Can Joe Biden Fight from Behind in a Rematch Against Donald Trump?

The decisive early Presidential primaries normally are set in a wintry, excited environment. Iowa is frigid; New Hampshire is icy; barren landscapes open up into hot rooms, flooded by television lights and filled with crowds of expectant, exuberant supporters. But this time everything has been quiet. Debates have garnered only tiny audiences; the likely nominees have barely appeared on the trail; it is virtually impossible to remember a single moment of significant conflict in the year since Republican candidates began to tour the early states. Those candidates, like the sitting President, have stared out blinking into small rooms—a hundred or so serious-faced audience members, a dozen young staffers at the back trying not to look disappointed. Where is everyone? What has been billed as a decisive fight for democracy is taking place within a hazy zone of disinterest.

Amid this indifference, and perhaps partly because of it, Donald Trump is winning. His sweep of the Super Tuesday contests forced his sole remaining primary opponent, Nikki Haley, to suspend her campaign, confirming what has been apparent for a while: Trump will be the Republican nominee for President. And, though President Biden’s campaign has signalled that Trump is the opponent they want—that Trump is the weakest possible Republican nominee—right now, Trump is beating Biden, too. For the Democrats, the polls have rolled in with the depressing regularity of scores from a Knicks West Coast road trip: loss, loss, loss, once every two to three days. As February gave way to March, the blue-ribbon polls consolidated: CBS, the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News all had Trump leading nationally by between two and five points. In the swing states, the situation looks worse: A Bloomberg survey in February had Trump leading in all seven that it tested. In Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, Trump was up by six points each, a daunting lead. The polls all tell the same basic story: Trump is on track to win the Presidency, possibly by a lot.

Reaching this point has been spectacularly easy for Trump, who has not had to do most of what Presidential candidates normally do, nor even what he did in the lead-up to the 2016 and 2020 elections. He chose to not participate in any of the Republican Presidential-primary debates, denying his opponents the ability to attack him, and he has held far fewer events; there has been nothing like the stadium-and-airport-barnstorming tour of 2016. Trump has barely advertised, has not courted the mainstream media, and, instead of seeking the broad audience that he used to command on Twitter (now X), he has so far confined himself to Truth Social, the right-wing platform he owns, whose audience is niche enough that he might as well be communicating in invisible ink. Trump has said in speeches that he plans to replace much of the federal bureaucracy with loyalists, and has reportedly privately expressed support for a sixteen-week national abortion ban; beyond that, there has been little anyone would call a platform. Presidential campaigns are often said to succeed only if they are about the future, but Trump 2024 has largely been about comeuppance for the past. “I will be your retribution,” Trump promised, early on. On the evening of Super Tuesday, as winning results rolled in, his campaign issued a triumphant statement to its supporters: “Victory is our ultimate revenge!”

Has Trump been lucky? In some ways, of course. The Justice Department and prosecutors in Georgia began to build their cases against him for insurrection long after January 6th. Those trials, which have been hampered and delayed by Trump’s motions and appeals (and some unforced errors by the Fulton County prosecutor, Fani Willis), now look likely to take place after the election, if at all. Mitch McConnell failed to find enough Republican votes to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, and most leading Republicans quickly fell in line behind the former President after the attack on the Capitol. (On Wednesday, McConnell announced that he was endorsing Trump for President.) Trump’s primary opponents proved weak, and were shy about attacking him directly for fear of alienating his base. But the Trump campaign has been shrewd, too. They recognize that the central fact of American politics is still the strength of Trump’s command of his supporters. (A February poll in the Times found that forty-four per cent of voters approve of him and fifty-four per cent disapprove—practically the same figures as in November, 2020.) If Trump lacks appeal to swing voters, then maybe Biden’s grip on the liberal base is weak enough that he doesn’t need it. As Chris LaCivita, a key Trump adviser, put it to the Times this week, “They have a motivation problem. We don’t.”

Eight months out from the general election, with Super Tuesday in the past and on the eve of the State of the Union, that sums up the state of play concisely. Trump can count on the allegiance of his loyalists more than Biden can be sure of retaining the support of those who voted for him in 2020. And for now, despite Trump’s many criminal and civil trials and a campaign that is unconventional at best, that gives the Republican the advantage. This dynamic means that in the coming months—roughly, until the summer Conventions—the pressure is on Biden to prove that he can pull enough of his coalition back together. For the first time since 2016, there is a new protagonist in American politics: not the man seeking to take back the White House as retribution but its current, outwardly placid occupant.

During the 2020 election cycle, as Joe Biden began to campaign in the early states, he was a genial and warm presence on the stump, but not an especially energetic or frequent one. I remember a speech he gave to a respectful, largely older audience at the University of Northern Iowa ahead of the caucuses there (where he would finish fourth). Even then, there were questions about his ability to win over young people—despite the fact that the venue was on a college campus, as an audience member pointed out to the candidate, “there’s not very many here.” Biden spoke for a while, but then he turned the microphone over to a young Democratic congresswoman, Abby Finkenauer, to deliver the closing remarks on his behalf. Biden sat back down and listened. Weird, I thought. I have been to many campaign events over the years, and, though candidates often have local politicians warm up the crowd, rarely do they ask a surrogate to deliver the final words. In retrospect, though, that anticipated a pattern that has run through Biden’s Presidency, in which he has struggled to drive home his message himself.

Since early in his Presidency, it has often seemed as if Biden is driving through a reputational sludge. Everything is harder for him. What might be temporary setbacks for other Presidents (the chaotic pullout of troops from Afghanistan, the challenges of balancing American sympathies on different sides of the Israel-Gaza war) tend to become political turning points for him. More poignantly, his major achievements don’t seem to help him in the polls, even among the voters they were designed to please. The Inflation Reduction Act was largely a green-energy-transition plan, but among young voters, for whom climate is a top issue, Biden’s appeal is alarmingly weak. (The recent Fox News poll had Trump leading even among voters under thirty.) Over the course of his Presidency, Biden’s approval rating has steadily decayed, from a position in the mid-fifties during the first six months of his Presidency to the high thirties right now. For a long time, political operatives believed that Biden’s fortunes were tied to the economy. But the economy is now booming—the stock market is setting records, inflation worries are abating. And Biden’s approval has got worse. The pattern raises the worrying possibility that maybe the source of the sludge is something he can do little about—his age.

On the night of Super Tuesday, a new phase in the election began. Trump was at Mar-a-Lago, in front of a bank of television cameras. He took as his theme American decline. “We’re a Third World country,” he said, again and again. The line is handy for Trump, because it links his permanent vision of national decline with his continued insistence that the 2020 election was stolen and that he is the persecuted leader of a righteous opposition. On the eve of Super Tuesday, he had posted on Truth Social, “We are rapidly becoming a Communist Country, and my Civil Rights have been taken away from me.” The trouble for him is that this characterization is at odds with reality: the United States has bounced back from the global pandemic far stronger than either its European competitors or China, and the country is safer and more prosperous than when Trump was in the White House. Whether in a courtroom, on Truth Social, or at Mar-a-Lago, Trump simply does not look his strongest now. He has aged badly, too.

But, if Biden’s political record so far is any guide, wavering supporters will not just accrue to him. His campaign will have to persuade them either that he is better than they currently think or (more likely) that Trump is worse. The good news for the President is that the voters he must win back are often those he won last time around. Right now, Biden and Trump are roughly tied among women, whom the Democrat won by about ten points in 2020, and among voters under thirty, who went for Biden by about twenty-four points last time. In 2020, Biden won among Latino voters by thirty-three points; now polls suggest that he slightly trails. In response, he has to marshal the same argument that has helped Democrats win elections since 2018—that abortion access and democracy must be safeguarded, that the Trump Republicans are far too extreme, and that now, at least statistically, the economy is rebounding, too.

Trump’s criminal case in New York, in which prosecutors allege he paid off Stormy Daniels, is scheduled to begin on March 25th; if a Biden rebound is coming, these next few weeks, beginning with the State of the Union, on Thursday, would be a time you’d expect to see it. In a way that might thrill the President himself, and worry many other Democrats, the spotlight is on Biden now. ♦

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