The Coming Biden Blowout
Republicans thought about running without Trump in 2024—but lost their nerve. They’re heading for electoral disaster again.
There was no secret to a more intelligent and intentional Republican plan for 2024. It would have gone like this:
(1) Replace Donald Trump at the head of the ticket with somebody less obnoxious and impulsive.
(2) Capitalize on inflation and other economic troubles.
(3) Offer plausible ideas on drugs, crime, and border enforcement.
(4) Reassure women worried about the post-Roe future.
(5) Don’t be too obvious about suppressing Democratic votes, because really blatant voter suppression will provoke and mobilize Democrats to vote, not discourage them.
Unfortunately for them, Republicans have turned every element of the plan upside down and inside out. Despite lavish anti-Trump donations by big-money Republicans, Trump is cruising to easy renomination. Rather than capitalize on existing economic troubles, Republicans have started a debt-ceiling fight that will cast them as the cause of America’s economic troubles. Worse for them, the troubles are fast receding. Inflation is vexing, but the recession that Republicans hoped for did not materialize: Instead, Joe Biden has presided over the fastest and steepest unemployment reduction in U.S. economic history.
The big new Republican idea to halt the flow of drugs is to bomb or invade Mexico. Instead of reassuring women, Republican state legislators and Republican judges are signaling that they will support a national abortion ban if their party wins in 2024—and are already building the apparatus of surveillance and control necessary to make such a ban effective. Republican state-level voter-suppression schemes have been noisy and alarming when the GOP plan called for them to be subtle and technical.
It’s early in the election cycle, of course, but not too early to wonder: Are we watching a Republican electoral disaster in the making?
Biden’s poll numbers are only so-so. But a presidential election offers a stark and binary choice: This or that? Biden may fall short of some voters’ imagined ideal of a president, but in 2024, voters won’t be comparing the Democrat with that ideal. They will be comparing him with the Republican alternative.
An American must be at least 36 years old to have participated in an election in which the Republican candidate for president won the most votes. An American must be at least 52 years old to have participated in two presidential elections in which the Republican nominee got the most votes.
Despite this, over the past 30 years, the GOP has succeeded in leveraging its smaller share of the vote into a larger share of national power. That same 36-year-old American has lived half of his or her adult life under a Republican-controlled Senate, and even more of it under a Republican-majority House of Representatives. Through almost all of that American’s adult life, Republicans have held more than half of all state legislatures. Conservative dominance of the federal courts has become ever more total in the past two decades, culminating in the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Some of the Republicans’ leverage can be explained by the American electoral system’s tilt against metropolitan areas. Some of their success is due to luck. The GOP’s big year of 2010 also happened to be a redistricting year, so one successful election translated into a decade of more comprehensively gerrymandered state legislatures. (Democrats have not had a big win in a redistricting year since 1930.)
But the tilt is not infinite, and the party’s luck is running out. Republicans have suffered a series of heavy defeats since the rise of Trump: loss of the House in 2018, loss of the presidency in 2020, loss of the Senate in 2021, losses at the state level in 2022 (Democrats won net two governorships and net four legislative chambers).
Trump-era Republicans have difficulty absorbing and reacting to negative news. Led by Trump himself, they misrepresented 2016 as—in the words of his former adviser Kellyanne Conway—a blowout, historic landslide. They misrepresented 2020 as an election that they deservedly won, but that was stolen from them by fraud and chicanery. Out-of-office Republicans like Paul Ryan will acknowledge on CNN that Trump lost. But they won’t say it on Fox News. Trump’s own leading party rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, won’t say it. And if Trump is indeed the primary winner that he insists he is, what on Earth is the case for denying this political superstar the third nomination he wants?
The Democrats, by contrast, are a party that has trouble absorbing and reacting to good news. Few Democrats predicted that the party would do as well as it did in 2022. Most feel deep dread and anxiety about 2024.
Maybe it’s good to guard against complacency. The American electoral system’s tilt against Democratic-voting regions remains as pronounced as ever. The Senate map is especially unpromising for Democrats. Yet it’s also important to understand that although America is intensely and bitterly polarized, it is not evenly polarized.
The potential strength of the Democratic coalition is greater than that of the Trump coalition. The Democratic disadvantage is that their coalition spans a lot of groups that face extra difficulties casting a ballot: renters, college students, hourly workers, single parents, people who don’t own cars. The American voting system has been engineered to deter and discourage them.
If motivated to turn out, however, those deterred and discouraged blocs can swing elections. In 2018, 36 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds turned out, the highest level recorded. Their votes helped change control of the House. Turnout of this cohort in 2022 finished second only to what it had been in 2018, and those votes altered the political complexion of many state legislatures. The state that had the highest youth turnout in 2022 was Michigan—not so coincidentally, the state where Democrats scored some of their biggest gains, flipping both chambers of the state legislature from red to blue.
Chief among what motivates voters who face obstacles is hope. People will endure and overcome barriers when they feel that their vote can make a difference. If Democrats succeed in communicating hope in 2024 that young people can contribute to a decisive defeat of Trump and MAGA extremism, then that is what they will do.
This cycle, that hope is well founded. Republicans are doing everything wrong. They are talking to their voters about Trump’s personal grievances and about boutique culture-war issues that their own base does not much care about, such as the state of Florida’s “war on Disney.” At the same time, Republican leaders are confronting Democratic voters with extremist threats on issues they care intensely about: bans on abortion medication by mail, restrictions on the freedom of young women to travel across state lines, attacks on student voting rights, proposed big cuts to Medicaid and food stamps in the GOP debt-ceiling ransom demand. Republicans offer no economic message and no affirming vision, even as they make new moves to police women’s bodies and start a land war in Mexico. They are well on their way to earning a deep, nasty defeat—and the smell of that defeat may be an additional draw to the polls for the Democratic-leaning constituencies that will inflict it.
Of all the major-party candidates to run for president since 2000, only one scored worse than Trump in the popular vote: John McCain in 2008. That was not a personal verdict on McCain. He was running for a third Republican term in the throes of the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression and against the backdrop of the most grinding military frustration since Vietnam.
Biden’s reelection-announcement video, released yesterday, defines the principal issue at stake in 2024 as “freedom.” From the New Deal to Trump, “freedom” was a Republican slogan; “security” was its Democratic counterpart. But Trump, together with DeSantis, has completely rebranded the GOP as the party of bossing around women, minorities, and young people.
If Trump secures the GOP nomination to run for a second term in 2024, the conditions are all in place to transfer the title of “worst popular-vote loser of the century” from the great Arizona senator to the putsch-plotting ex-president. Trump’s own party is doing its part to deliver this debacle. Soon enough, all Americans will have the opportunity to do theirs.