Looking Ahead to 5 Things That Will Shape the 2024 Election

Looking Ahead to 5 Things That Will Shape the 2024 Election

It’s divisible by four. It’s a leap year. It’s a Summer Olympics year.

It’s a presidential election year.

Happy New Year?

Whether the 2024 presidential election cycle brings you dread or excitement, there’s no doubt that the table is set for an extraordinary year.

The potential for political turmoil has rarely seemed more obvious. Voters are deeply dissatisfied with the direction of the country and their options for president. President Biden’s approval rating is lower at this stage than for any president in the era of modern polling, dating to the 1940s. His likely opponent faces several criminal trials. Waiting in the wings, there’s an independent candidate with the last name Kennedy. The Democratic convention is even in Chicago.

Here are just a few of the big topics that will shape the 2024 election.

Of all the items on this list, this is probably the least consequential. But it is first up on the calendar, with the early primary contests just a few weeks away, and a Haley win in New Hampshire or South Carolina is neither impossible nor irrelevant.

Heading into the holidays, surveys showed Ms. Haley approaching or exceeding 30 percent in New Hampshire — putting her closer to an upset than it might look, given the volatile nature of early primaries.

Her path to victory in New Hampshire is still fairly narrow. Her recent stumble in answering a question about the cause of the Civil War may halt her momentum. And even if she does defeat Donald J. Trump in the state, it’s hard to see her posing a serious threat to win the nomination, given the relatively narrow, factional character of her appeal.

But if she regained her footing and did manage to pull off an upset in New Hampshire or South Carolina, it would still carry symbolic significance. It would be a reminder that the not-Trump wing of the Republican Party, while diminished and weakened, was still around. It would be a visible crack in Republican support for Mr. Trump, and it would happen just weeks before his scheduled trial in March.

There’s a possible chain of events in which the combination of a trial and a Haley win winds up mattering more than we might guess today.

Maybe the criminal trial of Mr. Trump will not go down as “the greatest political spectacle of our lives” or something similarly grandiose, but it’s hard to think of anything like it that’s ever been scheduled on the political calendar.

The trial promises to be the political center of gravity for the first half of the year, with the federal election subversion trial scheduled to begin on March 4 — the day before Super Tuesday in the G.O.P. primary — and then possibly lasting through the heart of the primary season, although delays are possible.

It is hard to believe that a trial, in itself, will do grave political damage to Mr. Trump. After all, he endured the indictments unscathed. And he would probably amass enough delegates to win the Republican nomination even before the jury issued a verdict. The preponderance of Republican delegates will be awarded within a month of the start of the trial if it begins as scheduled.

But there is a way a trial could matter: It might lead to a realization by Republican primary voters and elites that Mr. Trump is likely to be convicted. And whether they see it coming or not, a conviction isn’t the same as a trial or an indictment. It might be far more consequential.

Recent polls — including New York Times/Siena College battleground polling in October — show Mr. Biden opening up a lead if Mr. Trump is convicted, let alone imprisoned. These polls should be taken with a grain of salt — they pose hypotheticals to voters, who mostly aren’t paying attention to Mr. Trump’s legal woes. But they’re a reminder that there are risks to his candidacy. In a close race, it might be decisive even if only a sliver of voters refuse to vote for a felon.

At the same time, a conviction would offer a new path for those seeking to remove Mr. Trump from the ballot, whether by disqualifying him in the courts or by denying him the nomination at the Republican convention.

Mr. Trump also faces a trial in Florida over his handling of classified material and in Georgia in an election case, although appeals and delays may carry them beyond the election. There’s also the coming Stormy Daniels case on the possible falsification of business records in New York, which is generally not seen as rising to the same level as the other cases.

And let’s not forget the likely Supreme Court case about whether he’s disqualified to be president under the 14th Amendment.

All of this is extraordinary to contemplate. Calling this simply “something to watch” is gross understatement. But that’s our politics nowadays.

If you’ve been following elections long enough, the term “swing voter” might conjure up images of soccer moms, security moms, Reagan Democrats, the white working class and countless other archetypes of the mostly white suburban voters who analysts said decided American elections over the last half century.

But as 2024 begins, the voters poised to decide the election look very, very different from the swing voters of lore. They’re disproportionately young, Black and Hispanic.

Whether these voters return to Mr. Biden is one of the biggest questions of the cycle, not only because it might decide the election but also because there’s a chance it could shape the trajectory of American politics for decades.

As we’ve written countless times, there will be many opportunities over the next year for Mr. Biden to lure back these traditionally Democratic but disaffected voters. In the end, he might well approach or match his support from last time. If he does, perhaps all the debate over it will seem misplaced.

But whatever the outcome, the reality of so many young, Black and Hispanic persuadable voters might powerfully shape the incentives facing the candidates and perhaps even the overall course of the race. For the first time, there’s a straightforward case that Democrats and Republicans alike have an incentive to focus more on Black, Hispanic and young voters than on white working-class voters. This might not yield any drastic changes in strategy, policy or messaging. But it would be surprising if it yielded no change at all.

Eight years ago, Mr. Trump was kicking Univision out of news conferences. Now, he’s giving Univision exclusive interviews. This is just one small, early anecdote well before the campaign gets underway. The examples may be much more striking by Election Day.

There’s another place that disaffected young, Black and Hispanic voters might go: a third-party candidate, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Mr. Kennedy doesn’t loom over the 2024 race quite the way Mr. Trump’s trials do. We don’t even know if Mr. Kennedy will successfully gain access to the ballot. But it’s another obvious X-factor that we can see coming, even if we don’t know how it might affect the race.

The early polling — which shows Mr. Kennedy in the teens — seems plausible at this early stage. Around 20 percent of voters nationwide have unfavorable views of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, and Mr. Kennedy has a brand name that past minor candidates like Gary Johnson, a libertarian in 2016, could never have dreamed of.

Historically, most independent candidates fizzle. Mr. Johnson saw his support peak near 10 percent in July 2016, only to win 3.3 percent in November. Mr. Kennedy might fade for similar reasons, especially with the stakes of a Biden-Trump matchup seeming so large. On the other hand, Mr. Johnson was no Kennedy.

In many ways, the outlook for Mr. Biden in 2024 ought to be bright. The economy seems as if it’s finally about to land softly. His opponent is set to go on trial. And the voters he needs — young, Black and Hispanic — are the kinds of voters who Democrats would usually think are easiest to win back to their side.

All this might ultimately propel Mr. Biden to re-election. Many incumbent presidents have gone on to win under fairly similar circumstances, with the help of a polarizing campaign and a growing economy.

But there’s a catch: Some of these favorable winds have been at Mr. Biden’s back for most of the last year, and he appears weaker than ever.

Despite an improving economy, Mr. Biden’s approval rating stands at just 39 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight. That’s a net eight points lower than it was a year ago. It’s also worse than any previous president on the last New Year’s Day before re-election. Satisfaction with the country is about as low as it was in 1980, 1992, 2008 and 2020 — years when the president’s party was defeated.

One possibility, of course, is that it’s just a matter of time. The economic news has only turned unequivocally positive over the last few weeks or months. Consumer confidence is still below average, but it appears to be improving. That might start to help Mr. Biden’s ratings. If you squint at the numbers, you could argue it has already begun to do so: His approval rating is up about 1.5 points over the last three weeks.

Unlike most presidents seeking re-election, Mr. Biden has also been hobbled by persistent questions about whether he should be the party nominee. Democrats have spent more time ruminating about his age than defending his record. His party will presumably put its doubts to the side and rally behind him once he secures the nomination over the summer. Maybe that’s when he’ll finally rejuvenate his support.

But the other possibility is that time is not on his side. It might even be part of the problem.

The president gets older every day. To the extent his age, stumbles and stutters explain why voters lack confidence in his leadership and the direction of the country, there’s not much reason to expect it to get better. It might get worse.

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