The Presidential Race at the Dawn of a New Year

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Despite bad polling and clear weaknesses for President Biden, we are sticking with our initial Electoral College ratings from the summer, which show him doing better than what polls today would indicate, even as there are enough Toss-up electoral votes to make the election anyone’s game.

— We still anticipate a close and competitive election between Biden and former President Trump, whose dominance in the GOP primary race has endured as the Iowa caucus looms.

Assessing the 2024 race

Welcome to 2024, the year of a presidential election that feels both sleepy and explosive at the same time.

The former feeling stems from a primary season that does not seem all that competitive. Less than two weeks away from the kickoff Republican caucus in Iowa, former President Donald Trump’s position continues to look strong, while President Joe Biden is doing what recent incumbent presidents have done, deterring truly notable opposition as he seeks renomination.

The latter feeling comes from the unprecedented specifics of the potential Biden versus Trump rematch, namely Trump’s litany of legal problems—including efforts to keep him off the ballot in certain states based on his role in the events of Jan. 6, 2021 that likely will necessitate intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court—as well as Biden’s struggles in recent horse race polling and the potential for third party candidates to siphon off some not-insignificant share of the vote, in large part because of the weaknesses of the frontrunning Biden and Trump.

In order for the Republican primary to awaken from its slumber, Trump will need to be defeated, in all likelihood, more than once before Super Tuesday. It’s not unimaginable for Trump to lose New Hampshire, most likely to former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), given that its electorate is generally less conservative and more highly educated than the overall GOP primary electorate (Trump doesn’t poll as well with these kinds of Republicans as he does with Republicans overall). Independents and even Democrats may cross over to vote in the GOP primary to try to block Trump. But even if New Hampshire rebuked Trump—and it very well may not, as Trump has comfortably led most polling in the Granite State—that doesn’t mean other states would follow suit.

Following New Hampshire on Jan. 23, Nevada holds confusing, dueling Republican events on Feb. 6 and Feb. 8, a primary on the former date where Haley is the only candidate of note on the ballot for a “beauty pageant” contest that does not award delegates and a caucus on the latter date that includes Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). So even if Haley is doing well after New Hampshire, she’s not directly competing with Trump for delegates in Nevada. Then there is South Carolina on Feb. 24, Haley’s home state, which has a more conservative electorate that is less well-suited for her coalition than Trump’s. Super Tuesday follows a week and a half later—by the end of that day, March 5, nearly half of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will have been awarded. The bottom line is that Trump will have to prove to be way weaker than polls currently show for any of the others to have a chance. It’s worth noting, too, that probably the biggest story in the GOP primary over the holidays was Haley’s fumbling of a town hall question about the origins of the Civil War—it remains to be seen whether this did her any damage.

The Democratic primaries will mainly measure how much of a protest vote there is against Biden—that, along with the polls and other developments, will help us assess how much trouble he’s in as the year grinds on.

It is not hard to find trouble for Biden right now. While the polling picture for Biden may not be quite as bleak as it was a few weeks ago, Trump has often led him in national polls and in key swing states, and the president’s approval rating has remained a little south of 40%.

We are closely monitoring the polls, but we think it’s too early to be overly reliant on them. There are some plausible reasons why Biden’s position might improve. Trump has his ongoing legal problems, which may strengthen him with his own base but likely not with Democrats and independents. There also are some signs that the public’s persistent economic pessimism could be improving, which any White House would want, even in a time where economic beliefs are probably less important than they used to be in determining elections. We could see how these two factors (Trump’s problems and the economy) could converge to make the public think more about Trump than Biden, and this is a year in which both major party nominees would be wise to avoid the spotlight given their weak favorability numbers.

It may also be that Biden’s numbers just don’t get better, and Trump remains resilient despite it all, buoyed both by the poor assessments of Biden as well as a potential third party candidate mix that appears to threaten Biden a bit more than Trump. But we do not yet know the actual roster of third party candidates and where they will (or will not) be on the ballot.

Our Electoral College ratings, shown in Map 1, reflect a close and competitive election but also one in which Biden is in better shape than what polls show now. These have been our ratings since the summer, and we’ve decided to stick with them, at least for the moment. Biden has more electoral votes at least leaning to him than Trump, but Biden’s not over 270, and we can more easily imagine some Leans Democratic states—most obviously Pennsylvania—falling into the Toss-up column than any state currently at least leaning to Trump. Another way of looking at this is that if you exclude all the Toss-up and Leaning states/districts, and just focus on the Safe and Likely states—the groupings that represent a realistic floor for both candidates—it’s Biden 221 to Trump 218, or basically a tie.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Readers sometimes ask us if we have a set schedule for updating ratings. We do not—we make updates when we believe that they are warranted, although we also don’t want to be changing ratings willy nilly throughout the election season: The ratings are designed to be a best guess projection of November, not a measurement of where things may stand now. An “if the election was held today” assessment is pointless, because, well, we know that the election is set for November, not for today or tomorrow. Thus far we haven’t been compelled to change our initial Electoral College ratings, although we of course have taken note of Biden’s poor current polling. It will be harder to downplay the numbers if they persist, particularly even as Trump becomes more prominent because of the primary season and other factors.