Presidential Prospects: Analysis of a Trump V Biden Rematch

November will see the American electorate return to polling stations across the country in its 60th presidential election. The two likely candidates (henceforth, we will treat them as such) are personally unpopular, yet are still almost certain to be nominated, and each garners tens of millions of votes this November. The outcome? Analysts are unsure, but many predict Trump having the edge over the current president, Joe Biden. Some might ask why, or how, Trump’s political career survives. After all, he faces a multitude of legal and financial problems. However, he clearly embodies the very idea of personality politics: he himself has recognised his followers’ dogmatic approval of whatever he says or does. He also faces unpopular opponents, both within his own party and in Biden. The current president is mired by swirling rumours about his cognitive decline, and threats from a shrinking power base over his perceived support of the conflict in Gaza. Whilst his record is not to be ignored, Joe Biden’s persistently poor polling indicates an easier ride for Donald Trump, and a chance for him to become the only president, aside from the little-known Grover Cleveland, to serve two non-consecutive presidential terms.

Outside of his opponents’ weaknesses, Trump does have some advantages going into this race. Primarily, he has successfully cultivated a loyal and dedicated support base, sometimes referred to as the ‘MAGA’ base in reference to his ‘Make America Great Again’ political slogan. The MAGA base certainly support Trump, but some, such as the ‘Front Row Joes’, spend days camped outside his rallies, parrot his talking points, and others notably take his directions to extremes. Having a loyal group of followers is certainly an advantage: the growth of political echo chambers can often lead to a mob mentality, and the branding of a political community such as MAGA can create a political home, or a perceived community, of like-minded people. Many of the MAGA base support Trump for the same reasons they did in 2016, despite the torrent of controversy since then: his perceived separation from ‘the elite’, his lack of a filter, and his use of simplistic, buzz-word heavy language. Trump remains popular with this base, but most of his advantages simply come from the unpopularity of his opponents.

Joe Biden is, in comparison to many other presidents at this stage in their term, very unpopular, with a net disapproval of around 16%. These poll numbers partially result from the perception of Biden as a man in the grips of cognitive decline. Recent polling suggests 86% of Americans think that Biden is too old for the job – a damning report for the 81-year-old president. A Biden speech would, in fact, be notable if it contained no gaffes – he recently referred to Egyptian President El-Sisi as ‘the president of Mexico, Sisi’. To make matters worse, this faux pas came during a press conference in which Biden had been rejecting findings that his memory had ‘significant limitations’. An enquiry set up to investigate the president’s mishandling of classified documents found that Biden would likely not be convicted, as he just came across as an ‘elderly man with a poor memory’. This particular mistake was especially concerning, as it came in a series of comments criticising Israel’s conduct in Gaza, comments that could have assuaged concerns from his potential voter base. The president has taken a lot of criticism here – whilst the US has historically been an ally of Israel, with Biden steadfastly clinging to this, over half of Americans disapprove of its operations in Gaza. Joe Biden is struggling to energise his base, as his public image continues to decline, only to the benefit of Donald Trump.

However, Mr. Trump’s success is not unhindered – the former President not only struggles in national polling, but is mired by persistent legal issues. He is currently being investigated in four criminal cases, with 91 charges in total. One, taking place next month, will be the first criminal trial of a US president in history:that of falsifying business records to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels, a porn star that alleges she had sex with Trump. The other cases involve Trump’s alleged incitement of the January 6th insurrection (2021), attempts to overturn the results of the presidential election in Georgia, and the mishandling of classified documents. Whilst for many voters, these charges could be a turnoff, his polling amongst Republicans remained steady, and even increased in places. Either way, the legal struggles are a financial sinkhole for Trump, as well as a possible hit to his reputation if he is charged in any of these instances. Trump also faces a more imminent threat to his candidacy in his removal from the ballots of Maine and Colorado. Both states’ Supreme Courts argue that Trump is ineligible for office as he engaged in an insurrection, thereby violating the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. This case is currently being heard in the US Supreme Court and could result in Trump being kicked off the ballot in these two states. This could doom the former President’s bid if he is unable to win these crucial electoral votes. However, whilst the results are yet to be published, legal experts do not believe that this decision will hold up in the US Supreme Court.

So, with polls not in Biden’s favour and Trump’s legal woes failing to dent his campaign, does the President stand a chance? Surprisingly to some, Biden’s administration has several achievements to run this election based upon. For one, the administration took over from Trump’s chaotic handling of the pandemic, a course correction that ensured clear messaging through the decline of COVID, a breath of fresh air for many Americans. And in an embattled congress, the Democrats have passed several major pieces of legislation, including the largest investment in climate change in the country’s history with the Inflation Reduction Act. Others include the infrastructure package, and smaller bills like the PACT Act and Chips and Science Act. Complicated legislation is notoriously difficult to endear to voters, but if the Biden campaign can market its achievements as success in spite of an uncooperative opposition, success is possible. Despite unemployment being at its joint lowest in decades, and inflation at 3.1%, most Americans still have a negative perception of the economy. The theory of economic retrospective voting argues that this perception is key to voting behaviour, and improving ordinary Americans’ pocketbook thinking is essential. To win this election, the Biden campaign must ease the financial burden on average Americans, and better advertise their economic and legislative wins so far.

Nothing is certain in politics. Both candidates have a reasonable chance of winning this year’s election, despite the clear unpopularity of both. Many, admittedly myself included, struggle with the idea that these are the two most qualified, most popular, or most competent potential candidates in the United States. After the former president’s efforts to overturn the last election, would many have written him off as unelectable, if this took place in another country or at another time in the US history? Before Trump’s election in 2016, many doubted his chances – would the political elite and media of the last decade be surprised to learn that Trump stands within touching distance of a second non-consecutive term? Would he himself? After losing the election of 1888, President Grover Cleveland’s wife, Frances Folsom, predicted he would win a second non-consecutive term in 1892. She instructed the White House staff to keep the furniture and ornaments in good condition, as they would return in four years. Did Melania Trump do the same in 2020?

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