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The Vibes, They Are A-Shiftin’
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The Vibes, They Are A-Shiftin’

Aren’t they?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. (Photos by Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/ AFP/Getty Images)

Are Joe Biden’s chances at reelection improving?

A lull in the Republican primary is an opportune moment to tackle the question, especially now that the outcome on the GOP side is no longer in doubt. To the extent it ever was.

In August, we considered the Biden victory scenario. As weak as the president is, squint hard and you can make out how he might outperform his 2020 margins against Donald Trump this fall. The economy keeps rolling; Trump is convicted of one or more felonies; horror stories from red states that have banned abortion galvanize liberal turnout; Biden remains mostly lucid on the campaign trail.

There’s no trick to beating Trump. He’ll do most of the work. Just get out of the way and let him do his thing.

But you know how this newsletter works by now. Optimism never lasts long.

So in September, we considered the Trump victory scenario. Voters miss the strong pre-pandemic Trump economy; they despise the disaster on the southern border over which Biden has presided; and after a fiasco in Afghanistan and a stalemate in Ukraine, they fear that the president has lost control of events abroad. Grandpa Joe is probably one public “senior moment” away from landing in an electoral hole he can’t climb out of. There’s no need to squint to see how we end up with Trump II: This Time It’s Personal.

That was five months ago. With both candidates on track to sweep their parties’ primaries, which scenario is more likely now?

We’re going to argue both sides of it today, not because it’s easier to write a “both sides” analysis (although it is!) but because there’s sound logic to each position. Those who want to believe that Trump is on track for a second term have good reason to think so. And those who want to believe that a meaningful “vibe shift” among voters toward the president is under way …

… I’m too much of a pessimist to say that they also have good reason to think so, but they have some reason to think so. I’d say there’s enough “vibe shift” potential at the moment for devotees of the American constitutional order to postpone any nascent plans they might have to commit seppuku.

Check back in a few months, though. And keep those blades sharp.

The case for a “vibe shift” begins and largely ends with a simple fact: The U.S. economy is roaring and voters have finally begun to realize it. Apart from victory in a major war, there’s nothing more an incumbent could want in an election year.

Frustrated Democrats have complained for months that good economic news wasn’t breaking through. Theories abound as to why. Maybe Biden is an unusually poor messenger. Maybe the black cloud of inflation blotted out the sun of rising GDP and job growth. Maybe there’s simply a “lag” between reality and its absorption by a population of 330 million people. Maybe voters are so polarized politically now that it takes longer than it used to for them to change their minds in response to evidence.

Whatever the truth may be, something has shifted lately.

Fourth-quarter GDP beat expectations handily. Unemployment came in at under 4 percent last month while average hourly earnings rose by 4.1 percent on the year, outpacing inflation—which has slowed to the point that the Federal Reserve is being lobbied to cut interest rates. The recession many expected this year now appears unlikely, and the stock market is on an unholy tear.

At long last, the many encouraging economic indicators have begun to breach the public consciousness. On Tuesday, consumer confidence reached its highest level since December 2021, around the time inflation first began to cause the White House serious political pain. If that’s the start of a trend, the most potent weapon in Trump’s political arsenal may end up being neutralized by fall. The less favorably “the Trump economy” compares to “the Biden economy,” the weaker the case for rolling the dice again on a lunatic becomes.

And don’t think said lunatic doesn’t know it.

If Trump is forced to spend the fall trying to take credit for a booming economy under Biden instead of blaming the president for a bad one, he’s probably cooked. Given a choice between two geriatrics with malfunctioning brains, each of whom has overseen strong growth, you might as well stick with the one who hasn’t tried to end democracy.

And speaking of malfunctioning brains, Team Biden has begun to put voters on notice that the president is not the only guy in the race who may have “lost a step” due to advancing age. In recent weeks, the Biden/Harris Twitter feed has become nothing short of a clearinghouse for videos of Trump sounding less than coherent on the trail. For instance:

Barring a health crisis and Trump’s incapacitation during the campaign, there’s no world in which voters this fall come to view Biden as the more cogent of the two options. Opinions about the president’s decline are too strong to shift that sharply. But Democrats don’t need a “win” on that subject, they only need a “draw”—planting just enough doubt in voters’ minds about the challenger’s ability to do the job that they’re less inclined to let their doubts about the incumbent’s ability influence their vote.

And for the next few weeks, at least, they’ll have an unlikely ally in the effort.

Nikki Haley has been subtly needling Trump’s age since she kicked off her campaign by calling for competence tests for all candidates 75 or older. But she’s leaned into it lately, personalizing the critique by highlighting Trump’s verbal flubs in appearances and overtly questioning his diminished capacity overtly. On Wednesday, she rolled out a new “Grumpy Old Men” ad campaign targeting Biden and Trump that will showcase their “signs of mental confusion” and “light presence on the campaign trail.”

Which, I have to imagine, is perfectly fine by the president. That critique of him was baked into the 2024 general election campaign years ago. Haley’s doing him a favor by looping Trump into it, encouraging swing voters to treat their misgivings about the two nominees’ age and health as a wash. So much so, in fact, that she’s begun to make unintended cameos in Biden’s own ads:

“The first party to retire its 80-year-old candidate is going to win this election,” the Haley campaign’s creative director tweeted on Wednesday in response to new polling showing her boss leading Biden comfortably. If I’m right in thinking that Haley’s critiques of Trump might influence what disaffected traditional conservatives do in November, this line of attack could potentially cost him the election in a close race.

There’s one more element to a potential “vibe shift” toward Biden. Since 2021, many casual voters have labored under the naive assumption that Republicans wouldn’t dream of doing something as irresponsible as renominating the architect of January 6 for president.

Their illusion is about to be shattered. And when it is, there’s a chance of an avalanche toward Biden in polling.

Democrats are counting on it. A few days before the Iowa caucuses, CNN cited internal research by the Biden campaign indicating that nearly three-quarters of undecided voters weren’t paying close attention to the race and didn’t seem to realize that Trump is likely to become the Republican nominee again.

Now that he’s won Iowa and New Hampshire—and is poised to knock Haley out in South Carolina—that’s presumably begun to change. It may have begun to change already, per this trend in independents:

The change there is modest, from abysmal to merely terrible, and no doubt the economic “vibe shift” is contributing to Biden’s improvement. But it’s hard not to think that the reality of a third Trump campaign may have begun to crash down on average Americans, leading some to run screaming into the president’s arms. If you were a so-called “double hater” in the 2020 election, you’ve had no reason since January 2021 to hate anyone but Joe Biden. The reemergence of Trump as the lone alternative to a second Biden term is about to confound that. 

Which, all told, makes for an improving picture for the incumbent. Throw in the facts that the woman who managed his campaign to victory in 2020 is taking the reins of his 2024 bid and his super PAC is preparing to drop no less than a quarter of a billion dollars on advertising this fall and he has a solid shot at reelection. The formula is simple: Great economy + Trump’s enfeeblement canceling out Biden’s = an electoral referendum on whether the challenger is fit to return to office.

Considering that challenger is facing 91 felony charges in criminal court and counting, that’s a race Joe Biden can win.

So why isn’t he winning?

On Wednesday morning, amid all the rosy economic news and brightening numbers among independents for the president, Bloomberg released a new poll of swing states. Feast your eyes.

Those are unusually gaudy margins, but there’s nothing unusual about Trump leading Biden. Of the 10 national head-to-head surveys conducted since Iowa that were tracked by RealClearPolitics, the challenger led in eight. The Bloomberg swing-state poll was also conducted after the caucuses, where Trump won easily and all but wrapped up the race. If seeing him coronated by Republican voters is supposed to trigger a stampede of undecideds toward Biden, when does that stampede begin, exactly?

You might answer that it’s too soon to expect a major polling shift. Casual voters need time to apprise themselves of political developments; we should give the outcome in Iowa and New Hampshire a month or two to “bake in” before checking the numbers for evidence of a backlash. Which is fair enough—but it ignores the fact that Trump’s victory in the primary has been a foregone conclusion for months. He’s been routing his Republican opponents in national polling for half a year and was widely projected to dominate in Iowa, effectively ending the race. Checked-out undecideds have already had a good long while to face reality about their choices in November. They haven’t broken for Biden yet.

Which leads one to wonder: How much of Trump’s lead is actually owed to the fact that “double-haters” haven’t realized that he’ll soon be back on the ballot and how much of it is owed to their shock that Joe Biden will soon be back on the ballot? A casual voter who never dreamed that he’d need to consider voting for Trump again probably also never considered that Democrats would renominate a man who seems unlikely to complete a second term. That illusion will be shattered soon as well.

Those unhappy with having to choose between two unfit candidates might simply prefer the challenger, however grudgingly, because the challenger in this case seems a bit less addled by age than the incumbent. I quote Dave Portnoy, the Barstool-conservative-in-chief: “I don’t like either candidate we have right now. Having said that, it’s a no-brainer I would vote for Trump over Biden. That is not because I think Trump is the perfect guy for the job. I mean, Biden has dementia.”

The stampede might not be coming.

Even the brightening economic picture might plausibly do Biden less good than it would a different incumbent due to anxiety about his age. Rightly or wrongly (read: wrongly), American voters tend to believe that a strong economy is directly attributable to a president’s managerial skills. That assumption is harder to make in Biden’s case due to suspicions that he’s senescent. If the economy is working, many will conclude it must be in spite of him rather than because of him. Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump leads Biden 51-33 in the Bloomberg swing-state poll on who voters think would do a better job handling the economy.

Meanwhile, the sense of crisis around foreign policy and immigration has deepened since fall. The “vibe shift” in both regards has been, shall we say, unhelpful to Biden’s reelection effort.

As I write this, Americans are waiting to see how the White House will respond to three American soldiers being killed in Jordan by a drone launched by Iranian proxies. There’s likely no good political outcome to be had from whatever Biden does. If he doesn’t hit back hard enough to successfully deter further potshots at U.S. assets in the region, he’ll be accused of reinforcing a perception of weakness that invited those potshots in the first place. If he does hit back hard, he’ll be accused of recklessly risking a regional war at a moment when America is already overextended in supporting Ukraine and Israel.

A new war would mark three major global conflicts on Biden’s watch. When I wrote the “Trump victory scenario” last year, there was one—and that one didn’t pit the president squarely against his progressive base, sapping some of the support he’s counting on in November. Paradoxically, the more international turmoil there is, the more voters may consider Trump’s loose-cannon unpredictability to be an asset in restraining foreign powers. Bad guys never know what a lunatic with the world’s greatest military under his command might do if they cause him trouble, right?

The border disaster has also gotten worse since last fall. Despite three years of immigration hawks pleading with Biden to do more to stem the flow from Mexico, in December, Customs and Border Protection recorded the most migrant encounters in a single month in American history. The president has responded to that by litigating his right to remove concertina wire that the state of Texas has erected to deter migrants from crossing the Rio Grande. One poll published this month found Biden’s net approval on handling immigration at—no typo—negative 45 percent, even more pitiful than his numbers last fall. Today’s Bloomberg swing-state poll put Trump ahead of him on the issue by more than 20 points and found the share of voters who say it’s the most important factor to their upcoming vote rising in six of the seven states surveyed.

Given all that, you can understand why the president and his allies in Congress are suddenly eager for bipartisan compromise on immigration enforcement—but you can also understand why the GOP is reluctant to give it to them. The more the vibes about the border shift toward the right, the more reluctant Republicans will be to share ownership of the problem by partnering with Democrats to address it. If all Biden can say in November to the charge that he neglected the border for four years is that the GOP should have supported a modest reform bill in early 2024, I think it might be a campaign-killer for him. In the ominous words of David Frum, “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.”

And I know just the fascist for the job.

The argument against a “vibe shift” toward Biden boils down to this: The economic pain may be easing, but the sense that the country is stumbling into crises due to the incapacity of its leader is not. To many voters, the president’s personal decline can’t be disentangled from the problems that bedevil the country, and so the only way to solve them is to replace him. In an environment as chaotic as ours, a strongman becomes a more attractive proposition than he should be. Even a strongman who causes far more chaos than he prevents.

The best chance for a meaningful “vibe shift” this year lies outside Biden’s power, I think. Fifty-three percent of swing-state voters in the Bloomberg poll said they wouldn’t vote for Trump if he’s convicted of a crime before November; that number includes 23 percent of Republicans and, notably, 79 percent of the “double-haters.” There may be too much anxiety across the electorate for a diminished Biden to win a referendum on whether a conspiratorial authoritarian with a dictator fetish and one coup plot already to his name should be trusted with power again. But a referendum on whether the country should be governed by an actual criminal? There are some lines even an America in steep civic decline may not be ready to cross. Yet.

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.