All That’s Known About the 2024 Elections Are the Unknowns

The folks over at FiveThirtyEight ran their first 2024 Republican presidential nomination mock draft last week. They were careful to label it “way too early.” In a normal presidential-election cycle, I would have been quick to run an item about how that wasn’t really true. Indeed, in a normal presidential-election cycle, I would have already written four months ago that the 2024 contest was already underway.

This is not a normal nomination cycle. Or, to be more accurate: These are not normal nomination cycles.

We really have no idea whether either the Republican or the Democratic nominations will be competitive.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump is the first former president to have a serious chance at winning a nomination since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. No one right now, probably including Trump himself, has any idea whether he will have any interest in an attempted comeback by the time he would have to decide.

Nor does anyone, certainly including Trump, have any sense of whether he would win by acclamation or engage in a competitive contest or, for all we know, get clobbered in the early primaries and never come close to the nomination. Yes, Trump always polls well among Republicans. But remember, almost all well-known Republican politicians will poll well among Republican voters. There’s simply no way that polling now can predict how voters would act against an unknown field of opponents almost three years from now.

For now, a lot of Republicans are doing the things that candidates do — visiting the states with early primaries and caucuses, staking out rhetorical ground, drawing attention to themselves. But it won’t mean much until Republican party actors know Trump’s plans; nor whether those Republican party actors who don’t want to see a rerun of 2020 would try to wrestle the 2024 nomination away from Trump or cower in fear.

FiveThirtyEight’s pundits didn’t run a Democratic mock draft. Potential Democratic candidates aren’t visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Those are signs of how successful President Joe Biden has been so far in convincing everyone that he’s going to run for re-election. That’s smart politics for Biden, whether he actually intends to be a candidate in 2024 or not.

But it’s also true that Biden would begin a second term at the age of 82, and even if his first term goes well (and it’s way too early to know whether he’ll be popular or not next year, let alone when candidates would have to declare their intentions) it’s certainly more than a slim possibility that he’ll eventually declare himself a one-term president.

The truth is that long U.S. presidential campaigns, lasting over three years before voters actually get involved, is mostly unnecessary. Candidates do need time to introduce themselves to party actors and to try to win their support, and then to translate that support into success in the early states and then the rest of the primaries and caucuses. But not that much time. They start early only because there’s no penalty for getting in early, and because there’s always the chance that if they wait, someone else will have an advantage.

We saw what happens when the cycle is truncated in 1992. Incumbent President George H.W. Bush was wildly popular from mid-1989 well into 1990, so much so that many Democrats believed the nomination might not be worth pursuing. Eventually, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and several other candidates entered, and it turned out there was plenty of time for party actors to coalesce around Clinton and for him to win the nomination. In other words, a late start shouldn’t prevent the party from deciding the nomination. That’s assuming that the party can do so, an assumption that seems a lot safer on the Democratic side today than on the Republican one.

Another significant feature of the 1992 selection process is that the Democrats produced a small field of formally declared candidates: A governor, two senators, one former senator and one former governor. We don’t know whether that was just random variation, a consequence of Bush’s popularity or an effect of the late start. But perhaps we’ll see something like that in 2024 if one or both nominations has a similarly delayed kickoff.

I expect Biden to make his intentions clear shortly after the 2022 midterm elections. That would leave plenty of time for candidates to enter and for the process to work itself out. Any later, and Biden would run the risk of harming the party. Trump is far less predictable, in large part because he probably doesn’t care what happens to the Republican Party unless he’s leading it.

Events could also eliminate one or both of them as viable candidates even sooner. For that, it really is too early to know.

1. Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on the “talking” filibuster.

2. John Hudak on the return of earmarks.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Karl W. Smith on Senate Republicans and earmarks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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