“A Biden v. Trump redux is like a car crash happening in slow-motion. Nobody wants it to happen, but at the same time, nobody knows how to stop it – and nobody can look away no matter how much they want to.”
— Howard Schweitzer, CEO, Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies
The Cozen Lens
- Every presidential election is hyped as being the “most consequential.” But given the contrasts between what a Biden and Trump second term would look like, this description very well could prove to be accurate for next year’s anticipated re-match.
- President Biden and former President Trump are expected to face off (again) in next year’s presidential election, despite both suffering from low approval ratings and both parties having deep benches of potential replacements.
- Legislative elections in Virginia this fall give both parties the opportunity to test out campaign strategies before next year’s presidential election, and the results carry national implications.
A Second Term Preview
Biden v. Trump Redux in Historical Context. Both Biden and Trump have a long history, albeit not a modern one, to pull from in making the argument for why they deserve a second term.
- Of the 59 presidential elections in American history, five have featured previously seen matchups. This shouldn’t be too surprising: incumbent presidents usually seek re-election while unsuccessful presidential candidates often remain influential in the party even after losing. The very first and second contested elections (1796 and 1800) pitted John Adams against Thomas Jefferson, with Adams winning the first time and Jefferson the second. But the most recent time was decades ago when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson in both 1952 and 1956.
- Nobody goes into the Oval Office with the goal of only spending a single term there. Almost everyone who wins one term goes on to try to win another immediately afterward. LBJ is the most recent example who doesn’t quite fit this trend, but he had more than a full-term on account of taking over after JFK’s assassination and he knew he would lose.
- Both parties can pick what they want to see. Biden can point to Eisenhower and William McKinley as presidents who beat back their opponent a second time while Trump has often fashioned himself after Andrew Jackson, who won in 1828 after the House of Representatives picked the winner in 1824 in what Jackson derided as the “Corrupt Bargain” (sound familiar?). The most fitting comparison if Trump proves successful, however, would be Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
Biden Seeks to Vanquish Trump for Good – and Cement His Legacy: A second Biden term would allow him to say he preserved democracy and give him the opportunity to make sure his changes stick.
- Biden’s given raison d’être for his whole presidency is battling for the “soul of the nation.” He presents Trump as an existential threat to the Republic and vanquishing him a second time would give him license to say he succeeded. The real change, of course, would come in what Biden aspires to do, and not merely what he prevents.
- The linchpin of a Biden second term is control of the Senate. While a Biden re-election would likely bring control of the House along with it, Democrats face a tough Senate map this cycle. Under divided government, the big questions of the day (the individual tax cuts in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expiring) would have to be negotiated with Senate Republicans. If Democrats do re-gain unified control of government though, they would have at least two more chances to pass party-line reconciliation bills, including reshaping the tax code as they wish.
- Given four more years, the executive branch would have a long runway to establish and defend the ambitious regulations the Biden administration hopes to enact. Under Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Trade Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, among others, have all boldly strived to enact a progressive agenda. It would also ensure the continued existence of Biden’s signature partisan legislative achievement, the Inflation Reduction Act, into the future.
Trump Picks Up Where He Left Off — and Then Some. A less restrained Trump presidency would seek to put the lessons learned during the first term into practice.
- A Trump win would represent the complete transformation of the party into his own image. The core of the GOP would no longer be traditional Reaganists but full-throatedly MAGA. He would also be less constrained: both he and his advisors have a better understanding of the levers of power and wouldn’t hesitate to use them. Project 2025, a playbook for a second Trump term already being assembled, illustrates a plan to remake the administrative state, imposing direct control over the federal bureaucracy by eroding protections for civil servants and replacing them with party loyalists.
- A second Trump presidency would likely come with unified GOP control of the federal government and the ability to significantly remake the tax code when the individual tax cuts of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expire at the end of 2025. Not needing the opposition does not mean a cakewalk, however — the party was unable to come to a consensus on how to replace Obamacare in 2017 and ultimately failed to do so. In this case, the most important dynamics will be the conflicts within the party, for example, the high-tax state representatives wishing to expand the state and local tax (SALT) deduction.
- Were Trump to be re-elected, other countries would no longer be able to see his first term “America First” foreign policy as a temporary aberration of nativism, but as the new norm. The biggest foreign policy consequences would be reduced support for Ukraine and a diminished US leadership role in NATO. Traditional allies, particularly in Europe, are likely to look at the US and decide they need to chart a path to increased self-reliance.
If Biden and/or Trump Aren’t on the Ticket, Then Who?
Father Time Is Unbeatable. If President Biden or former President Trump is re-elected to the White House in 2024, both would be in line to set records for the oldest sitting president.
- Age is an unavoidable issue among the leading candidates in the presidential election, but Biden has faced more scrutiny about his capabilities than Trump. While Democratic lawmakers are cautious to question Biden’s decision to run for re-election publicly, a health scare for the president could trigger a tidal shift.
- Trump, three years Biden’s junior, has not avoided questions about his age. His counter to these queries has often been to call for mental competency tests for candidates, a challenge that he feels he would pass. Trump has likely faced less scrutiny than Biden because of his retreat from the daily spotlight, but this could ramp up as the general election approaches.
- There has been a more general focus on politicians’ ages and mental acuity in light of recent incidents involving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Feinstein, who is 90, has already said she will not run for re-election in 2024, but McConnell, 81, has offered no similar promise. Continued health scares among older members of Congress will mean more questions for both Trump and Biden.
Disliked and Lacking Enthusiasm. Presidential candidates, particularly incumbents, typically struggle when they have low approval ratings, but in the odds-on matchup for next year’s election, recent polling suggests that neither Biden nor Trump is well-liked.
- A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that Biden and Trump had identical ratings, with 39 percent of voters viewing them favorably and 58 percent viewing them unfavorably. Both had similar respondents describing them as “very unfavorable,” but Trump had a slight lead among those who viewed him as “very favorable.”
- Voters are far from enthused about the potential rematch between Biden and Trump, which, at least in theory, should create an opening for candidates in either party. To capitalize on this, a contender would have to take a non-traditional approach to push past the polarization that has created a sense of alienation among some voters and create genuine excitement among the electorate. However, if such a candidate were to rise from the pack, she or he is more likely to evolve as a third-party candidate, like No Labels, than through the Democratic or Republican primary processes, each of which are heavily influenced by the existing party apparatus, which are, in turn, heavily influenced by Biden and Trump, respectively.
A Running Clock. Time to overtake Biden or Trump as the likely candidate to win their respective party’s nomination is starting to run short, but there is no shortage of potential replacements, particularly among the nation’s governors.
- The GOP primary field, as was expected, is very crowded, but no contestant has consolidated support that can rival Trump’s base. Another debate this week will be an opportunity for someone to more clearly emerge from this pack, a step that is likely necessary to mount a real challenge to Trump. Also, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin is loitering on the sidelines.
- On the Democratic side, while no credible threat has emerged to Biden’s re-election campaign, it is not due to a lack of potential alternatives. There are several Democratic governors, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who are viewed as potential future presidential candidates and would likely be on any shortlist to replace Biden. It is doubtful though that any of these politicians will enter the primary unless Biden steps aside.
What Virginia 2023 Tells Us About the 2024 Elections
Virginia’s Legislative Elections. Off-year elections in the Old Dominion have implications for the race for the White House and control of Congress in 2024.
- In November, all 100 seats of the GOP-controlled House of Delegates and all 40 seats of the Democratic-controlled state Senate will be up for grabs. This cycle saw a higher than average number of retirements among state lawmakers after a redistricting process that did not take incumbency into account. This makes the race for control of the state Capitol more competitive.
- Virginia provides an opportunity to test-drive messaging and campaign strategies before 2024, particularly in districts similar to those that are likely to decide control of the White House and Congress next year.Control of the General Assembly will likely come down to about a dozen races across both chambers. Suburban districts in counties like Prince William and Stafford in northern Virginia and Henrico, near Richmond, are likely to play a significant role. These are the types of districts that have become key battlegrounds in federal races in recent years.
- This year’s elections are expensive, a sign that both parties recognize the importance of the commonwealth.According to the latest campaign finance reports, Virginia Democrats raised $15 million between July and August and Republicans raised $10.6 million. The GOP total doesn’t factor in an additional $3.8 million raised by Governor Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) PAC, Spirit of Virginia. President Biden recently had the Democratic National Committee contribute $1.2 million to Democratic candidates. Going into the elections, Youngkin sits at a 51 percent approval rating in the Old Dominion, ahead of Biden with 40 percent, according to a recent Roanoke College poll. Democratic gains in the General Assembly could offer the president’s campaign some optimism, but losses in a state that Biden won decisively in 2020 could give his team reason to worry.
Republicans’ Outlook. If the GOP succeeds in November, the election results could establish Youngkin as a major national political figure in the Republican Party.
- This year offers a test of the Youngkin playbook.In 2021, Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, using parental rights in education as a rallying cry. Youngkin successfully walked the line between motivating the MAGA wing of the GOP while retaining appeal for moderates and independents, a tricky balancing act. Can Republicans succeed, particularly in key suburban districts, in Virginia post- (and possibly pre-) Trump? Will GOP messaging on education, tax cuts, and restrictions on abortion resonate with voters?
- Youngkin has continued to focus on the parental rights issue, holding a series of “Parents Matter” town halls this year, and he has advocated for a 15-week abortion ban (with rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions). Unlike former President Trump, Youngkin has also pushed for Republicans to embrace early voting. Time will tell if that strategy is effective in boosting GOP turnout.
- A strong GOP performance in this year’s elections would help Youngkin gain greater national prominence and could even give him a springboard to make a late entry into the 2024 GOP presidential race, should he see an opening, or become a contender for the vice-presidential nomination.
Democrats’ Outlook. Democrats have made abortion access the centerpiece of their campaigns.
- Virginia is the only Southern state without major restrictions on abortion rights, and Democratic candidates have sought to motivate voters through fear of losing access to the procedure. After the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, abortion rights were credited with helping Democrats minimize losses in the 2022 midterms. Will the issue remain as salient for voters in Virginia a year later?
- If Democrats succeed in Virginia this year, abortion messaging will likely feature heavily in Democratic campaigns nationally in 2024. If they fall short in November, Democrats will have to do some soul-searching about how to better connect with voters. In that case, other Republican candidates may seek to emulate Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban, seeing it as a way to neutralize an issue that has created weaknesses for the GOP among independents in suburban battleground districts.