From moment to moment, it’s hard to know what to think about the state of American politics and the likelihood that Donald Trump will prevail in the 2024 election. And more information does not necessarily produce greater clarity.
But one thing is clear. An election in which millions of voters dislike the candidates may not turn out the way many Democrats think it will and will do great damage to democracy itself.
We can get a handle on the uncertainty and the problems that the impending lesser-of-two-evils presidential contest will cause by looking first at the results of presidential preference surveys taken since the first of August. They are all over the map.
Some, like the one done by the polling firm Cygnal, show President Joe Biden up by 3%. Others, like the Premise political sentiment tracker for the week of August 21, have Trump leading by as much as 8%.
Of course, polls have been notoriously unreliable guides to what actually happens when the voting happens. But it is hard to ignore polling results suggesting that, at a time of great peril for this country, Americans will be facing in 2024 an unprecedented “hold your nose” election.
An AP/NORC survey released last Wednesday found that 53% of Americans said they would “definitely not” support Donald Trump in 2024. Another 11% said they would “probably not” vote for him.
These findings do not spell doom for the former president.
There is a long way to go between now and November 2024, and many things can happen to shake up the race. Large numbers of the never-Trump voters may stay at home, leaving the choice of who our next president will be to people who have a less negative view of him.
Still, the AP/NORC finding is startling. It may give solace to the Democratic Party and supporters of Joe Biden and fuel their hope that Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination.
Not surprisingly, the AP/NORC poll found rock-solid Republican support for Trump. 74% of Republicans said that they would definitely, or probably, support the former president if he were the GOP nominee. 63% said that, despite his escalating legal troubles, they wanted Trump to keep running in 2024.
The AP/NORC survey was completed before Trump was indicted in Georgia on various charges relating to his nationwide effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. At the time it was done, 51% of the respondents called Trump’s actions in that matter were illegal.
Not surprisingly, only 16% of Republicans held that view.
The New York Post notes that “The legal case against the former president with the broadest support is the federal indictment against him for allegedly hoarding sensitive national security information at Mar-a-Lago with 53% saying Trump’s actions were ‘illegal’ and 18% of Republicans saying the same.”
Another poll, this one done by Quinnipiac University, found that 54% of its respondents thought Trump should be prosecuted for attempting to overturn the 2020 election results. 68% said they believed that anyone convicted of a felony should not be eligible to serve as president.
But those polls also contained more bad news for Democrats.
The AP/NORC found that 75% of the respondents did not want President Biden to be on the 2024 Democratic nominee. That’s right. 75%!
43% of them said they definitely would not support Biden in the general election. Another 11% said they would “probably not” do so.
People who say that they won’t vote for Biden most often cited his age as the reason. He is already the oldest American president. He would be 82 years old at the start of his second term and 86 by the end of his time in the Oval Office.
The polling results I have cited indicate that something is wrong with a political system that offers voters a choice between a coup-plotting, four-times-indicted candidate and someone whom many think is too old to serve as president.
Adding to this warning sign is the fact that Americans are deeply pessimistic about what is happening in this country. That pessimism is registered in many ways.
For example, an NBC poll found that 71% of Americans currently believe that “the country is headed in the wrong direction.” According to NBC, this is “the eighth time in the last nine NBC News surveys dating back to Oct. 2021 when the wrong track has been above 70%.”
NBC goes on to say, “We have never before seen this level of sustained pessimism in the 30-year-plus history of the poll.”
A Pew poll, taken in April of this year offers another indicator of Americans’ deep pessimism. It asked people to imagine what the United States will be like in 2050.
The result: “Sizable majorities of U.S. adults say that in 2050—just over 25 years away—the U.S. economy will be weaker, the United States will be less important in the world, political divisions will be wider and there will be a larger gap between the rich and the poor.”
Pew found that “In contrast with their negative predictions for the country’s future, large shares of adults view the past in a more positive light than the present day. Around six-in-ten (58%) say that life in America is worse today than it was 50 years ago for people like them. Only about a quarter (23%) say life today is better, while 19% say it is about the same.”
Finally, a 2022 Ipsos poll found that almost 2/3 of its respondents think that American democracy is “at risk of failing. Even more, 70%, feel the same about America itself.”
In this context, 2024 is stacking up to be a history-making “hold your nose” election at a time when the country can least afford it.
As CNN reporter Harry Enten notes, “Usually, most Americans like at least one of the candidates running for president. That has been the norm for most of polling history.” But not today.
The average of all polling so far, Enten says, “indicates that both men have favorable ratings below 40% with unfavorable ratings into the mid-50s.” And we have never seen anything like the numbers of people who say that they definitely will not vote for one or the other of the major party candidates.
In fact, Enten argues, “If the numbers we’re seeing now…continue through the election, more Americans will dislike both major party nominees for president than ever before.”
As a result, both Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for another divisive, unremittingly negative, lesser-of-two-evils campaign. Democrats in particular think that having Trump on the ballot may offer a surefire path to victory.
But there are warning signs.
Recall that in 2016, Trump won because he piled up a large margin among the almost 20% of the electorate who disliked both Hillary Clinton and him.
According to The Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore, “It’s far less well known that despite losing in 2020, Trump won ‘I hate ’em both’ voters once again by about the same margin as in 2016. The big difference was that their share of the electorate dropped from 17 percent to 3 percent.”
Looking ahead to 2024’s coming “hold your nose” contest, Kilgore observes that “the high percentage of unhappy voters should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks Donald Trump has disqualified himself from any serious chance of reentering the White House. He’s won one lesser-of-two-evils election and came very close to winning another.”
Not only would a repeat of that performance be very bad for the Democratic Party, it would be an unmitigated disaster for the future of American democracy.