher for Biden—given his older age, his more obvious signs of frailty, and the extra rigors of his current job: campaigning while being president.
All told, when we add up the odds of death or disability for either candidate, and after adjusting for overlap, we arrive at a figure of at least 20%. This means at least one chance in five that we won't get a Biden-Trump rematch for these reasons.
More than half of this figure of this goes to Biden. Which means that it explains a large share of PredictIt's 29% odds that Biden does not become the Democratic nominee. It may account for all of the 7% odds PredictIt currently imputes to Kamala Harris's odds of becoming the nominee. (The closer we get to the nomination, the harder it will be to find any last-minute alternative to the current vice president.) It may also account for PredictIt's estimate that Kamala Harris has a 29% chance of becoming the 47th president: Even if she doesn't win by becoming this year's nominee, she probably has more than 20% odds of becoming president should Biden be elected (current odds: 46%) and should Biden subsequently die or be disabled during four years of office (which, actuarially, is a fifty-fifty coin toss).
Now let's turn to Trump, where we can identify a lot more obstacles other than death or disability that still stand between the candidate and his candidacy.
One might assume that some other GOP candidate could still catch fire and challenge The Donald. Trump isn't the incumbent, after all, and during the most recent three elections (2018, 2020, 2022) his MAGA brand repeatedly failed—which may suggest to GOP voters that they should try someone else.
If you think that argument seems reasonable, even self-evident, well, that's because you still don't appreciate how unreasonable this election has become. The argument doesn't work largely because so many GOP voters believe that the MAGA brand did not in fact fail, but rather that the elections were “stolen” from the Trumpists. “Stop the Steal” is so powerful that none of Trump's GOP opponents (except Chris Christie, whose approval languishes below 3%) dares challenge it. Which puts them in the hopeless position of saying that the Republican Party should “move on” after agreeing (maybe, sort of, perhaps) that Trump and his acolytes really did win those elections. And that in turn makes them appear at best utterly weak and at worst part of the coverup, wretched patsies.
Will any candidate surmount these challenges and overcome Trump? Possibly, though it's hard to see right now how that will happen. At the moment, Trump is confident enough to snub his own party by refusing to debate befuddled contenders who (he says) are just “way too far” behind him. Instead, he'll broadcast an interview with Tucker Carlson. Once again, it's all about Trump. And once again, Trump gets to stiff his rivals with a slam-dunk move that absolutely delights the Republicans most certain to vote in a primary.
OK, so there's also the specter of Trump's upcoming court appearances. Thus far, multiple felony indictments have not posed any obstacle to Trump's candidacy. Indeed, they may have helped it by demonstrating to Trump supporters just how much the Establishment reviles him and targets him for what he stands for. It matters to Trump's populist core, those who regularly express their deep grievances against the elite who rule over our media, schools, and political system, that the deep state isn't going after Trump's rivals; it's only going after Trump. And like the Son of God himself, Trump will bear this persecution, this crown of thorns, so that his followers don't have to. “They want to take away my freedom because I will never let them take away your freedom,” declared Trump in a line that now galvanizes crowds. “They want to silence me because I will never let them silence you.”
Still, we might ask: Does there ever come a point when Trump's criminal indictments turn from a positive to a negative? Let's consider first the most obvious show stopper: a verdict and a prison sentence before the next election. It's impossible to say how likely this is. None of these trials will start until January of 2024, and I can't imagine the case posing the greatest legal jeopardy for Trump (the complex RICO conspiracy and election interference charges brought by the state of Georgia) reaching a verdict until well into 2025. As for the New York business record falsification case, while it may reach a verdict much earlier, any penalty seems unlikely to include prison.
As for other two, who knows? A worthwhile fact about the federal “January 6” conspiracy trial (that's the one scheduled to begin in January) is that one of its four charges is violation of Section 241 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which was originally legislated just after the Civil War as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1870. Intended by Radical Republicans in Congress to empower President Ulysses S. Grant to suppress widespread insurrection in the conquered South, it is also known as the Force Act or the first Ku Klux Klan Act.
After voting to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial, Senator McConnell delivered a surprisingly vehement denunciation of Trump's conduct around the events of January 6 before concluding, at the end, that impeachment simply does not apply to “former” government officers. But he did add that “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen… We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
The federal conspiracy trial, with all of its Reconstruction-era baggage, is in effect an effort to follow up on Senator McConnell's suggestion. Yes, we do have a criminal justice system in this country. Let's see what it does. If these charges reach guilty verdicts, it's hard to imagine Trump not receiving a sentence that goes well beyond community service.
What we do know is that Trump shows few signs of fretting over the nearterm prospect of jail time. U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is presiding over the “January 6” trial, has repeatedly warned Trump and his attorneys to desist making derogatory or threatening remarks that could intimidate witnesses or bias jurors. If he doesn't, she promises to “take whatever measures necessary to safeguard the integrity of these proceedings.” The most obvious of these measures would be a speedier trial, ruinous fines, or even jail time for the defendant. We'll see if Trump shuts up. Or whether he wants to dare Ms. Chutkan and all the other judges to do their worst. The image of the candidate in chains—a scene worthy of Trump’s 2013 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame—would no doubt electrify his followers and throw his rivals into the forgettable darkness.
And, heaven forbid, if it came to that? Well, we would first have to imagine exactly how a former President, will all of his Secret Service retinue, could be detained in any way. Under federal law, after all, ex-presidents enjoy unconditional Secret Service protection for life. Realistically, we're probably talking about some sort of special detention center, customized for Trump's occupancy.
Beyond that, there's nothing in the U.S. Constitution that bars a jailed suspect or even an imprisoned and convicted felon from seeking or occupying of the office of the Presidency. (A felon, however, would probably be unable to vote for himself.) The only historical precedent is the 1920 candidacy of socialist Eugene Debs. Convicted of sedition in 1918 for inciting workers to resist conscription during World War I, Debs ran his presidential campaign from prison and won nearly a million votes, a respectable 3.4% of the U.S. electorate. If it came to that, an incarcerated Trump would no doubt get better treatment than Debs, whose four years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary seems to have ruined his health. (He was released at the end of 1921 after his sentence was commuted by President Harding, and he died in 1926.)
Enough scenarios. We have surveyed the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here's the bottom line. A Biden-Trump rematch in 2024 is likely, perhaps a lot more likely than you might have supposed.
It makes no difference that you may not want to see the rematch. It makes no difference that you may even loathe the idea, not just for what these candidacies say about what America has become, but even more for how this election is likely to change America in its aftermath. These are not normal times. These are “Fourth Turning” times. And each year the likelihood that such events will fundamentally transform our republic is rising.
When we read about great Manichean contests in literature and philosophy—mythic struggles between good and evil—we find some comfort in the end-of-the-world finale. Everything is annihilated, leaving room for a new world to find peace. In his wonderful poem, Fields attests that the gingham dog and the calico cat employed “every tooth and claw / In the awfullest way you ever saw.” Yet “Next morning, where the two had sat / They found no trace of dog or cat.”
It is not so simple for us mortal humans. We aren't made of gingham or calico. A new world may in time arrive, but not without all of us enduring a prolonged and often painful process of gestation.
I'm just getting started on this topic. Next time, I'll explore exactly why America seems fated to undergo an electoral rematch that most voters don’t want. And the time after that, we'll delve into specific 2024 scenarios, in all their variety and complexity.
So ends my first column here on Substack. The next installment will be coming in two weeks. If you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media or with friends—it’s free to read as part of our launch. I appreciate all of you who have subscribed so far and want the DU community to keep growing. Until next time.