On 25th April 2019, Joe Biden declared via video his candidacy in the 2020 presidential election. After some shaky initial primaries and a whole lot of hand-wringing in op-ed pages, Biden consolidated Democratic support – and, in the Autumn, he became the first challenger to take down an incumbent president for almost 30 years. On Tuesday, four years to the day after his last victorious run, Biden finally announced his anticipated bid for reelection. 

His campaign’s apparent slogan, “let’s finish the job!”, implicitly emphasises the economic agenda and achievements of the Biden administration – investments in clean energy, infrastructure, families, semiconductors and scientific research – but to a greater degree, Tuesday’s announcement video sharpens a contrast between the Republican onslaught against fundamental freedoms – abortion and voting rights in particular – and the Democratic opposition. 

Now as in 2019, there are doubters. Both the Mail Online and the New York Post, ever-so-subtly and ever-so-cunningly, slipped Biden’s age (“80”) into their headlines. The President’s age, already advanced beyond any of his predecessors, is a legitimate cause of concern – something which Joe Biden does not deny – and his somewhat limp approval ratings are similarly suboptimal; though, as I have written before, presidential approval more than a year out from election day is not all that predictive of victory or defeat.  

Additionally, almost all articles which emphasise Joe Biden’s political weaknesses without also recognising his many strengths fundamentally misunderstand presidential politics. So, this is the succinct case for why a Biden victory in 2024 remains the modal outcome. 

In essence, presidential elections are inherently relative. 

This is to say, when Americans cast their votes in November 2024, they will make their decisions based not only – or even predominantly – on their feelings about Joe Biden, but rather on their feelings about Joe Biden in relation to the Republican candidate. Or, to rephrase a now endlessly quoted Bidenism, voters won’t compare him “to the Almighty”, they’ll compare him “to the alternative.”

Of course, when a president is seeking reelection, the extent to which voters make decisions because of the executive’s record versus their opinion of the challenger is by no means fixed. For example, it seems fair to say that FDR was essentially unbeatable in 1936. By contrast, LBJ and Nixon were undoubtedly in very strong positions to win second terms in 1964 and 1972, but the sheer magnitude of both men’s landslides is attributable in large degree to the favourable light thrown on them by their polarising opponents: the pro-nuke Barry Goldwater and the “acid, amnesty, and abortion” George McGovern. 

The strategy – the correct strategy – of the Biden team is to leave plenty of oxygen in the room in order that the Republicans can suck it up. The gamble they are making is that the more Republicans are seen and heard by the electorate, the better Biden looks by implicit contrast. In providing plenty of rope for the GOP to hang themselves, Biden and the other Democrats are following a Napoleonic maxim: “never interrupt your enemy whilst he is making a mistake”. After all, aren’t Republicans about to renominate Donald Trump?

Ron DeSantis’ shadow campaign is in flames. His poll numbers are starting to look Hindeburg-esque, he is haemorrhaging Floridian congressional endorsements, the donor-class is getting jittery, and – perhaps most importantly – the media narrative is starting to coalesce accordingly. 

By contrast, reports of Trump’s political death seem greatly exaggerated. The election-denialism and insurrection-incitement; the two impeachments and the one (thus far) indictment; the calls to suspend the Constitution and the midterm flop – despite, and in some cases because of, all this, Donald Trump is polling above 50% in the GOP primary and collecting Republican endorsements as vigorously as he does lawsuits. Circumstances can change, but taking a clear-eyed view of Republican politics demands that one operates as though a Biden/Trump rematch is overwhelmingly probable. 

In this instance, there is reason to believe that the Biden strategy will prove a winner. Since 2016, Republicans have not ‘won’ an election cycle. The party lost control of the House in 2018, the presidency and Senate in 2020, and failed to make the gains they anticipated in 2022. The reality is that there is an anti-MAGA majority in the United States which, though not as commanding as one might desire, is sufficient to consistently win elections. 

By all rights, the 2022 midterms should have been a Democratic bloodbath. Inflation was creeping towards double-digits and Biden’s approvals were well underwater; the goal could not have been more open for Republicans. But, the reason why the GOP flopped so hard is the same reason Joe Biden will probably win in 2024: Republican extremism and sheer weirdness are repellent to the median voter.

In 2018, an election which was properly interpreted as a repudiation of Donald Trump, Democrats made up 37% of the electorate and Republicans made up 33%. The remaining 30% were independent voters. In 2022, Republicans made up 36% and Democrats 33%, with independents ticking up by 1% to 31%. The two elections were almost mirror images in terms of electoral composition; in both cases the party out of the White House held a turnout advantage of 3-4%. So why was 2022 not correspondingly a mirror image of 2018? Well, five years ago Democrats won amongst independents by 12 points, 54% to 42%. And last year, they won by two points, 49% to 47%. 

This Democratic strength with independent voters is not axiomatic – the exit polls after the Republican triumph in 2010 showed the GOP holding a 19 point lead with the bloc (though that is likely overstated). These voters, with whom Democrats narrowly prevailed in 2022, are the same people who spent the previous year-plus expressing disapproval of Joe Biden. Yet, when forced to confront the binary choice presented by a ballot, an aversion to the President was superseded by a repugnance of the alternative. 

The error that political pundits made in the run-up to the midterms was to assume that because 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2018 had been referenda on polarising presidents, the same would hold for 2022. It did not. The fact is that even under the most propitious of electoral circumstances, facing an unpopular Democratic president presiding over an economy perceived as bad, simply the threat of Trump and his acolytes deterred independents from moving en masse into the Republican column. This should set off DEFCON 1 level alarm bells for the GOP.

The voters who do not like Joe Biden will elect Democrats because they think Republicans are worse. 

Analysis of the 2022 House elections found that the biggest electoral underperformances were found among what might be called the ‘MAGA squad’ – the Boeberts, Gaetzes, and Greenes – of the GOP. This dynamic also held true in other congressional and state-wide elections. Trump endorsed candidates had a rough time of it in Senate contests: Blake Masters lost a winnable race in Arizona, Herschel Walker lost a winnable race in Georgia, Dr Oz lost a winnable race in Pennsylvania, Adam Laxalt lost a winnable race in Nevada, and Don Bolduc got walloped in New Hampshire, an election that by rights should have been at least close. Victory in any two out of these five would have given Republicans back the majority. 

‘Normie’ Republicans (Mike DeWine, Brian Kemp, etc) mostly ran impressively in 2022, but any such conservative would have to make it through the primaries in order to take on Biden…and Trump’s great bulk is currently blocking that path. 

Also in 2022, even as Trump was demonstrating via proxies both his continued hold over the Republican base and his toxicity in general elections, Democrats were showing unexpected strength in the key states which will determine the 2024 election. 

Six states currently comprise the core electoral college battleground: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. In 2020, all six were decided by under 3%. Biden won five. 

Despite mixed results, the three Southern states all appear to have continued moving towards the Democrats at differing speeds. Senate seats in Georgia and Arizona reelected Democrats (by wider margins than in 2020), and in Arizona, the governor’s mansion also flipped blue. But in the three rust-belt states, which famously handed Trump his electoral college win in 2016, Democrats showed truly remarkable strength. 

In Michigan (Biden +2.78%), Democrats not only reelected Governor Gretchen Whitmer by 10.6%, they also flipped both the State House and Senate, giving the party unified control for the first time since 1984. In Pennsylvania (Biden +1.16), Democrats won the open Senate seat by 4.9% – a minor upset, the open gubernatorial mansion by 14.8%, and also wrested control of the Pennsylvania House from the GOP. Finally, the party reelected Governor Tony Evers in Wisconsin (Biden +0.63%) by 3.4%. Wisconsin also held an election to its state Supreme Court this April. The contest was dominated by discussion of abortion rights, and the liberal candidate, (the races are ostensibly nonpartisan, but candidates have de facto party allegiances) Janet Protasiewicz, won by – and there is no other word for it – a stonking 11%. 

This string of Democratic overperformances in three states which – even without Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina – would be sufficient to get Biden to the magic 270 in the electoral college is partially due to the post-2016 freakout. The unexpected loss of the midwest, driven by the much-discussed Obama-Trump voters, prompted intense Democratic soul-searching. Since then the party – regardless of whether it has always succeeded – has been extremely conscious of the need to focus on kitchen-sink economic issues in closely divided states. In the midwest, this discipline has paid off and Democratic power has rebounded. 

Then there is the abortion issue. 

Post-2022 Republicans are starting to wake up to the electoral bomb they set off at the culmination of their 50-year project to overturn Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights are popular almost nationwide, but form a particularly productive political cleavage for Democrats in the midwest. To paint with a broad brush, voters in the North tend to be more secular than those in the South – those who switched to supporting Trump from Barack Obama did not do so because they became pro-life. 

Indeed, for no small number of voters, Republicans were appealing only when the salience of abortion politics was low. In a post-Roe world, Republicans can no longer have their cake and eat it; they can no longer use talk of babies being murdered to whip up the evangelical base in the knowledge that swing voters in the general will not have abortion front of mind.

Caught between their base (who oppose abortion rights) and the general electorate (who support abortion rights) Republicans are floundering. Presidential candidates are already starting to trip on abortion – see Tim Scott, or Nikki Haley. DeSantis is trying to draw a contrast with Trump, who to be fair has seen the political iceberg ahead, by signing his six week ban in Florida, but that is a move purely with an eye to the primary. A non-hypothetical prohibition on abortion after six weeks is quite simply politically indefensible in the general. Trump will not be able to wriggle out of this bind either – as he has asserted time and time again, his judges, on the Supreme Court because he put them there, ultimately provided the votes to overturn a right of half-a-century. 

Democrats know all of this, and Joe Biden’s reelection announcement put abortion protections front and centre. 

Not for no reason is it rare that incumbent presidents lose. The trappings of the office often imbue the holder with a correctness, a sense of belonging, a general propriety. Biden’s messages of experience and stability – juxtaposed of course with Trumpian instability – dovetail nicely with Air Force One, the Oval Office, and so on. Furthermore, the whiff of fruitcake currently hanging, in hand-drawn cartoon style, around House Republicans (see the debt ceiling fight) is allowing Joe Biden to look like the grown-up in the country. In the past this particular strategy has worked for Democratic presidents as varied as Barack Obama and Harry Truman. 

Biden’s economically populist positions and pledges also poll extremely well and have been enacted to a genuinely impressive extent by legislation passed since 2021. Democrats have bemoaned that much of the population remains unaware of these achievements, but this problem will surely become less pressing once telling-people-what-Biden-has-done becomes a project underpinned by truly ludicrous sums of money. 

Above all, however, the essential question about 2024 is “why would anyone who voted for Biden last time would switch to Trump this time?” Since November 2020, has Trump shown himself statesmanlike? Has he been pursuing popular policies? Has he been broadening his appeal? Similarly, has Biden screwed up irretrievably? People dislike Joe Biden, this is true. But, the bet Democrats are making for 2024 is that people dislike Trump and the Republicans a hell of a lot more. I think this is a good bet.