There are less than 10 days until the first state Presidential Primary contest: the Grand Old Party (Republican) Iowa Caucuses. The first Democratic Presidential Primary is also around the corner, though wrangling between New Hampshire and the national Democratic Party over its ‘first-in-the-nation primary status’ means that the dates and statuses of these contests are less clear. 

If this has not got you jumping out of your seat, I cannot blame you. While American politics has recently become increasingly unpredictable and exciting, the 2024 presidential primary is the exception that proves the rule. The outcome seems nearly predetermined; Democrats have rallied behind Biden and have failed to field a serious alternative challenger to him. On the Republican side, Trump seems to have consolidated support as national polling averages of the race place him near the 60% mark and over 40 points ahead of any other challengers.1

Trump appears to be an insurmountable obstacle that the other presidential candidates cannot overcome as they compete with each other for attention and second place. However, some caveats about both presidential primaries still apply. Biden’s old age and Trump’s 91 criminal charges mean there is a higher than usual chance that at least one of those candidates may suddenly drop out of the 2024 Presidential election. This creates some uncertainty around the outcome of both the Primary and General elections. Still, as 2024 approaches, a Trump-Biden 2024 rematch is becoming nearly inevitable, an outcome that the whole world is slowly waking up to. 

How did Biden avoid a significant primary challenger?

Biden’s age and low approval ratings meant that discussion about a potential primary challenger had been brewing since late 2021. The relative Democratic success in the 2022 midterms, however, emboldened Biden and the current Democratic Party Strategy. This helped prevent a widespread elite freakout about Biden’s electability, which would have been a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for Democrats to coordinate and coalesce around a primary challenger to Biden. Furthermore, Democratic elites seem to have calculated that keeping Biden on the ticket is better than risking a contested competitive primary. No good-quality candidate with sufficient political experience, high popularity, or name recognition has decided to run against Biden. If another major candidate were to enter the race, it would likely jeopardise that candidate’s future political prospects. They would risk the future ire of the Democratic Party as their candidacy would probably weaken Biden’s and the Democratic brand itself, increasing the chances of a GOP takeover of the White House. Therefore, Biden has been able to freeze the Democratic Primary and block any challengers. Only non-serious candidates running without major elite support have challenged Biden: RFK Jr, Marianne Williamson and Dean Philips. Meanwhile, floated 2024 candidates such as Raphael Warnock (Junior Senator from Georgia), Gretchen Whitmer (Governor of Michigan) and Josh Shapiro (Governor of Pennsylvania) have stayed loyal to Biden. Each has rationally made the calculus that any move against Biden now may hurt them in 2028. Since Democrat Party elites are behind Biden, they cannot successfully run against Biden without harming the party’s prospects in the general election. 

How did Trump dominate the GOP primary again against a splintered field?

Many may wonder how the events of January 6 did not immediately disqualify Trump’s candidacy. There is an interesting legal argument that Section 3 of the 14th amendment means that Trump’s candidacy is barred from running for president as he “engaged in insurrection or rebellion”. Ultimately though, it seems that GOP primary voters will decide Trump’s fate before the courts can, as they will decide whether to nominate Trump. For many GOP voters, Trump’s message of election denial is not an impediment. In fact, it may have motivated his base and increased support for his campaign. On the day of the insurrection, GOP elites could have attempted to organise and persuade the GOP electorate that Trump was beyond the pale. They chose not to (evidenced by McCarthy’s visit to see Trump at Mar-a-Lago days after the insurrection). Meanwhile, the 2022 midterm set up an ostensibly competitive race between Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis (the favoured candidate among the GOP elites). Many Republican party elites viewed Trump as having cost the GOP control of the Senate and reducing the size of the GOP House majority. By endorsing flawed candidates, such as Blake Masters in Arizona and Herschel Walker in Georgia, many argued that Trump cost the GOP winnable seats in the Senate. January 6 and Republican political extremism also likely cost Republicans votes at the national level, decreasing the size of the Republican House majority. On the other hand, DeSantis’ impressive 19-point victory in Florida bucked the trend of a generally disappointing night for Republicans. By the end of 2022, there was a competitive GOP primary, and De-Santis had nearly as much support as Trump in head-to-head contests.  

Trump’s criminal indictments, first filed in March 2023, would likely be potentially fatal for any other presidential campaign and could have helped DeSantis (or another Trump alternative) win the nomination. However, the events of January 6, and other legal proceedings instigated against Trump actually might have increased, or at least not affected, his standing in the primary. Many GOP primary voters seemed to want to stand with Trump and demonstrate their support while he was ‘under attack’ from the judiciary and the ‘deep state’. Ron De Santis also needed to clear the field and make the primary a two-person race with him against Trump or significantly take away votes from the Trump base. De Santis failed to do either, and other candidates, such as Vivek Ramaswamy or Nikki Haley, splintered the field and made the Republican primary a fight for second place. Throughout the campaign and GOP debates, most candidates (except for some like Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson) largely ignored Trump. They preferred to avoid heavily attacking the former president in case this was off-putting to the Republican voters they were trying to appeal to – but this also cemented support for Trump. Trump’s decision not to participate in the GOP primary debates further demonstrates how behind his opponents are. Trump knows that he is in a commanding position, and so does not gain much by debating the other candidates. In fact, he benefits by making the primary seem non-competitive (which means that many voters only consider Trump) and avoids the chance that an attack during the campaign sticks and erodes support for Trump. 

Do the 2024 primaries even matter ? 

Whilst the final result of the Republican and Democratic Primaries may never be in much doubt, the policy positions that various candidates take will continue to shape American politics well beyond 2024. The issue of foreign policy in the Republican Primary demonstrates the importance of these primaries. By picking a leader, the Republicans are indirectly also choosing between competing visions of America’s role in the world (each worldview represented by a different candidate). This is clear in the GOP debates where Haley, former US ambassador to the UN represents the conventional neoconservative foreign policy position: strong support for both Ukraine and Israel. In contrast, Ramaswamy represents the isolationist tendency in the Republican Party that seems to be gaining steam. Regardless of who Republicans choose to be president, whether they seem to endorse or repudiate either of these views has massive geopolitical implications. Republican debate about foreign policy is already playing out and has  an immediate impact on the world. House and Senate Republicans are debating whether to supply Ukraine with military aid during its continued war with Russia. This debate will play out regardless of who wins the GOP nomination – but the presidential primary will undoubtedly shape the Republican platform on foreign policy. 

Moreover, the 2024 primary will give Republicans a chance to try out potential campaign messages before the General election in November. Specifically, the primary has given Republicans a platform to debate their conflicting visions of abortion policy in a post-Roe world. In 2022, the Supreme Court decided Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade and found that there is no constitutional right to an abortion. As a result of this decision, state governments and the federal government now have the authority to determine abortion policy. The Dobbs decision means that Republicans now have the potential power to limit or ban abortions at the federal level in 2024 and can already control abortion policy in some Republican controlled states.

Pre-Roe ‘trigger laws’, state laws that outlawed abortion if Roe was overturned, muted internal debate about abortion within the Republican Party. Abortion Policy had already been decided in many Republican states. Many Republican state legislators voted for ‘trigger laws’ (which often banned abortion completely without exceptions for rape or incest). However, many legislators voted for these laws without amending them because they believed that abortion bans would never come into effect because the Supreme Court would uphold Roe. The surprise death of liberal Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in late 2020 and her replacement by a conservative justice helped create the solid conservative majority many Republicans had always wanted. The 2024 primaries represent the most significant opportunity since Roe for the GOP to test out different abortion messages and ultimately decide a clear position on abortion. Pro-life groups such as Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America threatened to campaign against any candidate who would support a federal 15 week limit on abortions. However, Republican presidential candidates seem to have taken diverging, if slightly unclear views on abortion. Niki Haley seems to have articulated one potential more moderate GOP response to Dobbs emphasising that a 15 week federal abortion ban would be unlikely to pass the Senate and that there needs to be a “consensus” around abortion.Other Republican candidates such as Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, and Mike Pence supported a federal six-week abortion plan. While Trump looks set to be the next candidate, the relative success or failure of those candidates and their ideas on the debate stage will influence the policy platform he runs on. 

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the lack of any serious contenders reveals that Biden has successfully consolidated support among all factions in the Democratic Party. By toeing the line between the progressive and moderate factions in his party, Biden has largely been able to avoid substantive criticism over his legislative agenda or policy positions. This suggests that, at least in the immediate future, Biden’s set of policy positions have won the day in the Democratic Party. There is still some left-wing progressive criticism of Biden, represented by former 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who is also running again this year. However, her lacklustre polling (she is stuck on average in the mid-single digits)2 demonstrates that she does not represent a critical mass of mainstream Democratic opinion that could challenge Biden. Other progressive Democrats, such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have stayed loyal to Biden alongside moderate Democrats. Meanwhile, Dean Phillips, Biden’s other major challenger, is reduced to criticising the economy and high inflation or Biden’s age while staying numb on any other major substantive policy differences. Therefore, the reconciliation of different views amongst Democrats without public conflict in the 2024 Democratic primary reveals a unified party that is likely to stay unified.

What do past primaries tell us about the future ? 

Historically, presidential primary elections have been a precursor to parties’ future policy positions and internal policy party debates. The previous presidential primaries (the 2020 Democratic Primary and the 2016 Republican primary) are no exception. While Trump’s nomination was the most consequential outcome of that primary, he also permanently changed the issue landscape for Republican voters. Trump permanently elevated the salience of immigration and the border in 2016, at the expense of previously core Republican issues such as the size of the government and Social Security Spending. The primary revealed the Republican Party’s future priorities in government: a willingness to shut down the government for 35 days in 2018-9 over building a wall while also tolerating high budget deficits and not pursuing entitlement reform. The victory of Biden in 2020, who was solidly in the ‘moderate’ camp as opposed to other progressive candidates, also foreshadowed what the Democrats would be like in government. Biden, both on the campaign trail and in government, represented a political shift left from the Obama years (demonstrated by legislation such as the ARP and IRA, which increased social spending and investments to tackle climate change). However, the primary also demonstrated that the Democratic Party was pragmatic and, in the face of Republican opposition, could create a unified policy agenda that satisfied both progressive and moderate supporters. The presidential primaries are certainly not the only thing that determines the issue environment and a party’s policy preferences; other primary elections in the Senate and House will also shape what each party represents and what influential ‘elites’ in the party advocate for. However, in an increasingly nationalised and polarised country, the president, or a presidential candidate, exerts a greater influence on their party. 2024 thus represents a unique opportunity to shape both political parties as they decide on their presidential candidates. 

Many Americans may lament a Trump-Biden rematch as it is an outcome that most Americans do not seem satisfied with. According to an NBC News Poll 70% of Americans did not want Biden to run again and 60% did not want Trump to run again in April 2023. However, while this may lead some to want to disengage with the political process, the internal party fights that will occur through the 2024 primary are significant. The positions that each political party adopts will have domestic and global policy consequences. Policy positions which have still not been fully decided by the party. Moreover, engaging in the presidential primary system can improve the primary system. Usually, only the most ‘engaged partisans’ become involved in presidential primaries, so they have an outsized role in shaping political parties. This may help partially explain why a Trump-Biden rematch is so likely. While both candidates may be unpopular with most Americans, they are popular with most voters in their party. And those voters know what’s at stake in the respective primary contests.

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