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It Ain't Over …

Five Ways Biden Can Win in 2024

Yes, the polls look bad. But there’s plenty of time for the president to turn it around.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Joe Biden in 2022

Picture a happy Democrat.

C’mon. Concentrate. You can do it.

Maybe you can recall the momentary joy on the Saturday after the 2020 election when the networks called it for Joe Biden. And if you furrow your brow long enough, you might even conjure up a fleeting memory of the euphoria when Barack Obama became president 12 years earli

Democrats today make Cassandra seem like an optimist. Never in modern memory have members of a political party that controls both the White House and the Senate seemed so depressed. Even in the 1980s, when the Democrats lost three straight landslide elections for president, the mood seemed much closer to “Happy Days Are Here Again!” than the current despair.

Most of these bleak house feelings, of course, flow from legitimate panic over Donald Trump’s putative return to the White House. This time around, Trump has made clear that he intends to be a competent authoritarian surrounded by lackeys, rather than just a foam-at-the-mouth-in-the-Oval-Office madman. In every public appearance, Trump gives the impression that in his second term he wants to have the power to issue orders like, “Take that man outside and have him shot.” Assuming Trump is anointed the GOP nominee, 2024 is shaping up as America’s first “Yes, It Can Happen Here” election. 

With the stakes so high, Democrats keep trying—and failing—to find emotional sustenance in the polls. But Trump has led Biden in 16 of the 21 national horse-race polls conducted in the last month. The common explanations for Biden’s poll-vault problems feed the fear factor: the president’s age (81), waning support from Black voters, disaffection among younger voters, and Bronx cheers on handling the ecomomy.

But—and, boy, is this a big “but”—polls more than 11 months before a presidential election have the accuracy of a blindfolded archer. As ABC polling analyst G. Elliott Morris put it in a blog post last month, “Polls are not predictive—at all, frankly—this early before an election. There is some evidence that early polls have gotten more predictive as polarization has increased, but it’s not robust enough to offer a conclusion for the future.”

The truth—which you will almost never hear on a TV pundit panel where everyone bristles with certainty—is that the outcome of the 2024 election is unknowable at this stage. As worrisome as the early indicators are for the president, it should be remembered that the election is not scheduled for next Tuesday. In fact, Biden can find inspiration from eighteenth-century American naval hero John Paul Jones, who allegedly declared at a perilous moment: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Without getting caught in airy fantasies—such as men in white coats taking Trump away in the midst of one of his incoherent rants—it is easy to concoct persuasive arguments for Biden’s reelection. (A campaign against Nikki Haley would be trickier.)  

Ticking off these pro-Biden factors should not be regarded as a prediction of the 2024 results or a strategic roadmap for the president’s reelection campaign. Rather, the following list represents plausible ways that the strategic calculus might change before November 2024. Please remember this sunny-side-up assessment before you start researching how to emigrate to New Zealand.

The Secret Sauce 

We are in the test-kitchen phase of the Biden reelection campaign—and research on effective messaging will probably continue through the spring. Bidenomics failed almost as spectacularly as Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter. But there remains plenty of time for the president and his team to retool for the 2004 election. 

Right now, almost everyone in the Democratic Party plus liberal pundits have offered their own theories of what Biden must do. And, of course, the proposed remedies are somewhat contradictory. For example, Biden must pivot to the left to speak to the economic insecurities of working-class voters while simultaneously moving to the center on border security and crime. Maybe Bill Clinton could have pulled off this feat of triangulation, but Biden—a far less compelling political figure—would be wise to focus on a single overriding argument for reelection.

Maybe the answer is to center the campaign on Trump’s threat to democracy. On the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, do the American people really want a president dedicated to shredding the Constitution? Or maybe Biden just needs to come up with an inspirational agenda for his second term. 

The nonstop touting of horse-race polling ignores the reality that campaigns matter—and the Biden reelection drive has yet to leave the starting gate. Once it does, direct competition with Trump will likely drive home the campaign’s themes. A compelling 2024 message would go a long way to curing Democratic doldrums.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

For decades, the Republicans won the support of evangelical Christians for tax cuts for the rich by promising them Supreme Court justices who would someday overturn Roe v. Wade. In 2022, that promise came true with the Dobbs decision—and the GOP is still reeling from the greatest political error of this century.

The electoral potency of most seismic events wanes with the passage of time. But the struggle for abortion rights appears to be the conspicuous exception. Last month voters in Ohio (a state that Trump easily carried in 2020) added abortion rights to the state Constitution by a lopsided 14 percentage-point margin. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—the future hope of the beleaguered rational wing of the Republican Party—lost the state legislature because of his advocacy of a 15-week abortion ban. 

No matter how deceptively Trump tries to skirt the issue in 2024, Democrats will loudly and consistently remind the voters that he appointed three Supreme Court justices who voted in lockstep to eliminate the legal right to an abortion. The possibility of a national abortion ban, should Republicans control the White House and Congress, which is a distinct possibility, will undoubtedly be a major issue throughout the campaign. And the continuing zealotry of governors like Ron DeSantis and right-wing state legislatures all but guarantees that abortion not only will be in the headlines all through 2024 but that it will also literally be on the ballot in some states.

And the Verdict Is ...

The hardest thing to handicap in 2024 is the electoral consequences of the Trump trials. The federal case against Trump for working to subvert the 2020 election is slated to go to trial in early March. Meanwhile in Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has proposed an August 5 starting date for the trial over election interference that is slated to run into 2025. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wondered last week whether in November jurors in the Trump trial would “vote for the defendant or against him?”

Polls have consistently asked voters if a Trump conviction would change their vote in 2024. The results have been mixed. A NewsNation and Decision Desk HQ poll released last week found that 34 percent of independent and 17 percent of Republican voters said that a guilty verdict would “impact” their vote choice. But a new Wall Street Journal survey found that Biden would only have a one-point lead over Trump among voters even if he were a convicted felon on Election Day. The early November New York Times/Sienna College polls—which frightened Democrats by showing Trump leading Biden in five of six swings states—did come with a caveat. As the Times put it, “If the former president is convicted and sentenced … around 6 percent of voters across Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin say they would switch their votes to Mr. Biden.” 

To be sure, voters are not always reliable predictors of their own future behavior. With his self-pitying screams of “witch hunt” and “Biden conspiracy,” Trump may bamboozle almost all Republicans into sticking with him after a conviction. But it is hard to imagine a swing voter in Wisconsin or Arizona declaring, “I was leaning toward Biden. But that jury verdict really made me understand the greatness of Trump.” 

His Own Worst Enemy

A major underappreciated joy of the Biden years is not being forced to watch Trump on a daily basis. His bilious campaign rallies are infrequent—and no longer destination viewing on cable TV. His misspelled and bizarrely capitalized written screeds are confined to Truth Social. Trump’s decision to boycott the GOP debates even permits Haley and DeSantis to pretend that this is a normal presidential race.

Trump’s current shadowy presence in public life allows some up-for-grabs voters to nurture gauzy memories of a buoyant economy with little inflation during his presidency. Conveniently forgotten is the hatred: Trump claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Also down the memory hole are his bizarro statements, such as the presidential suggestion that injecting bleach might be a way of fighting Covid. Meanwhile, many Republicans are working overtime to sanitize the January 6 insurrection, so it becomes portrayed as a patriotic self-guided tour of the Capitol. 

All this would change the moment Trump became the de facto Republican nominee. Suddenly, undecided voters might recall that Trump is more unhinged than a swinging door in a haunted house. Maybe such voters might even worry that perhaps a man of Trump’s volatile temperament should not be trusted with the nuclear codes. Once Trump returns to center stage, swing voters hopefully will notice that his speeches have become darker and his social media posts more venomous and deranged.

Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust

Under this scenario, nothing dramatic happens to change the political calculus. Biden just keeps inching ahead. Inflation and gas prices continue dropping. Job numbers remain strong. An uneasy peace in Gaza dramatically lowers the political cost among younger voters of Biden’s support for Israel. Biden also gets increasing credit for initiatives such as reducing student loan debt despite the opposition from a conservative Supreme Court.

Biden’s approval numbers slowly creep up all through 2024. The president never achieves twentieth-century levels of popularity, but reelection seems much more attainable with a 45 percent approval rating next November. 

But if Biden is still trailing Trump in the swing-state polls in late October, maybe the president can pull off a Reverse Hillary. In a mirror image of the 2016 results when Clinton fell just short almost everywhere, Biden this time around would win virtually every swing state by hair’s-breadth margins.

If Biden were to defy the polls like this, it would vindicate the conviction of many right-wing patriots. For such a democracy-saving victory would conclusively prove: God is indeed on our side.