Published 17th January 2024

US voters have got what they want: a Trump-Biden rematch

Voters tell pollsters they don’t want Trump or Biden. Yet they have been underwhelmed by the plentiful alternatives to both of them.

Emma Doyle | Australian Financial Review | January 17, 2024

The conventional wisdom of the 2024 US presidential cycle is that the American people want better choices.

2020 deja vu has them dreading a Biden-Trump rematch, and they keep confirming that to pollsters. Estimates vary, but most news outlets predict that at least 50 to 60 per cent of voters in each party are dissatisfied with the predicted slate of candidates.

So, why aren’t they acting like it?

Consider Iowa, a state of about 3 million people which is famous for corn and for its unusual caucus process, the timing of which gives it an outsized role in the US presidential nominating contests.

The state has about 752,000 registered Republican voters, 110,000 of whom braved sub-zero wind chills to show up on Monday (Tuesday AEDT). That’s less than 15 per cent.

Americans may say they want a different slate to choose from, but their voting behaviour doesn’t show it.

A number of factors could be behind this. Social pressure likely motivates some Americans to publicly distance themselves from Donald Trump as his controversies and legal troubles mount, but they may privately reminisce about the strength of the economy under his administration as the cost of living has soared under Joe Biden.

Similarly, Democrats may be resigned to supporting Biden as the only candidate who has successfully beaten Trump in a presidential contest.

Voters may feel like their vote doesn’t matter, or default to the candidates they know best and who have the strongest name recognition (Biden and Trump).

Regardless, by presuming inevitability, voters are making it true.

Friends outside of the United States keep wondering why a nation of 330 million outspoken and opinionated people can’t produce better presidential contenders.

The short answer is that we have, and did. The GOP primary field has condensed from 15 to four.

Six former governors, a sitting senator, and a range of other variously qualified individuals put themselves forward. Several ran by highlighting that they shared voters’ apparent dislike for Trump.

The field included people of colour, children of immigrants, non-career politicians, and other traits voters claim to want more of on the ballot.

Yet voters didn’t respond to any of them with sufficient enthusiasm to dent Trump’s momentum.

In the lead-up to the primaries, campaigns are sustained through polling and financial contributions; those Americans who so regret seeing Trump continue to climb didn’t choose to back that feeling up with meaningful action, but they did have options.

Democrats aren’t holding an in-person caucus in Iowa this year (they’ll vote by mail instead), but they’re not off the hook for the Iowa results.

A quirk of voter rules in the Hawkeye State would have allowed Iowans who are typically registered Democrats to have made a “same-day” switch to the GOP to vote for a Republican candidate.

Some portion of Iowa’s 663,000 registered Democrats could have helped move the needle for Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis for the sake of changing at least one part of the general election equation, but if any did, the impact was negligible.

Democratic voters have the same problem: they can tell you they don’t want to see Biden as the Democratic nominee, but they can’t tell you who they do want to see – and therein lies the rub.

Both parties perk up a bit when speculating about 2028. Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Andy Beshear could run, perhaps, or Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, against Arkansas’ Republican Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

But neither mustered any enthusiasm for the alternatives before them this cycle.

The fact that no credible Democratic challenger to Biden has come forward, despite his low approval ratings, indicates that party leaders believe the people complaining the loudest won’t show up regardless, so the party doesn’t need to be responsive to their disapproval.

In a nation where voting is not compulsory, campaigns invest serious time, money, and effort convincing voters to show up, and pundits love to proclaim that each successive contest is “the most consequential election in recent history”.

Given that, what could be more compelling than an election year in which so many people both hate the likely outcome, and have the ability to change it?

If this doesn’t motivate Americans to get out and vote and to vote in primaries, which will directly affect their choices for the general election, what on earth will?

At the end of the day, voters overwhelmingly chose Trump in Iowa, and voters in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina are poised to do the same.

Americans may not like their choices, but American voters – those people who took the time to care, to decide, and to stand up and be counted – do.

And, ultimately, those are the only numbers that count.

Published in the Australian Financial Review

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