Saturday, December 2, 2023

BTRTN: A Look at the 2024 Presidential Race, One Year Out

Tom is back with the November, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review. 


The entire month of November was largely devoted, from a political standpoint, to how the Biden administration is navigating the Israel-Hamas war.  Biden progressed from a full-throated embrace of Israel’s massive response to Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack, to pressuring Israel, successfully, for a “pause” to facilitate hostage releases and to funnel humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.  With the resumption of hostilities at month's end, the war now heads into the unknown. 

Among many other things, the Israel-Hamas war is a reminder of how unforeseen events suddenly overwhelm the global/political scene, much as the bubbling lava flow from a suddenly active volcano obliterates the existing landscape. All other news has been submerged, and the prevailing wisdom about the electoral environment now must be recalibrated, as it is inevitably when new issues arise.  It would be wise to remember this point in the context of the 2024 election, particularly when confronted with polling that is reported with pseudo-disclaiming language such as “if the election were held today.”  The 2024 election is not being held today, and indeed will not be held for nearly another year, when the electoral environment will likely be radically different, as the war progresses and many other issues wax and wane.

We would thus all do well not to take too seriously the current polling with respect to the presidential election in November, 2024.  Too much can and will happen in the next 11+ months that will profoundly influence the race for the White House (and, of course, the races that will determine control the Senate and the House).  In fact, since Joe Biden’s Inaugural in January, 2021, there has been volcano after volcano, and the lava flows from them will continue and most will flow in directions that cannot be anticipated.  Frankly, we cannot even be 100% certain at this point that either Biden or Donald Trump will actually head the ticket for their respective parties (though the odds are high for both).

But we can still make judgments about today’s political environment, and so we offer, with caution, five broad conclusions to set the stage for what is certain to be – yet again – the most consequential presidential election of modern times, if not ever in our nation’s history. 

1.     The 2024 election will be very close 

This seems like a “Captain Obvious” way to begin, but it is actually a remarkably important point to underline.  Much of the recent reporting has many Democrats believing Joe Biden cannot possibly win, and this is simply (as he might say) a bunch of malarkey.  It is way too soon to even calculate odds, but if we did, his odds of reelection would certainly be in the 50% range, that is, too close to call.  This election will come down, as all recent ones have, to money, ground game and turnout, and if  Democrats do not appear to be enthusiastic about their prospects and thus will be lacking on all three, well, as the old post-bar-fight story goes, you should see the other guy.  The GOP has its share of troubles, and it too suffers from the top-of-the-ticket blues, internal strife -- and they have a very specific problem with tepid fundraising.

We are not minimizing Biden’s troubles.  Rather, the view is that they are overstated.  Make no mistake, Biden carries considerable baggage into the election (see point #4 below).  Most is undeserved, but it is real nonetheless.  But to say he cannot win, as many seem to have already concluded, is simply not supported by the facts.  Tens of millions of voters have not even begun to think about 2024, and when they do, things will be in a very differnt place.

2.     The biggest issues are largely unpredictable as to their direction and impact on 2024 

At this juncture there are five absolutely crucial issues that will surely dominate the 2024 presidential election (and downballot national and increasingly local ones as well):  in no particular order:  the economy, abortion, foreign affairs, Biden’s age and Trump’s trials.  Remarkably, among them, only abortion will be in the same place next year as it is now, that is, a powerful motivator favoring the Democrats.  Who knows where the economy will go (although it seems to be clearly trending healthier now as inflation falls, which will obviously help Biden); the path of the Israel-Hamas conflict, which seems to have the full range of A to Z options (from “at last, a two-state solution” to “World War III”) as possibilities; Biden’s health and level of capability, which could stay at its current level (that is, strong, though misunderstood), or he could suffer Mitch McConnell-esque setbacks (and Trump’s age and health could become factors too); and Trump’s trials may or may not result in convictions, that may or may not influence persuadable voters, and may differentially influence voter enthusiasm among both the GOP and Democratic bases.  

In an election that will be decided on the margin, in a handful of swing states, the twists and turns that any one of these issues could take could easily decide control of the White House, Senate and House.  And, of course, there is the possibility, or even likelihood, of new “volcanos” (or, as Donald Rumsfeld memorably described them, “unknown unknowns”) emerging. 

Other issues are, of course, important, but the view from here is that they are largely offsetting.  The GOP base is frothy over immigration, crime and culture wars; the Dems are motivated by climate change, gun control and protecting the social safety net.  Other issues may become more prominent, including a potential government shutdown and any new information that emerges (unlikely) in the Hunter Biden saga, and the relation of it to the potential Joe Biden impeachment.  We are not lacking for areas in which game-changing moments could arise.

But none of them, as of now, rise to the level of abortion as being race-deciders.  Which brings us to our next point. 

3.     The political environment right now clearly favors the Democrats, based not on polls, but on actual elections. 

The best evidence of the state of the political environment is not traditional measures such as head-to-head election polls, or the president's approval rating, or the generic ballot.  With political polarization has come a certain ossification of those measures, with answers to each rendered reflexively rather than thoughtfully, which makes them nearly meaningless.  Joe Biden, and Donald Trump before him, consistently have had approval ratings in the 40-45% range, save for Biden’s honeymoon and a few months when each dipped into the high 30% range.  The days of Americans demonstrating an ability to judge a president in any kind of nuanced or objective manner, which led to 30-60 percentage point swings between the highest and lowest approval ratings of almost every post-WWII president, are over.  And most swing state election polling points to very close outcomes..  All you can really conclude these days is that Democrats despise Republican office holders and candidates, Republicans despise Democratic ones, and for denizens of both parties, it is more about who you fear than who you are for.  (And Independents despise politicians of any stripe.) 

The best way to assess the political environment is instead to look at actual election outcomes, and, in off-cycle election years like 2023, you assess the results of special elections, which are mostly held at the local level, in state legislature races (and also the oocasional ballot initiative).  The proper gauge is not who won or lost but how the party’s did in the margin of victory versus expectations, based on 2020 and 2022 outcomes.   If a 2023 special election was won by a Democrat by +24 percentage points, and its 2020 or 2022 predecessor election was won by +10, then you can conclude the party has gotten stronger (in this case by +14 points).  While any individual race is not particularly telling, in combination, trends emerge. 

Using that metric, there were 30 such special elections in 2023 across the country before Election Day, and, on average, the Democrats exceeded their prior performance by a whopping +10 points.  That is stunning, clear evidence that the Democrats are, in general, in the driver’s seat at this time.  The Democrats have in fact, won every election cycle since 2016, having reclaimed the House in 2018, the White House and the Senate in 2020 and, against all odds and historical norms, holding the Senate and darn near maintaining control of the House in the 2022 midterms. 

The special elections in 2023 confirm the persistence of that trend, a prelude to (and predictor of) the November 7, 2023 Election Day last month, when the Democrats added convincingly to their winning streak.  They flipped the Virginia legislature, won yet another abortion-on-the-ballot constitutional referendum in Ohio (having won six out of six of them in the midterms), held the governor’s seat in deep red Kentucky, came darn close to flipping one in deep red Mississippi, and won a special U.S. House of Representatives election in Rhode Island by a greater margin than in 2022 (D+30 versus D+28).  It was as good as it gets for the Blue Team. 

The Democrats’ strong showings were largely powered by abortion, which since Dobbs has become the ticket to ride for the party, a surefire motivator for not only Democrats but the persuadable middle, particularly women who live in swing state suburbs, a group large enough to have the power to decide who will control each of the White House, Senate and House.  The Democrats’ strong performances in 2022 and 2023 derive largely from this single motivating issue, and there is no sign of it letting up, as the GOP struggles with the consequences of its dog-catches-car Dobbs victory, flailing and failing mightily in the aftermath to develop either a coherent, universal GOP policy or effective messaging on this crucial issue. 

4.      But while the environment favors the Dems, Biden is running behind the party 

The key question is whether this wind-at-their-backs Democratic momentum will benefit Joe Biden enough to carry him to reelection in 2024.  While we would argue that one should ignore the head-to-head polling numbers right now, do indeed pay attention to the underlying issues that the polling is identifying.  They show Biden weakness among groups that are key parts of the traditional blue coalition, young voters and voters of color.  It is clear that Biden/Harris “has work to do” (to use the hackneyed phrase), but what is less clear (and is underreported) is whether the suburban wins are offsetting the losses among these other groups. 

Biden is weaker than the party right now for three reasons.  One is his age.  There are a tremendous number of potential 2024 voters who know only one thing about Joe Biden:  he is old.  With that baggage carries all sorts of perceived negatives, largely focused on his ability to govern at age 81 and beyond.  What is ignored is the very obvious fact that he is governing extremely actively right now, and has the foreign and domestic accomplishments to prove it, most recently his deep involvement with the Israel-Hamas pause.  But you won’t find evidence of Biden’s vigor if you don’t look for it, and Biden himself, at any age, has never been the charismatic type who can carry his own message to the masses.  And that weakness – which is not age-related -- lies squarely with him. 

The second reason Biden is running behind the party is the economy.  Many recent articles have attempted to explain Biden’s poor ratings on this most important of issues (“It’s the economy, stupid” yet again).  They seem to conclude that the low marks reflect a combination of real data (inflation may be waning but prices are still higher than two years ago), real skepticism (about Biden’s capabilities in general, regardless of the facts, which taints his ratings on any issue, including the economy), and real anger (against a system that clearly benefits the wealthy, though largely because the GOP fails to tax them in a manner that would reduce income inequality, but Biden is in charge, so he gets the blame).  

The third reason is Israel.  Biden made a largely tactical decision to support Israel without reservation at the outset of October 7.  He felt that this bearhug would give him the most leverage possible in influencing Israel privately, and that has been the case.  His embrace was popular with Republicans but split the left, costing him among progressives, the young and among Arab-Americans, a small segment of the electorate but potentially decisive.  They hold Biden personally accountable for the embrace and less so the party at large. 

There continues to be hand-wringing among the faithful – these are, after all Democrats, and whininess is the party’s birthright, deeply embedded in its DNA – in desiring a new candidate, a savior to rescue the party from Biden’s supposed impending failure.  The faithful would do well to get over this fantasy and start hitting the phones instead to get out the vote. 

5.     Trump may have to withstand a serious threat from Nikki Haley 

Trump’s nomination is being treated as a more or less foregone conclusion, but there is another scenario that has a material chance of unfolding, featuring Nikki Haley.  In a nutshell, the early primaries have to break a certain way, and require a strong degree of cooperation among the non-Trump candidates, for Haley’s threat to balloon to DEFCON 1 levels for Trump.  In a nutshell, that path is:  a strong second place showing by Haley in New Hampshire (Iowa is less important); which spring-boards her to a near-win in her home state of South Carolina; which in turn narrows the field to set up a one-on-one face-off between Haley and Trump on Super Tuesday; followed by Trump weakening during the later primary season as the trials take their toll and assuming Haley continues to impress, as she has, on the campaign trail.  

The path is there, but there are huge potholes.  The biggest involves getting Ron DeSantis (and Chris Christie, who might do reasonably well in New Hampshire) to drop out by Super Tuesday, and also convincing his followers, and Vivek Ramaswamy’s (another one who has to go), to move to Haley rather than Trump.  The question involves whether their supporters, who defected to them from Trump presumably because they were sick of him, will go back to him should DeSantis et al drop out, or move on to Haley, who is far less aligned with DeSantis and Ramaswamy (and more mainstream) ideologically. Haley’s globalist tendencies, particularly in supporting aid to Ukraine, may be the single biggest threat to her overtaking Trump at some point – it might cap her appeal at a level well below what is required to actually beat Trump in a one-on-one matchup.  Her ideology, at this point, is the minority view versus MAGA in the GOP, especially among those who typically go to the polls in primaries, who are the crazies. 

Haley did just get a huge boost from the Koch Network, who just threw the full weight of their support to her, promising virtually unlimited dollars and a nationwide activist coalition to help her defeat Trump.  She is clearly the candidate of choice now among the GOP "donor class," who desperately want to dislodge Trump.  This will be an enormous asset for Haley, particularly in helping her ground game in the primaries. 

While it is too far out to take the 2024 general election polls too seriously (whether national or swing state specific), that is not the case for the earlier primary and caucus states with respect to the GOP nomination, which looms just a few months away.  It is clear that Trump has quite a grip on just under half the GOP in each state; DeSantis has dropped in both but particularly in New Hampshire, and Haley’s star is on the rise.  Chris Christie is also a factor in New Hampshire.  Trump appears poised to win Iowa, but New Hampshire famously often snubs their nose at Hawkeye State results, and Haley could easily get within 10 points in New Hampshire given that and her trajectory. 

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in November dropped two points versus October, from 41% to 39%.  This marked the first time in over two years that Biden fell below the 40% mark.  It’s not clear why, as his issue ratings actually showed some upward movement, in particular his handling of the economy and inflation.  The exception, though, was a modest downturn in his handling from foreign affairs, so it could be that, with the Israel-Hamas war top of mind and the pause occurring only late in the month, polling reflects th dominance of that issue during the month.

The generic ballot continues to show a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.

The "Bidenometer" rose sharply, from +52 to +57, driven by the rise in the GDP and the stock market and a sharp drop in gasoline prices.  The +57 level means the economy is in far better shape under Biden than the one he inherited from Trump (see below). 


The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

The Bidenometer measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +57 for November, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 57% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +57, the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, consumer confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger.  On the flip side, gas prices are higher, as is overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward from 0 to +57 under Biden.

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  1. Another solid analysis from BTRTN. We Democrats do tend to be “bedwetters “ and it is very good to see an assessment from a clear-eyed and data-driven perspective. Once again, many thanks!

  2. Dems need to pound DJT on his age and mental competence.

  3. You have immigration as a "Republican" issue. Unfortunately, it becomes a bipartisan issue when Democrats on the border (esp. Arizona) and in big cities (such as mine, Denver) are unwilling or unable to "solve" the issue or even find an argument about why the problems cannot be solved by Republicans.


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