The most recent NBC News poll had very good news for Republicans, conservatives and Trump supporters: Looking forward to the 2024 election, it put him 5 points ahead of President Joe Biden among registered voters. On the other hand, the poll also exposes a critical weakness for Trump, mirrored in almost all other polls: Less than 40% of the electorate “likes” Donald Trump, “approves” of him, or rates him “positively.” In the NBC poll, it was just 38%.
The upside for Trump, therefore, and for those who support him, is that Joe Biden’s unpopularity is dragging him down into the depths and making it possible for Donald Trump to catch up with him and even surpass him in public support. The downside for Trump and Trumpers, however, is that Trump himself is not popular – he is arguably toxic to a majority of the electorate – and future developments, like felony convictions, could render him even less electable.
Fortunately for the GOP, conservatives and Trumpists, the 2024 election is not shaping up as a simple repeat of the 2020 election, in which President Trump, arch-villain, faced off against a vaguely defined, putatively moderate “Anti-Trump” who was supposed to restore America’s “soul” as he brought integrity, competence and dignity back to the White House. No, in 2024, Joe Biden is the incumbent, and he has accumulated a record and crafted a brand with which the vast majority of the electorate is dissatisfied – and about which even the Democratic base is unenthusiastic.
This dynamic, however, does not guarantee Trump victory, because his high negatives may ultimately overwhelm public doubts about Joe Biden – at least that is what Democrats are hoping. What may cinch the deal for Trump is the wild card in 2024: the presence of numerous other candidates in the race.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has announced his independent presidential candidacy, and Jill Stein and Cornel West have launched bids under the Green Party and the Justice For All Party, respectively. Add to this motley crew the certainty of a Libertarian Party candidate and the strong possibility of a No Labels candidate, and throw in the public’s marked disdain for Trump and Biden, the presumptive major-party candidates, and you have the essential ingredients for a much more fluid and pluralistic contest than this country has experienced at least since 2016, when third-party candidates won roughly 6% of the vote, and possibly since 1992, when Ross Perot and various other candidates won almost 20% of the vote.
Why, though, would this dynamic necessarily help Trump?
Partly, this is because of the nature of the extra candidates themselves. Kennedy, West and Stein all come from the political left, and they are therefore more likely to appeal to disaffected Democrats and left-leaning independents, although Kennedy’s appeal is more broad-based and harder to pigeonhole in partisan terms. The No Labels candidate is most likely to be Joe Manchin, who is also historically a Democrat. Only the Libertarian Party candidate could represent a genuinely conservative alternative to Trump, although there is some speculation that the Libertarians might nominate Kennedy, in which case Trump would face no true conservative opposition at all.
The other reason why a large field of presidential candidates helps Trump is because Trump has struggled in the past, and is still struggling in current polls, to get to 50% support. With the electoral pie more subdivided than usual, Trump will not need to convince a majority of the electorate to support him, or even 46% or 47%, which is what he got in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Instead, in 2024, 40-45% of the vote could be more than enough to notch a national victory in the popular vote and local victories in the critical swing states.
The last reason why the presence of numerous candidates in the race helps Trump is that Biden’s public support, though considerable, is “softer” than Trump’s. Many Democrats are unimpressed by Biden’s accomplishments and lack confidence in Biden’s abilities and his fitness for office. They may hate Trump, but that does not necessarily mean that they are motivated to show up to vote for Biden, as we saw in the low turnout for the recent South Carolina Democratic primary. Neither does Trump-hatred exclude the possibility that someone would vote for a left-leaning candidate like Kennedy, Stein, West, or Manchin, instead of for Biden. Any support that these candidates receive could easily be fatal to Biden, who needs to hold together all, or almost all, of the anti-Trump coalition from 2020 to succeed in 2024.
Incidentally, polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics bear out the assumption that a bigger field of candidates helps Trump. In polls where only Trump and Biden are named candidates, Trump leads by an average of 2.1%. In polls that give voters the choice of Trump, Biden, Kennedy, Stein, and West, Trump’s lead expands to 4.8%. This is a very significant difference!
Of course, the mainstream media, as well as Biden loyalists and agents of the institutional Democratic Party (three categories that overlap to a considerable degree) will do their best to undercut the public appeal of third-party candidates. Journalistic hit pieces will discredit them, political ads will point out the futility of voting for them, the debates (presumably) will exclude them, and even their ability to appear on the ballot, especially in swing states, will be, and has been, sabotaged. Nonetheless, these also-rans do not need to attract much public support – a few points in total would be more than enough – to upend the political dynamics of a critical election cycle.
For this reason, those who wish for a Trump victory would be wise to lend their support, rhetorically as well as financially, to some of these other candidates for the presidency, no matter how quixotic and farcical their candidacies may seem. A million dollars sunk into the coffers of the Trump campaign would barely be noticed, at the end of the day, but a seven-figure shot in the arm to the West or Stein campaigns, by contrast, could dramatically improve their visibility and their ability to poach votes from Biden and the Democrats.
This year, Republicans, conservatives and Trumpers cannot afford to become mired in obsolete binary thinking. The 2024 presidential election will be a dynamic multi-player game, and only those who understand this will be in a position to win it.
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