American politics these days is a lot like Burning Man. It stinks, it is full of weirdos, and everything is covered with 7 inches of “oatmeal-thick mud.”
Some of us are like comedian Chris Rock and willing to hike our way out through the mud flats before hitchhiking home. Others of us are like Los Angeles man Fausto Zapata, the attendee who told the New York Times that it was the Best … Burning Man … Ever.
“People were expecting catastrophe and ended up finding community,” he told the paper, presumably from a shanty made of hemp grocery bags and mezcal bottles. “If at the end of the day Burning Man is about radical self-reliance, it came out in the most radical of ways this year.”
But whether you wish you could trek out or are enjoying the ooze, get ready, because we’ve got a year to go before we even get to the headline act.
The day after Labor Day is the traditional kickoff for the general election season. That means you’ve got 12 months before that little knot of persuadable voters that decides every election starts to be untied.
With that in mind, let’s rise above the muck for a moment and consider the major factors that will shape how voters are making up their minds a year from today. These are five things that we know will affect the electorate, but not yet how or how much:
This is the big one, almost always. The only elections in which we don’t principally consider this to be the major issue is because a) the economy is good and candidates are looking elsewhere for issues or b) one of the issues below becomes such an enormous problem that it breaks through.
Except for those rare moments when a war (1968 and 2004), scandal (1976), or a plague (2020) match or outrival the economy as an issue, swing voters are voting with their pocketbooks. And even when there’s something else at the top of the heap, the knock-on effects to the economy—inflation, energy prices, etc.—are still there.
Research suggests that, barring a major crash in the final weeks of the campaign, voter attitudes about the economy will harden between now and the beginning of next summer. The public’s perception of the condition of the economy in the next three quarters will probably set the tone for the election. If Americans are convinced times are good, they are loath to remove an incumbent. If it’s a recession, even a mild one that’s already abated by Election Day, the tide can run out quickly.
American voters generally don’t prioritize foreign policy. But when they do, it’s because there is a serious problem. That can work for or against the party in power. Sometimes Americans rally ‘round the commander in chief, as they did for George W. Bush. Sometimes they punish a party for reversals on the world stage, as happened to Hubert Humprey and Jimmy Carter.
Joe Biden’s principal foreign policy issue is the war in Ukraine. On the upside, the work of halting Russian aggression has gone better than almost all early predictions. This also helps Biden blunt claims of weakness in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Calling someone a warmonger and a patsy at the same time is hard. On the downside, Americans have very short attention spans and sharp limits to their interest in aiding other nations. This is something Vladimir Putin is surely factoring into his strategy. He will be looking to hold on in his invasion until there’s a chance for a change of party in Washington in favor of the friendlier Republicans and to deny Biden whatever success he can along the way.
The related major issue is with Russia’s benefactor, China. Both parties are now solidly hawkish on China in their rhetoric, so there’s less obvious incentive for that country’s ruler to try to shape the narrative for American domestic consumption. By the time we get to November, both major party nominees will be twisting the dragon’s tail. But with Beijing, as with much of the rest of the world, the chance of an unforeseen crisis could throw the whole election into a cocked hat.
The status quo for the electorate is that Donald Trump is a bad person. Many people will vote for him in spite of that, and some will even vote for him because of that. As the months tick by, it seems increasingly unlikely that a majority of Republicans would ever abandon Trump on principle. Whether they think he’s really a victim or excuse his many abuses of the Constitution and evident violations of the law as being less bad or equivalent to the conduct of Democrats, the majority of the GOP is plowing ahead.
That doesn’t mean the story is over, though. Republicans may come to conclude that Trump’s baggage is too much to carry into the general election and start to throw him over for pragmatic reasons. If they don’t, Democrats are betting that persuadable voters will decisively choose Biden’s befuddlement over Trump’s enthusiasm for abusing power. And the criminal docket and the election calendar suggest that’s a good bet. Republicans may take the leap on Trump just before things get really gnarly. By the time independent voters—and lots of hold-your-nose-and-vote Republicans—have had another year’s worth of The People v. Donald Trump, four more years with the former president may look about as appealing as a long stay in O.J. Simpson’s guest house.
But here we get to one of the real wild cards of the election. Whatever is yet to come out about Hunter Biden’s slimy business practices, especially anything that links his conduct to his father, could badly damage Democrats’ efforts to make this a “choice” election rather than a referendum on the incumbent. The president’s inability to put to rest the story of his son’s buck raking and get Hunter out of sight points to a worrisome problem for Democrats.
Scandals that reinforce a candidate’s negative image—e.g. Bill Clinton’s satyriasis—are less damaging than ones that undercut positive attributes. If voters conclude that both candidates are ethically compromised, Biden will have lost his strongest argument for keeping Trump out of power.
Biden’s age works like Trump’s corruption: It is a persistent negative that in an election against a better candidate would mean almost certain defeat. But it is also pretty well baked into the cake. Given the electorate’s low estimation of Biden’s physical and mental fitness for office, it would take something profound to drive it further down.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. A serious health scare could knock Biden out of the race in the blink of an eye and send Democrats scrambling to an alternative. And if that were to happen any time before March, it would set off a chaotic, potentially damaging struggle inside the party. If it were to happen after Super Tuesday, it would mean the equally unappetizing prospect of trying to rehabilitate the image of Vice President Kamala Harris.
A surprise fight for the nomination or the ascension of Harris would reshape the contest in ways not seen in two generations.
For the first time since 1980, it is an open question whether or not there will be any general election presidential debates. The Republican Party has withdrawn from the compact of the Commission on Presidential Debates and the incumbent has every reason to want to avoid 90 minutes under the hot lights answering complicated questions.
But suppose that Republicans wise up and rejoin the commission-sanctioned general election contests. How many candidates would be on the stage?
The No Labels effort is on the ballot in 10 states and is working on the other 40. By the time its members gather for its convention in Dallas in April to choose what it promises will be a bipartisan “unity” ticket, voters could already be stuck with a boring, unhappy rematch between Trump and Biden.
Under those conditions, it’s not at all hard to imagine a “third way” kind of alternative polling in the double digits. That could certainly be enough to get its nominee a podium and to reframe the contest entirely. Democrats are very worried about that scenario, believing the incumbent would have the most to lose if moderates feel like they have another choice. They have a point, but predicting now how that would go would be like forecasting next year’s Super Bowl today.