Two Unpopular Presumptive Nominees in a Limited Field

The New York Times front page showing Biden and Trump with the words "American Cliffhanger"
Photos by Markus Spiske on Unsplash, courtesy of the Unsplash Free License.

Young voters seem fed up with this cycle of elections, and it remains to be seen if either presidential campaign can regain their support.

Dominic Ferrari

On March 5th, Joe Biden and Donald Trump collected nearly all of their respective party’s delegates needed to be the nominees in the November general election. Though they maintain commanding leads in the structure of their parties, they both falter with voters more broadly.

Voters across the political spectrum are questioning the lack of even the appearance of fair primaries, given the expectation that there should be at least one party without an incumbent. The combination of Biden’s deep ties to the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, and the fact that he is the Democratic incumbent means that he is practically unstoppable in the Democrat presidential primary race.

Biden has found himself with a laundry list of issues including, immigration, violence in the Middle East, Ukraine money, and the ever-present concern for the economy. There is an ongoing debate about how well the economy is doing, for whom, and whether polls on that issue reflect current upward trends in certain areas. Regardless of whether the economy is doing “good” or “bad,” the Biden administration seems to recognize that the cost of housing is one of many major issues.

On the Trump side, as well as many of his voters believing he never stopped being president, he has a strong grip on the Republican National Committee, or RNC, leadership. According to Steve Peoples and Michelle L. Price, writing for the AP, there are rising concerns in the Republican establishment that Trump’s new hand-picked chair and daughter-in-law co-chair may re-direct vital campaign money to Trump’s mounting legal fees.

The disconnect between the seemingly inevitable re-run of 2020 that is set for the end of 2024 and the actual popularity of the candidates is leading many young voters to question the entire system. “Trump is terrible and a criminal,” says Joshua Leneau, Grossmont student and Computer Science major. As it relates to the candidates’ ages, he adds, “They are both too old and there needs to be an age limit on the presidency.”

Biden’s problem with young voters goes beyond age. He has to run the country. As Trump learned in 2020, being the most visible political force in the country inevitably makes a president less popular. Biden is seeing more and more record lows in the polls; Reuters has him at a 30% approval rating among 18 to 39-year-olds. Overall, polls place him solidly under 40%.

Looking at Biden’s approval ratings by issue reveals a list that reads like the headlines over the last two years. This presents a bit of a paradox for the Biden administration. When an issue is addressed, like inflation and the economy, it seemingly doesn’t help Biden to be associated with any solution, it just hurts him to be involved at all. When Biden takes even stronger positions, like on Gaza or immigration, he has found himself out of step with his Democratic coalition.

On the issue of Gaza, polling from late November showed more than 70% of Democrats supported calling for a ceasefire, but it took three full months for the official Whitehouse position to reach that point. With immigration, there is no way for Biden to place himself to the right of Trump, so he is drawing criticism from within his party for taking on too many strict, Republican-associated policies.

Disdain for the candidates at the top of the ticket is raising concerns over turnout in both the primaries and the general election. Many in the Democratic camp think a change in Biden’s strategy is needed. Michigan’s primary saw over 100,000 Democrats vote for “Uncommitted” rather than the current Democrat president. The campaign to vote for the no-one rather than someone stemmed from voters, particularly Arab American voters, angered by Biden’s responses to Israel’s military aggression in Gaza.

With Biden losing 13% of his primary support over Gaza, and Democratic concerns with his current moves on the border, one might expect Trump to be in a nearly unstoppable position.

Unfortunately for Trump, he shares with Biden the problem of consolidating support leading up to a general election contest in which a few hundred thousand votes in a handful of primary states will be decisive. Although Trump’s base is extremely loyal, Nikki Haley’s unsuccessful campaign revealed significant cracks in the Trump project. Haley taking over 25% of the Republican voters in the Michigan primary indicates that both candidates have a lot of work to do on convincing voters between now and November.

Trump is seemingly bumping up against the limitations of his rhetoric. Suburban voters have been put off from the beginning of his presidency, but moderates and independents are increasingly losing interest as his criminal charges pile up. As well as being limited to a core of MAGA hardliners, there may just be a broader constraint on how many people exist to support the Republican candidate. His presidential approval rating never once hit 50% and he lost the popular vote both times he ran, though he won via the electoral college in 2016.

As well as his finite popularity due to his extreme rhetoric, Trump is open about his interest in taking powers not meant for the president, which further hurts him with key moderate and independent voters in swing states. His dictator comment is of course concerning, though easily written off as a joke by his supporters. 

It is in the halls of the 118th Congress where Trump may lose the moderates completely. Already one of the most ineffectual Houses in modern legislative history, Republicans recently killed the only bipartisan bill with any national recognizability. Concern that Trump is a factor in the failure of that border deal in the House will only give more credence to the independent voter’s concern over Trump. Oddly, given the unpopularity of Biden’s turn toward aggressive border action among Democrats, Trump may have saved Biden from yet another political own-goal.

With two unpopular candidates and plenty of national and world problems going unsolved, it is easy to be pessimistic about the outcome of the 2024 election. However, whatever your preference, pollsters do seem to agree that it is still too early to know what is going to happen, and the 2016 election would seem to serve as evidence of that.

Either way, the open secret is that the presidential election only really matters if you live in one of six specific states. That being said, a lot of important propositions and local politicians, as well as House and Senate congresspeople, will be impacted by every vote. So, if the top of the ballot is too much to handle, just look down.

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