Trump must still clear a legal hurdle before he can become the GOP’s presumptive nominee. The Supreme Court is expected on Feb. 8 to hear arguments on whether states can use the Constitution’s 14th Amendment to keep him from the ballot.
Assuming Trump clears that hurdle, Biden aides and allies believe a faceoff with Trump will help negate the incumbent’s biggest weakness — his age — and motivate both swing voters and reluctant Democrats to turn out against Trump.
“I expect that Donald Trump will be the nominee, and I expect that people will understand the stakes in this election,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.). “But we will need to be at people’s doors, talking to voters, listening to voters and making sure that we can come together as a country and re-elect Joe Biden.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), a member of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, said the electoral map this year will look a lot like it did in 2020 and 2016.
“It will be another relatively close election,” he said. “But with a fast improving economy and Trump as the GOP nominee, I feel very good about Biden’s chances.”
Biden’s advisers and allies also think that Trump’s successful performance in the first two nominating states exposed his weaknesses with moderate Republicans, suburbanites and independents. In the Iowa caucuses last week, for example, almost half of GOP voters did not support Trump.
“Iowa and New Hampshire have pointed to real problems” for Trump, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns. “Everybody’s reading into how strong he is. I think if you really look at it, this is a much weaker candidacy than it was in 2020.”
Trump has long been fuel for Biden, who repeatedly said he ran for president in 2020 because he was horrified by the danger Trump posed to the nation. The president’s advisers initially believed that Trump’s opponents in the GOP primary, primarily Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, would go on the attack and spend months damaging Trump. But that failed to happen and, with few exceptions, the GOP rank-and-file fiercely rallied around Trump in the wake of his four criminal indictments.
That has allowed Trump to — barring some unforeseen event — wrap up the GOP nomination at an unprecedented early point in the calendar. Many of rivals didn’t even make it to Iowa; DeSantis exited the race Sunday and quickly backed Trump.
Biden, also, largely stands unchallenged. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who mounted a long-shot bid against Biden, lost in New Hampshire, where he had centered his campaign and where the president left himself off the ballot.
In a sense, the race essentially becomes one incumbent versus another. And with both Trump and Biden becoming the party’s presumptive nominee so early, neither side is likely to rush into a breakneck campaign even as each turns its broadsides on the other.
Still, Priorities USA, a top Democratic super PAC, is warning its donors they must “articulate this is not just a 2020 re-match” because “Trump has gotten more extreme since he was last on the ballot,” according to talking points obtained by POLITICO. The super PAC is expected to convene top donors in the coming weeks.
“In a test among 2024 persuasion and mobilization targets of six different statements directly contrasting the positions and records of Biden and Trump, the top two most convincing statements contrasted on abortion and on democracy,” the messaging document continued.
In a series of speeches this month, Biden has signaled both democracy and abortion rights will be among the cornerstones of his campaign. On Tuesday, during his first campaign rally of 2024, Biden focused his remarks on abortion rights, an issue that has energized Democrats and persuaded moderates.
“Trump has boasted about his role in overturning Roe v. Wade,” said Democratic pollster Margie Omero. “And it’s not where voters are and they’ve said that loud and clear since Dobbs — in the midterm elections, in ballot measures, in polls, any way you test it.”
Late Tuesday night, after Trump’s victory had been called by numerous media outlets, Biden effectively declared the general election had begun.
“It is now clear that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. And my message to the country is the stakes could not be higher,” he said in a statement. “Our democracy. Our personal freedoms — from the right to choose to the right to vote. Our economy — which has seen the strongest recovery in the world since COVID. All are at stake.”
Biden’s political brain trust is upbeat about the campaign’s chances with independent, swing voters — in many cases, suburban women — who went for Trump in 2016 but broke away hard from him four years later over concerns about his role in the Capitol insurrection, his authoritarian rhetoric, and his promises to overturn the Constitution.
“Trump is headed straight into a general election matchup where he’ll face the only person to have ever beaten him at the ballot box: Joe Biden,” said Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez in a statement Tuesday night.
Trump is only four years younger than the incumbent and becoming increasingly prone to misstatements, a trend highlighted in a series of Biden campaign attacks. And while those close to Biden no longer think that a Trump criminal conviction — if it even happens before November — would inherently crush the Republican’s campaign, it could help enough to help in a few razor-thin battleground states.
“Everyone knows this election is going to be really close. That said, I like to play poker and I would simply much rather have Biden’s cards than Trump’s,” said Jim Messina, who served as former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign manager and is close to Biden’s team. “The economy is improving and people are feeling it, Biden has an affirmative message, and Trump is about to remind independents why they voted against him in 2020 by campaigning from a courtroom.”
But Biden has myriad vulnerabilities, too. Polls show Americans have not given him credit for the nation’s economic recovery and continue to be angry about inflation. His age remains an issue. A congressional deal on the southern border remains elusive and migrants continue to overwhelm many cities. And Biden’s full-throated backing of Israel in its assault on Hamas in Gaza has turned off some in his own party.
A Democratic pollster, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly, rattled off a list of Biden-related challenges, including his softness with young voters and the “malaise of incumbency, as there’s always more energy to take something than to preserve something.”
But, the person continued, those challenges are surmountable, especially as consumer confidence ticks up: “The president’s numbers are not good, but you see a path to fixing them. I’d rather have our problem than theirs.”
Biden’s aides believe that average Americans may not start paying attention to the race for months. And some Democrats and even Biden operatives privately admit that the president currently has trouble with portions of his base: young voters, progressives, and many Black and Latino voters are not viewing the president’s candidacy with much enthusiasm and could opt to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate.
But while the president will need to take a positive case to win back those voters, his advisers believe that Trump’s name on the ballot will be enough of an incentive for some to turn out to simply vote against him.
“It’s a contrast election but Democrats have to continue to make sure the president’s economic policies are breaking through to the American people,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Biden administration. “Once it becomes a two-person race, the more people will turn in and be turned off by what they hear from Trump.”