Why the 2024 election is happening out of order
Biden is experiencing the perils of presiding over his opponent's second term
Let’s envision an alternative universe where a “normal” Republican had won the 2016 election. With strong economic performance and a relatively uncontroversial first three years, they start out 2020 as a favorite for re-election. The Democratic primary is a slugfest between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Joe Biden declines to be drawn out of a comfortable retirement to run, as the stakes seem too low and the race unwinnable to boot.
Then the coronavirus hits. Normal Republican President projects steadiness and calm, and like other world leaders, their approval ratings rise and stay high throughout 2020. They shepherd the CARES package through Congress and pass another round of stimulus that summer. That November, they win re-election against Sanders by a margin of 52 to 47 percent.
But problems start to mount in the first few months of the second term. Inflation begins creeps up to 8 percent, a time bomb set off by the 2020 stimulus. Presidential job approval plummets from the high 50s to the high 30s. In the 2022 midterms, Republicans lose 35 seats in the House.
Heading into 2024, the Democrats are wildly favored to take back the White House after three years of post-Covid economic malaise.
This scenario describes a perfectly familiar sequence of events from our pre-Trump politics. Incumbent presidents overseeing good or even middling economies typically win re-election, but usually face a second term harder than the first. And presidents facing a national emergency tend to get the benefit of the doubt for their initial response, which should have put 2020 further out of reach for Democrats. But Trump was anything but normal, and the streak of three successive two-term presidents was broken in 2020.
Back on Earth 1, Trump’s Covid response was erratic and he was seen as an agent of chaos throughout his entire term. Voters were tired of the messiness and drama and he was defeated despite his advantage over Joe Biden on handling the economy.
Joe Biden subsequently took office and presided over what would have been Donald Trump’s second term malaise. The surge in inflation happened under his watch, not Trump’s.
Donald Trump is now no less controversial than he was during his presidency. But in a period of high economic anxiety, his stewardship of the economy now seems more relevant than it was in 2020. You can argue all you want that Biden isn’t getting enough credit for positive economic news, but the Civiqs economic conditions tracker tells a clear story. Regardless of actual economic conditions, Donald Trump’s salesmanship seemed like an elixir driving positive economic sentiment during his term, while today we remain stuck in a post-Covid spiral of negative economic sentiment that Joe Biden has been unable to pull us out of. Nor is it just a function of Republicans changing their assessment of the economy, as evidenced by the recent NBC News poll showing Trump favored over Biden on the economy by 22 points. Swing voters, not just Republicans, aren’t buying the Biden economic narrative.
As a result of Trump-specific oddities, 2020 was not the economic referendum that should have resulted in a second Trump term. As a result, Biden got to preside over the post-Covid hangover, not a lame-duck Trump. And because we didn’t have the economic referendum we would normally have had in 2020, we are having it in 2024. The election Republicans should have won in 2020 they might actually win in 2024. And the election Democrats should have lost in 2020 they might lose in 2024.