Joe Biden turned 79 last weekend. If he had one political wish when blowing out the birthday candles, it should’ve been for Donald Trump to run for president in 2024.
It’s not an insult to say Biden is old. He’s over the average American life expectancy, the first president to be in such a position at the start of his first term since Woodrow Wilson. Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy, the fourth longest-serving senator ever, announced his retirement this month. Biden was already serving in the Senate when Leahy was elected as a Watergate baby in 1974.
A Morning Consult poll this month indicated that some Americans believe the commander-in-chief is not all there. There are several reports questioning his staying power. Betting markets view him as unlikely to be the Democratic nominee in 2024. Even Democratic voters believe “someone else” is a better option than Biden for keeping the presidency in three years. This comes amidst a continuing pandemic, 30-year high inflation and an approval rating that’s the second lowest of any president in modern polling history at this point in a first term.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a lame duck.
But this gets back to Biden’s birthday wish. He may have to wait until his big 8-0 after the midterms to get it, but signs are pointing toward Trump’s announcing his run for president again. It would be a wish come true for Biden.
Since the Civil War, there have been five losing presidential candidates who were nominees in a later election cycle: Grover Cleveland in 1892, William Jennings Bryan in 1900 and 1908, Thomas Dewey in 1948, Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and Richard Nixon in 1968. All five nominees received a lower share of the popular vote in the subsequent election, with just Cleveland and Nixon winning after losing. For Cleveland, it was a civil and economic-focused campaign against Benjamin Harrison’s administration. For Nixon, it was a makeover of his image from eight years earlier. Both were bolstered by major third-party groups (populists in 1892 and segregationists in 1968).
Say what you will about Trump, but he’s not looking to do a personal makeover and has little interest in having a focused campaign that doesn’t revolve around him. There’s probably not going to be a major coalition breakup inviting third-party runs.
When “someone else” seems to be the most popular politician in America, Trump is not someone else. He’s somebody. That somebody-ness led him to underperform congressional Republicans in both 2016 and 2020. Despite losing his Twitter megaphone and not being front-and-center every day, Trump continues to be more unpopular than Biden. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with the 45th president.
And yet, Trump could very well win in spite of himself. He did so in 2016 and nearly succeeded in 2020. That has more to do with why the Democratic Party is in trouble writ large: The long-term trend of the Democratic and Republican coalitions has given the GOP distinct advantages in the Electoral College, Senate, House and state elections for several election cycles. The latest redistricting will only further cement that GOP advantage as the multidecade decline in the number of competitive races continues.
A president’s performance in his first year is not correlated with how he would do in his re-election, but it’s a critical variable in the interim midterms. The president’s party has lost House seats on net in all but three midterms since the Civil War; Democrats face enormous headwinds in federal and state elections next year.
If Trump can make a case that he alone can win, it’s in his willingness to embrace and pressure others into election subversion. A red wave in 2022 could further lay the foundation at the state level to interfere in the traditional election administration and certification process. It’s a risk that’s hard to quantify — but it’s also hard to ignore if Trump is at the top of the GOP ticket once again.
Still, giving Biden the opportunity to run against Trump a second time is like Trump getting to run against Hillary Clinton again, something he actively encouraged. Biden won a competitive Democratic primary based on his perceived electability against Trump, and he got elected. That uniquely positions him to claim he alone can beat Trump once again.
Biden may be old, but he’d be crazy not to run against Trump once more. If he does run, there may be many more years of blowing out birthday candles at the White House.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, D.C.
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