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The Trump Victory Scenario
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The Trump Victory Scenario

Believe it.

Donald Trump and Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence stand with their families at the end of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The 2024 election is a wager.

The wager on each side is that the other party’s presumptive nominee can’t win.

Of no other election in my lifetime has that been true. The 2016 race came close, insofar as each party’s nominee was loathed by the opposition. But Republicans never believed Hillary Clinton couldn’t win. The point of the “Flight 93 election” nonsense, in fact, was that Clinton was likely to win and to replace Antonin Scalia with a communist. The threat was urgent, so it called for urgent action.

The 2020 election doesn’t quite work, either. Joe Biden was very old, yes, but not very, very old like he is now. He wasn’t despised personally the way Hillary was, he was qualified for the job, and he was blessed with an opponent who’d presided over a pandemic and the ensuing economic calamity. It was easy to imagine him winning—and he did.

In 2024, however, large chunks of voters in each party seem to find it inconceivable that their candidate might lose to the incompetent and corrupt fool opposing him.

The New York Times has devoted several pieces lately to the mystery of why electability hasn’t proven to be Ron DeSantis’ trump card in the Republican primary. The answer turns out to be simple: Right-wing voters don’t believe a figure as addled and incompetent as Biden can win another term. And if the GOP is destined to prevail next fall, Republicans might as well nominate the iconic leader whom they love instead of the wannabe who looks—but might not actually be—stronger on paper.

Many Democrats, meanwhile, appear to believe that a man with two impeachments, four indictments, and one coup attempt to his name will not be entrusted with power again by voters. That’s a reasonable suspicion, particularly if Trump ends up being convicted of a crime before Election Day. The belief that Trump can’t win may even help explain the president’s conspicuously weak polling, with lukewarm Biden supporters perhaps reluctant to give him a vote of confidence until the unthinkable possibility of Trump being reelected grows more thinkable. A late-breaking Biden landslide scenario remains unlikely, but not impossible.

The thing about both sides believing that the other’s candidate is grossly unfit for office and therefore unelectable is that—barring unprecedented amounts of No Labelsmentum—one will be wrong.

For the left as much as the right, complacency about victory risks bringing about an electoral disaster. Having previously considered the scenario in which Republicans are wrong and Biden wins going away, today we consider the other scenario.

The worse one.

There’s no trick to coming up with ways Trump might win—if you’re willing to let your imagination run toward the apocalyptic.

Biden could have a debilitating stroke. The economy could sink into recession, triggering a Wall Street selloff. Ukraine’s army could collapse. China could make its move on Taiwan and repel America’s efforts to intervene. There could be a once-in-a-lifetime—er, twice-in-a-lifetime—global pandemic.

Projecting a Trump victory scenario that involves some intervening catastrophe is like playing a video game on easy mode. Even the weakest, most unlikable challenger can unseat the incumbent if national conditions get bad enough.

What I want to argue today is that the Trump victory scenario is quite real, even without a catastrophe. The status quo could more or less hold from now until Election Day, and that might be enough to hand the White House to a guy facing 91 criminal counts. That’s the state of the World’s Greatest Country in 2023.

My inspiration is the Wall Street Journal’s splashy new poll finding Biden and Trump tied in a head-to-head matchup with 46 percent each. The data are in line with other national surveys, which have the current president up less than a point on average. Merely winning the popular vote won’t be enough for Biden to prevail in 2024, as he won by 4.5 percentage points in 2020 and only just managed to hang on in the battleground states that decided the election.

He’ll need a comfortable majority to hold off Trump. Per the Journal, here’s what he’s up against.

By an 11-point margin, more voters see Trump rather than Biden as having a record of accomplishments as president—some 40% said Biden has such a record, while 51% said so of Trump. By an eight-point margin, more voters said Trump has a vision for the future. And by 10 points, more described Trump as mentally up to the presidency. Some 46% said that is true of Trump, compared with 36% who said so of Biden.

You can pick your poison as to which of those data points is most alarming, but I think it’s the first one. Trump had his successes, domestic and foreign. But if numerous bipartisan legislative deals, including a long-awaited infrastructure package, plus American leadership in the defense of Ukraine aren’t enough to convince voters that the incumbent is the more “accomplished” of the two, then I fear he has an image problem that can’t be remedied.

Let’s split this analysis up into two sections, the first of which we’ll call “events.” Consider how the status quo on the following issues—no catastrophes, just status quo—might shrink Biden’s support in swing states past the tipping point, even with Trump doing his level best to turn the election into a referendum on whether he should rule with impunity or be held accountable for his crimes.

The economy.

Forget a recession. What if the economy keeps plugging along the way it has been, adding jobs at a solid pace? Normally, steady growth in employment is enough to get an incumbent reelected.

But these aren’t normal times. According to the WSJ poll, 58 percent of voters say “the economy has gotten worse over the past two years,” while only 28 percent say “it has gotten better.” Nearly three in four, according to the Journal, say “inflation is headed in the wrong direction.” Biden’s approval rating on the economy is underwater by 20 points in the RealClearPolitics national average.

And, unfortunately for him, he’s running against someone who cannot only promise a strong economy as president, but who will claim that he delivered on that promise once before.

The killer here is inflation, of course. Biden enjoys a gruesome 34-63 approval on that issue in the Journal poll, and it could get worse: Jim Geraghty notes in National Review today that food prices are expected to grow again this year at rates above the historical average, and that credit card balances now sit at an all-time high, north of $1 trillion.

If you’re being pinched at the supermarket and have convinced yourself that a different president will magically arrest rising prices, you can’t afford to treat the next election as a death match between classical liberalism and authoritarianism. You’ll choose the candidate whose economic record you remember more fondly.

The war in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian army isn’t going to collapse. In fact, within the past week things have started looking up for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

But winter is coming, and when it arrives the fighting will slow down. Odds of a stalemate between the two sides remain high, as do the odds of an unhappy settlement in which Ukraine forfeits land. “What did we get for our money?” Americans will ask. “A genocide averted,” the White House will say. I’m not sure that’ll be good enough for most voters.

On Sunday, Volodymyr Zelensky fired his defense minister amid reports of “financial improprieties” within the department. If it turns out that corrupt deputies have been skimming foreign aid that was meant for Ukrainian troops, I’m not sure American support for the war can hold. Populist Republicans have spent 18 months insisting that Ukraine’s government is crooked and that our generosity would be exploited. If they’re proven right, Biden will look like a chump who took tax dollars from the American working class to line the pockets of sleazy foreigners.

The deficit.

No one cares about the deficit anymore, apart from a rump faction of traditional conservatives who no longer wield much power within the GOP—i.e. Dispatch members. (Your concerns are valid, and we love you!)

But for most Republicans and right-leaning swing voters, the national debt only matters when a Democrat is president and an election looms. They’ll have much to complain about next fall, as the deficit is now projected to hit $2 trillion for the fiscal year ending September 30. That’s double the amount it was last year, and Biden doesn’t have the pandemic-relief excuse that Trump had when he was running his own astronomically huge deficits.

Deficits aren’t supposed to balloon when the economy is growing. If you’re undecided about 2024 and worried that the federal government still hasn’t meaningfully confronted our fiscal crisis (and you should be), you might reasonably conclude that a Republican administration is marginally more likely to take the problem seriously than a Democratic one.

Illegal immigration.

Illegal border crossings dropped sharply this spring when the White House replaced Title 42 with new restrictions on asylum applicants, boosting penalties on those who didn’t apply through proper means. Surprisingly and hopefully, deterrence seemed to be working. The border crisis had abated at last.

But only temporarily. After crossings eased in May and June, they began to rise again in July. According to preliminary Border Patrol data obtained by the Washington Post, apprehensions increased by more than 30 percent each of the last two months, while the number of migrants traveling with a family who were arrested in August set a new record. With intolerable summer temperatures easing, next month’s number could be worse.

When Republicans make their case next year that Biden is out of solutions to America’s problems, the recurring immigration crisis will be Exhibit A.


House Republicans don’t need to find a smoking gun that proves Joe Biden was getting a cut of Hunter Biden’s shady foreign business dealings in order to damage his chances in 2024. All they need to do is create reasonable suspicion that the president is corrupt, which they’re in the process of doing. If they can neutralize the issues of “character” and “trustworthiness” in the minds of swing voters, they’ve eliminated the biggest obstacle to getting Donald Trump reelected.

Trump, meanwhile, might yet succeed in getting his trials delayed until after the election. Doing so would be important, as a conviction before Election Day will deprive him of the benefit of the doubt among voters who are otherwise inclined to look past his indictments and support him.

Democrats will attack Trump relentlessly during the campaign for his alleged crimes even if he hasn’t yet been found guilty of anything, but the former president has argued from the start that his opponents are prosecuting him for political gain. If Biden and his team weaponize their suspicions without having secured any convictions, they’ll appear to have proven Trump right. How undecideds react at that point is hard to predict, but the chance of a backlash is better than zero.

Everything above can be filed under the heading, “Things Are Off the Rails and Biden Doesn’t Know What to Do.”

He ran in 2020 as a leader who would restore normalcy after an abnormal four years. In 2024, he risks being viewed as a man who’s been overwhelmed by events on every front. For most of his presidency, more Americans have said the country is on the wrong track than said so under Trump. In an environment like that, an authoritarian promising to bring “order” to the chaos may be more potent than we expect.

Still, an incumbent with strong retail skills—say Barack Obama circa 2012—might prevail in spite of all of it, especially when facing an opponent as hated as Trump.

But as we are regularly reminded, Biden isn’t Obama. Which brings us to the second part of the analysis: the “intangibles.”

The key intangible, needless to say, is the president’s age. Of all the numbers in the new WSJ poll, this is the most arresting: “Although the candidates are only three years apart, 73% of voters said they feel Biden is too old to seek a second term, compared with 47% of voters who said the same of the 77-year-old Trump. Two-thirds of Democrats said Biden was too old to run again.”

Two-thirds of his own party. No wonder Democratic elites are having trouble getting voters excited about the old man.

Former FiveThirtyEight guru Nate Silver has consulted the actuarial tables and is losing patience with liberal experts prone to happy talk about the issue of Biden’s age. Trump isn’t much younger than the president, Silver notes, but he’s still young enough to have a meaningful difference in life expectancy and Alzheimer’s risk—and Biden’s risk will grow considerably as he serves out a second term. Why, as I write this, a sometimes deadly virus is right on his doorstep.

In an era when prominent politicians routinely served with vigor well into their 80s, perhaps he’d be granted the benefit of the doubt. If Chuck Grassley and Bernie Sanders were the public’s only frame of reference, voters might be optimistic about the president’s ability to rise to the challenge of his job.

As it is, Biden has the bad luck of Americans getting to watch Dianne Feinstein and Mitch McConnell deteriorate day by day in front of television cameras recently, giving them an unintended sneak peek at what a second term might be like. He was quick to downplay McConnell’s latest incident …

… but Silver’s assessment is stark and true: “Trump might be only one Biden-has-a-McConnell-moment away from winning.” Imagine how Feinstein and/or McConnell passing away before Election Day might further sharpen voters’ attention to the subject of age.

Even if Biden is spared a “McConnell moment,” the sense that things are off the rails and the president doesn’t know what to do surely cuts deeper when he’s geriatric. In such a case, it’s easy for voters to believe that a (slightly) younger executive would respond to problems more nimbly and effectively as they arise.

The other “intangible” is realignment. 

The other Nate, Nate Cohn of the New York Times, has been chewing on data recently showing Republicans making small but significant gains among black and Hispanic voters. Working-class populism is chipping off pieces of the Democrats’ nonwhite base, a bloc they need to win overwhelmingly in order to offset Republicans’ strength with white voters.

On Tuesday, Cohn elaborated on what he’s seeing in a piece titled, “Consistent Signs of Erosion in Black and Hispanic Support for Biden.” This graph captures the post-Obama decline in Democrats’ share of nonwhite blocs over time:

The latest Times data shows Biden’s advantage over Trump among nonwhite voters down to 53-28, Cohn reports, which explains why national head-to-head polling between the two is so tight. Among nonwhite voters who didn’t graduate from college, the president leads by a mere 49-31; among nonwhite registered voters under the age of 45, it’s 48-29. His numbers among black, Hispanic, and nonwhite/other voters are all down from the last election.

Five percent of nonwhite voters who backed Biden in 2020 now back Trump. That’s a small share of the overall electorate, but very small shifts would have flipped Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin in 2020.

Add it all up and Trump actually leads Biden head-to-head in the new WSJ doom poll when the Green Party and Libertarian Party candidates are included as options.

Is there anything to be done about any of this?

I agree with Jonathan Last that the most obvious solution to the Democrats’ dilemma is a nonstarter. As weak as he is, there’s no stronger potential nominee than the incumbent. You could (pretty easily) talk me into believing that Michelle Obama would be more formidable, but until there’s some reason to believe she’s willing to run, there’s no point.

So, who? Kamala Harris? Her favorable rating is lower than Biden’s.

Gavin Newsom? What would he do to win back the young working-class black and Hispanic voters who are tiptoeing toward Trump and the GOP? And do Democrats really want to run a national campaign based on the idea that America should be governed like California?

Gretchen Whitmer? Okay, but I doubt black Democrats will be thrilled to see the first African American woman VP passed over for a white candidate from the midwest. Frankly, I worry how any woman candidate would fare with swing voters head-to-head against Trump doing his alpha-male shtick.

In fact, if Democrats nominated anyone except Biden, they’d arguably be forfeiting the “incumbency” advantage to the other guy in the race with actual presidential experience.

I think they’re stuck playing this very bad hand because they don’t have a stronger one to play. It may be that our best hope of avoiding a second Trump term lies with Republican voters sobering up and doing the right thing in their own primary, and that’s no hope at all. The American right hasn’t come this far in its years of civic degeneration toward authoritarianism only to turn back now.

Bottom line: If, after all of the above, you still think Trump can’t win, why exactly do you think that?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.