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Trump vs. Biden: Only One Can Lose

February 22, 2024
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Presidential politics is principally about consolidation and addition. In this age of near-parity between Democrats and Republicans, candidates must get 90% or more of their party’s followers and carry independents to win. But there’s more to the 2024 campaign than 1+1=victory.

The math has held true in the past two elections. In 2016, Donald Trump took 90% of Republicans and 48% of independents, while Hillary Clinton carried 89% of Democrats and 42% of independents. In 2020 Joe Biden won 94% of Democrats and 54% of independents, while Mr. Trump took 94% of Republicans and 41% of independents.

This year’s race, however, is complicated by so many variables that it’s much less predictable, even on traditionally straightforward issues.

Start with turnout. It may increase as candidates depict the opposition’s victory as our nation’s end. Or that harsh rhetoric may depress turnout, convincing large numbers of Americans weary of politics to stay home or pass over the presidential race. It happened as recently as 2012—the only presidential election since 1996 in which the percentage of Americans voting didn’t increase.

That year, President Barack Obama didn’t stress his record or a second-term agenda. Instead, he pummeled Mitt Romney with relentless personal attacks. The negative tone likely caused an unusually high number of voters to sit out the presidential election.

The wall-to-wall ugliness of this year’s contest will make 2012 look like a garden party. The result will probably be lower participation. But for which party? Will concerns about Mr. Biden’s age and governing failures depress Democratic turnout? Or will Mr. Trump’s threats against Republicans who opposed his nomination, his coddling of Vladimir Putin, and a potential criminal conviction cost him GOP support?

Mr. Biden faces a specific challenge. Polls show younger Democrats and black and Hispanic voters aren’t enthusiastic about his re-election. All three groups were essential to his winning 2020 coalition. If the president doesn’t win them back, he’s toast.

Mr. Trump may be creating an enthusiasm problem for himself with his scorched-earth attacks on Republicans who dared to support other primary candidates. His threats of retribution are causing money to flow into Nikki Haley’s campaign and alienating Republican voters he’ll need come November.

Also potentially more complicated this year: the effect of third-party candidates. In the past two elections, third parties provided just enough voters with an acceptable alternative to a major party candidate to swing the election. In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein got more votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than Mr. Trump’s margin of victory. In 2020, Libertarian Jo Jorgensen captured more votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin than Mr. Biden’s margin.

This year there are still more variables to the third-party question. The centrist group No Labels may field a “unity ticket,” and it’s unclear whether it would pull more from Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden or how much. Left-wing academic Cornel West may only be on a few state ballots, but almost every vote he gets likely comes from Mr. Biden. Running as an independent, Robert Kennedy Jr. will find it difficult to get on many state ballots. But whom does he hurt where he does? As an environmental activist, likely Mr. Biden. As a vaccine denier and conspiracy fan, likely Mr. Trump.

Read More at the WSJ

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