President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump squared off four years ago and are on track for the first major-party rematch of two incumbents since 1892. Biden and Trump are the oldest presidential candidates in history, and each man has an established political brand. Biden first won federal office in 1972, and it’s been over a decade since the GOP nominated someone other than Donald Trump. The 2024 election is like all the SIRIUS XM oldies stations—Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Radio—rolled into one.

Still, as familiar as the campaign may seem, there remain several unknowns. Here are four questions—this is Passover season, after all—about the 2024 election that remain unanswered. The solutions to these four problems will decide the next president. No doubt there are other imponderables. These are mine.

Will the Trump Trials Matter? Many voters say Trump would be unfit for the presidency if a jury found him guilty of a crime. The November New York Times / Siena College poll had a Trump win turn into a loss in the case of a Trump conviction. The January NBC News poll found a similar result. In the Super Tuesday exit poll, roughly a third of Republican primary voters in Virginia and in North Carolina said a conviction would render Trump unfit. Twenty-three percent of GOP voters in California agreed.

While there’s a difference between telling a pollster that a conviction should disqualify Trump and staying home or voting for Biden, Trump can’t afford to risk his comeback on juries in New York, Washington, D.C., Georgia, and Florida. That’s why he has tried to postpone his four criminal trials until after Election Day.

And he’s been partly successful. Jury selection in Trump’s trial for violating election law by paying hush-money to a mistress in 2016 is scheduled to begin on March 25. That case, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, is the weakest of the four indictments leveled against Trump. If the trial goes forward as planned, it will be a circus, with highly publicized testimony from Resistance mavens Stormy Daniels and Michael Cohen.

Whether a conviction would galvanize the electorate in the same way as a conviction related to January 6, 2021, or to improperly retaining and obstructing the recovery of classified documents, is unclear. The good news for Trump is that the more serious cases against him might not go to trial before November.

For example, Fani Willis’s case against Trump for interfering with the 2020 election in Georgia is a shambles because she attempted to cover up her romantic relationship with the prosecuting attorney. Furthermore, RICO cases involving multiple defendants, like the one Willis brought against Trump and 18 of his associates, are often subject to delay.

Meanwhile, Jack Smith’s classified-information case against Trump involves complex rules for handling secret documents that will slow down the proceedings. And the Supreme Court must hear parts of Smith’s case against Trump for conspiracy to obstruct certification of the 2020 election before a D.C. trial can begin.

Since the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago for classified materials on August 8, 2022, the former president’s legal troubles have helped him politically. On the current trajectory, they will continue to do so.

Will Biden or Trump Have a Health Episode? One reason to be skeptical that a conviction in the Bragg case would doom Trump is that a supermajority of voters says that Biden’s age makes him unfit for another term. If a conviction happens, we are back where we started: a choice between two candidates hardly anybody wants.

It’s worse for Biden, though. His age and its connection to voters’ perceptions that he’s been a weak and ineffective president are why Trump is ahead. The 78-year-old Trump may be three years younger than Biden, but voters are not as worried about his age and mental and physical stamina.

Actuaries say that both Biden and Trump are likely to enjoy higher-than-average life expectancy, but you never know what might happen. Hillary Clinton’s fainting spell on September 11, 2016, was the beginning of the end of her campaign. Trump’s three-day hospitalization for Covid in October 2020 compounded his poor performance in the first debate and threw the country into further disarray. Neither candidate is getting younger. A health scare late in the campaign could upend the race.

Who Will Be Trump’s Running Mate? The long general-election campaign ahead will feature at least one dramatic moment: Trump’s selection of a vice-presidential nominee. Trump’s pick may not figure heavily in voters’ preferences, but it will say something about where Trump wants the GOP to go in 2028 and beyond.

When Trump picked Mike Pence in 2016, he was interested in uniting the Republican Party. That’s no longer his concern. He’s more interested in finding a loyalist who looks good on television. Players in the veep stakes include Dr. Ben Carson, Senators Tim Scott, Katie Britt, and J.D. Vance, Governors Kristi Noem and Doug Burgum, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, and MAGA ambassadors Vivek Ramaswamy and Tucker Carlson.

Whoever Trump picks, keep in mind that he may want to leave space for a family member to succeed him.

Will Biden’s Bet Pay Off? At this writing, the horse race is neck-and-neck. Trump enjoys a narrow lead nationwide—his best and most consistent numbers ever—and a wider lead in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Nevada. If Trump wins those four states, and holds the states he won in 2020, he will be the next president.

There are other paths to the White House, of course. In the scenario described above, for example, Biden could still win by flipping North Carolina. Paradoxically, the closeness of the race helps explain Biden’s confidence that he will be reelected. That confidence may be misplaced, but there is a certain logic to it. The Biden campaign believes that presidential approval ratings no longer correlate with election outcomes.

After all, Biden has been below 50 percent job approval since the summer of 2021, but the Democratic Party is doing okay. It picked up Senate seats and governor’s mansions in 2022, overperformed in special elections, narrowed the Republican House majority to one seat, and routinely wins referenda on abortion rights.

To hear the Biden campaign tell it, voters may say the president is too old and a failure, they may gripe about the economy and the border and the state of the world, but at the end of the day they vote against MAGA candidates and won’t be able to stomach another four years of Trump. “We live in abnormal political times, but the American people are still normal people,” longtime Biden adviser Bruce Reed told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker. “Given a choice between normal and crazy, they’re going to choose normal.”

Biden is betting that he can reconstitute his winning coalition by reminding voters why they denied Trump a second term four years ago. Constant needling and nonstop television advertising will provoke Trump into making extreme statements and alienating swing voters. All Biden needs to do is be the adult in the room.

There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that it relies on evoking memories of the past, while elections are about the future. And right now Trump is persuading voters that he, not Biden, will be able to create a better tomorrow.

The second problem with Biden’s strategy is that it rests on the assumption that his party’s relative success vis-à-vis MAGA will apply to him. Biden may have won in 2020, but that race was closer than expected, and the world is a different place. Voters wary of Trump might support a third-party candidate rather than Biden. In which case, the 2024 result could look a lot like 2016. When Trump won.

Photo: AP Photo

We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link