9 min read

The 2024 campaign is frozen in place

Don’t hold your breath for the much-awaited turning points in either the Democratic or GOP primary calendars.
The 2024 campaign is frozen in place
Image by DALL-E

Good morning! It’s Friday, July 7, 2023. The 2024 elections are 487 days away.

I’ve spent the past few weeks roving around all three branches of government, as well as the campaign trail, bringing you reporting and analysis on everything from “the incredible shrinking Congress” and President Biden’s embrace of India to a debate on race inside the Supreme Court and evangelical support for Donald Trump.

Wake Up To Politics has been my full-time job for the summer, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the work that’s come out of it. The best way you can ensure I keep can keep doing this work is by donating to support WUTP, setting up a recurring donation, or telling your friends to subscribe. Your support means the world to me.

And the summer’s not over yet! There’s a lot more to come. This morning, I’m taking a look at the static 2024 campaign, the turning points that could unfreeze it, and why they probably won’t.

“Throw the Grumpy Old Men Out.” That was the headline of an op-ed by famed Republican strategist Karl Rove in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, calling for both parties to ditch their presidential frontrunners and turn to a younger generation of leaders.

“Our nation is deeply divided and angry; it faces tremendous challenges at home and dangers abroad,” Rove wrote. “These are best confronted by energetic new leadership. Whichever party figures this out will have the upper hand next year.”

Despite Rove’s plea, both 2024 nomination contests have been frozen in place for months now. On the Democratic side, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. continues to hit double-digits in most polls, impressive for a conspiracy theorist “MAGA Democrat” (as the Atlantic’s John Hendrickson called him), but not enough to topple an incumbent president.

On the Republican side, the only movement in recent weeks has been Donald Trump expanding his approximately 20-point lead atop a crowded field of competitors.

Graph by FiveThirtyEight

Regardless, let’s check in with some of the younger alternatives mentioned in Rove’s piece. First up, 45-year-old Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, theoretically Trump’s strongest rival — though that isn’t saying much, as you can see from the trendline above. (Speaking of age: DeSantis would be the third-youngest president in history, even younger than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama when they moved into the White House).

Here’s the A1 treatment DeSantis received in yesterday’s New York Times:

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, looking to shift his run for president into a higher gear after an early series of missteps, spent the last two weeks rolling out an immigration policy and holding town halls with voters. But rather than correcting course, he stumbled again this week, raising questions about where his campaign is heading.

Not ideal. The Times piece goes on to describe DeSantis’ latest blunders, including his bizarre campaign video that bashed Trump’s prior support for LGBT Americans while seemingly comparing DeSantis to a fictional serial killer. The video mystified many Republicans, the latest Too Online move in a campaign that has been Too Online from the start.

DeSantis announced yesterday that he raised $20 million in the second fundraising quarter, an impressive haul. But it was dwarfed by the $35 million that Trump raised in the same period, a stretch of time — it should be noted— during which he was indicted twice.  

On other side of the aisle, one of Rove’s youthful contenders is 51-year-old Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Politico’s Jonathan Martin recently traveled to Mackinac Island to speak with Whitmer; he didn’t exactly find someone rushing to challenge President Biden:

She ruled out running for president next year even if Biden forgoes reelection, but allowed a resounding “maybe” to pursuing the White House down the road. “Might I have the fire in the belly?” she said. “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t tell you.”

Interviewing Whitmer and other Democratic leaders across Michigan, Martin incisively picked up on something he referred to as the “Biden gap.”

The further up a Democrat is on the political food chain, the more publicly supportive and even defensive they are of the president. The closer a Democrat is to the grassroots, though, the more they sound like many of their own voters in openly pining for another nominee.

The Washington commentariat (Rove; Eliot Cohen in the Atlantic; Jack Schafer in Politico) might be jonesing for a Biden primary challenge, but there’s no sign any prominent Democratic elected officials are prepared to bite. (Per Martin, some Democratic members of Congress have also pushed Whitmer to run for president this year, to no avail.)

Trump-skeptical Republicans and Biden-skeptical Democrats each have an event in mind down the road that they see as a potential turning point in their party’s nomination battles. Anything can happen, of course, but neither argument is looking particularly strong at the moment.

  • On the Republican side: The debates.

Just wait until Donald Trump is up on the stage with all his GOP rivals, this theory goes, and he’ll crumble before long. Except it’s not clear at this point that Trump will even attend the debates; he told Reuters last week that he might skip the debut debate in August and hold a competing event instead, just like he did in Iowa in 2016.

“Why would I give them time to make statements?” Trump said. “Why would I do that when I’m leading them by 50 points and 60 points?”

That’s not the only problem with the Debates-Will-End-Trump Theory. It’s also unclear how many of his rivals will even make it into the stage. Republicans have set polling and donor thresholds to qualify for the debates; as Politico notes, though, their polling criteria has such a high bar that most polls conducted of the GOP primary race won’t count. With so few polls in the mix, many of the lower-tier candidates (Chris Christie included) will have a hard time hitting the needed benchmark.

Several GOP candidates are also struggling with the donor threshold, per the Associated Press. Christie hasn’t made it yet; neither has former Vice President Mike Pence. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, another Trump critic in the race, had only notched 5,000 of the needed 40,000 donors as of yesterday.

Finally, the RNC is also requiring that candidates sign a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee as their final ticket onto the debate stage. Even if they notch the required polls and donors, that too could cause problems for some Republican contenders who are hesitant to promise they’d support Donald Trump in the general.

  • On the Democratic side: The New Hampshire primary.

Biden has unique vulnerabilities in the Granite State: he’s tended to perform poorly there in past primary cycles, and he’s pissed off the state’s political establishment by attempting to take away their first-in-the-nation primary status. There’s a reason RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson have focused their efforts on New Hampshire.

Despite the DNC’s attempts to remove New Hampshire from the early-state voting window, the state’s Democratic leaders are signaling plans to move forward with a primary at the beginning of the pack. (As the New York Times chronicled this week, that’s just one of several problems Democrats are having with their attempted primary calendar changes.)

But don’t expect New Hampshire to change the primary calculations much. The DNC has signaled that if New Hampshire goes forward with an unsanctioned early primary, they will be stripped of their delegates at the convention, meaning the state’s primary will be a symbolic “beauty contest” at best. Biden likely won’t even be on the state’s ballot, as a show of support for the DNC’s calendar.

I’ve noted before that a Biden loss in New Hampshire would come as an embarrassment to the president, and possibly serve as a reminder of the vulnerabilities in his Democratic support. But unless the “Biden gap” shrinks and a prominent Democrat emerges in the aftermath to challenge him, even a loss in the Granite State likely wouldn’t move the needle.

So, for now at least, the “grumpy old men” it is.

Here’s what else I’m keeping an eye on:

Heat records are collapsing.

From the NYT’s Brad Plumer and Elena Shao:

The past three days were quite likely the hottest in Earth’s modern history, scientists said on Thursday, as an astonishing surge of heat across the globe continued to shatter temperature records from North America to Antarctica.

The AI election continues.

From the AP’s Ali Swenson:

A super PAC supporting Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s run for the Republican presidential nomination has launched an artificial intelligence chatbot to answer questions about him... [The bot] listens to a user’s questions and matches them to video answers, created with an AI-powered avatar made to look and sound like Suarez.

For more on AI’s emerging role in the 2024 election, read my piece from last month.

A key demographic shift.

From the NYT’s Thomas Edsall:

One of the most significant developments in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election has emerged largely under the radar. From 2016 to 2022, the number of white people without college degrees — the core of Donald Trump’s support — has fallen by 2.1 million... The number of white people who have graduated from college — an increasingly Democratic constituency — has grown by 13.3 million.

More congressional inaction.

In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote about the Congress’ shrinking role in our most prominent national debates.

The same day, Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein penned a must-read essay on the same topic, using lawmakers’ failed efforts to rein in Big Tech as a “case study of how Congress has lost its ability to address the most pressing problems facing the country.”

Pearlstein points to the lobbying power of tech companies as one reason behind the legislative failure — but writes that “a bigger factor is that members of Congress and their staff have lost the instinct and ability to legislate.” Here’s Pearlstein:

Over the past 30 years, the processes and norms that once allowed Congress to discover what the country wanted and needed have so badly eroded that few members can remember how it’s done. Failure has become the expected and accepted outcome. The instinct to turn any issue into a partisan battle, the lack of urgency, the fixation with and fear of social media, the refusal to accept even modest political risk, the reluctance to engage in serious debate and compromise, and the almost complete abdication of power to party leaders — all of these have become deeply ingrained in the life and culture of the Capitol. And it is all made worse by a self-imposed schedule that has members in Washington only three days a week, 30 weeks a year.

Read his essay here and my newsletter on the topic here.

A few more headlines.

The U.S. is expected to announce plans today to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. The controversial weapons have been banned by more than 100 countries. [ABC]

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has been ousted from the House Freedom Caucus after a vote of the right-wing group’s members. Greene’s support for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and her spat with Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) have been cited as reasons for the move. [Politico]

Walt Nauta, Donald Trump’s valet turned co-defendant, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to five counts of conspiring with Trump to hide classified documents. [NPR]

Meta’s new Twitter alternative, Threads, has already become the most rapidly downloaded app of all time. Top politicians from both parties, including several presidential candidates and White House aides, have joined the app, threatening Twitter’s lock on political dialogue. [Axios]

House Republicans have opened an investigation into the bag of cocaine found at the White House, which was located in a more secure part of the West Wing than originally reported. [NBC]

As soon as today, the U.S. may finish destroying its chemical weapons stockpile, decades after promising to do so. “When they are gone, all of the world’s publicly declared chemical weapons will have been eliminated.” [NYT]

The day ahead.

All times Eastern.

  • President Biden will deliver remarks at 3:30 p.m. on lowering health care costs. Later, he’ll travel to his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where he’ll spend the night.
  • Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.
  • The House and Senate are on recess.
  • The Supreme Court is off until October.
  • Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump will deliver remarks at 1 p.m. in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Before I go...

Here’s something non-political: A man who was captured in a viral video last week etching his and his girlfriend’s names into a wall of the Colosseum has issued an apology.

Ivan Danailov Dimitrov, 31, said in a letter to the government of Rome that he was unaware the 2,000-year-old structure was so old. “I admit with deepest embarrassment that it was only after what regrettably happened that I learned of the monument’s antiquity,” he wrote.

Dimitrov — who used a key to write “Ivan + Haley 23” into the wall — faces two to five years in prison and a fine of up to $16,300, although his lawyer said he is working to secure a plea deal for his client to avoid jail time.

Read more via NowThis News.

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— Gabe