Having completed the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign cycle, it’s tempting to focus on minor but perhaps momentarily decisive details, such as whether Ron DeSantis was wise to outsource strategy to a committee that he’s legally barred from communicating with or whether it was wise for Trump campaign spokesmen to not be allowed in the Fox News spin room.
Reporters have an incentive to focus on such things. Being the first to spot a change in course — leading the pack — is a source of professional pride. But the fundamentals remain potentially dispositive.
Jimmy Carter’s astute advisers were able to keep his campaign above water for months in the 1980 cycle. But when the election returns came in, his low job rating on most issues was reflected in his 41% share of the vote, enough to carry only six states.
One lesson of that campaign, and of many others, is that voters seek in presidential candidates qualities that they find lacking in the current president. Voters in 1960, accustomed to what were then considered elderly incumbents (every president for the preceding 18 years was in his 60s, and Dwight Eisenhower turned 70 three weeks before Election Day), opted for the outwardly vigorous 43-year-old John F. Kennedy.
The fundamentals in this case are that majorities of voters are inclined to reject each of the two most recent incumbent presidents, even though they register hefty majorities in polls of their party’s primary voters, 64% for Joe Biden and 55% for Donald Trump.
Majority rejection of the 45th and 46th presidents is not a momentary phenomenon. In the 91 months since Trump was inaugurated, incumbent presidents have enjoyed majority approval in only seven months and have fallen short in 84 months.
That’s 92% of the time over the last seven years and seven months, an even higher percentage than during the seven years leading up to the 1980 election, during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
It’s not hard to think of reasons why: Trump’s uncouth insults and vacillating policies, Biden’s visible aging and extreme policies, both men’s penchant for transparent untruths (or, in the opposition party’s parlance, lies).
Their support in primary polling seems to reflect a sincere inability on the part of their co-partisans, in a time of sharp partisanship, to understand why most of their fellow citizens do not appreciate their performance.
But not all partisans are blind to the views of others. In the early caucus and primary states, where candidates have been most active and voters most engaged, Trump has been polling below 50%, significantly below his national average — 43% in Iowa, 44% in New Hampshire and 46% in South Carolina.
The Des Moines Register/NBC poll, conducted by the astonishingly good pollster J. Ann Selzer, showed Trump leading DeSantis by a 42%-19% margin. That sounds like a whopping lead, and in a general election poll, where most voters tend to support their party’s candidates, it would be.
But in primaries, and especially the Iowa caucuses, preferences are more fluid. As the veteran poll analyst Nate Silver points out, since 2004, only one of the Republican or Democratic candidates leading in Iowa polling at this stage of the cycle has won the Iowa caucuses, and that candidate (Hillary Clinton in 2016) won by only 1%.
“The Selzer poll is good for Trump, but it’s not consistent with the view that his nomination is more-or-less inevitable,” Silver wrote. “Trump is ‘only’ 68% at prediction markets, which to me seems low, but lotta folks here are treating him at ~99%, which is definitely too high.”
That suggests that Silver puts a Trump opponent’s chances of winning the Republican nomination somewhere around 29%, which his Fivethirtyeight.com estimated as Trump’s chance of winning the 2016 general election.
The problem Trump’s current opponents face is akin to the classic tension between the need to go right (or left) to win the party nomination and then go to the center to win the general election. To be Trump-like enough to win the nomination and to present, for the general election, a contrast with the untruthfulness and aging which, to varying degrees, afflict Trump and Biden.
That’s a difficult but not impossible task. Upsets or even surprisingly strong second-place finishes in early contests can, as in the past, change millions of votes in ensuing primaries. And a potential Republican nominee without Trump’s weaknesses could lead to ructions among Democrats suddenly terrified that Biden could lose.
This week’s debates could change the course of the presidential contest. But so could the fundamentals.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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