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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 27: And Now, For Something Completely Different: A Two-Incumbent Presidential Election

As a political history fanatic, I quickly read and then wrote about this history-based insight on 2024 at New York:

There isn’t much question that the likeliest scenario for the 2024 presidential election will be a rematch between 2020 winner Joe Biden and 2020 loser Donald Trump. Allegedly, this is a pairing most Americans don’t want (it’s actually a bit hard to tell since Democrats nearly all despise Trump and Republicans nearly all despise Biden, meaning a “rematch” begins by displeasing half of the electorate). But the polls show Biden crushing Robert Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson in the primary and Trump far ahead of 12 intraparty opponents, so anything other than a rematch would be quite a surprise.

But Biden vs. Trump: Part II will not simply be a replay of the 2020 election. Most obviously, conditions in the country have changed with the winding down of the COVID-19 pandemic and the winding up of the economy, along with renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine and all the partisan controversies that have accompanied this latest phase of divided U.S. government.

Perhaps most important, there will be a new incumbent president on the ballot in 2024. But as Jonathan V. Last observes, Biden won’t be the only president on the ballot if Trump wins the GOP nomination:

“No one living has seen an election in which two presidents have run against one another.

“And that changes everything …

“One of the (many) advantages an incumbent president has is that he has proven that he can do the job.

“This sword has two edges: An incumbent’s presidential record can be attacked. Some voters may like it. Some may not. But at the lizard-brain level, they have all seen him sitting at the big desk in the Oval. They know what he looks like as president.

“At the risk of stating the obvious: Joe Biden is president of the United States. Donald Trump used to be president of the United States.”

So in a Biden-Trump rematch, both candidates will have already passed the plausible-president threshold, and both have a recent presidential record to defend. As Last points out, this hasn’t happened since 1892, when former president Grover Cleveland faced incumbent president Benjamin Harrison, who had narrowly defeated Cleveland (while losing the popular vote) four years earlier. Then as now, the rematches came in an extended period of closely contested presidential elections. Then as now, the electorate knew both candidates very well.

But there are some big differences between the 19th-century and 21st-century rematches. For one thing, Harrison’s 1892 defeat was preceded by a financial panic and recession that cost his Republican Party an incredible 93 House seats (out of a total of 332) in the 1890 midterms. The 2022 midterms, by contrast, were a near dead heat with modest Republican gains in the House. But the even bigger difference is that the Cleveland-Harrison transition in 1889 was peaceful. The 2021 transition was perpetually contested by the loser and eventually by a mob that invaded Congress and tried to stop the final certification of the winner. Indeed, those events are an important — to many voters, a central — part of Trump’s record as an incumbent.

The horrific culmination of the first Biden-Trump election has frozen the vast majority of partisans in place as a rematch approaches, with most Democrats regarding Trump as a lawless rogue who had to be impeached twice, and most Republicans regarding Biden as a usurper who stole the White House from its rightful occupant. Conversely, most Republicans view the Trump administration as an era of peace and prosperity, while most Democrats view the Biden administration as a return to normalcy and constitutional governance. It’s unclear how many voters will engage in any judicious comparison of the records of the two presidents, and it’s entirely possible the result will be determined by voters who must decide which of them they dislike the least.

But beware of anyone telling you there is some infallible historical precedent governing a 2024 rematch. As has been so often the case since Trump won the 2016 election in an upset that overturned previous infallible historical precedents, we’re in unexplored political territory.

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