With U.S. presidential primaries starting in six months, partisans are already shaping the battlefield.
It’s still very early, but the 2024 election campaign is heating up, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden remaining odds-on favorites to repeat their 2020 contest. Trump faces a host of legal issues and a growing field of Republican challengers, while Biden is dogged by a lack of enthusiasm over his record and advanced age. For some early insights on a potentially historic election, we reached out to political consultant Frank Kelly, founder and managing partner at Fulcrum Macro Advisors.
Frank, thanks so much for joining us. This has been an extraordinarily eventful campaign, and we still have six months until the first primary ballots are cast. Let’s assess the field, starting with the Republicans.
The main worry that many Republicans had going into this election was that too many candidates would pile in, and that we’d have a repeat of 2016 where President Trump would only have to score a low percentage to win. Are we repeating ourselves? I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s an interesting collection of folks who are running, from the former vice president, to the governor of Florida, to a former pharmaceutical CEO; former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has joined the campaign as a pugilist going after Trump on behalf of everybody else. I think we may be only partway through the crowd that ends up in the primaries in January.
Why has the field gotten so large? Currently, Trump has a very wide polling lead, which has actually expanded since his first indictment in New York.
I think the candidates, despite those numbers, think he’s vulnerable. The cold, hard facts are that he’s been indicted over the federal documents case, and that he’s facing a legal case of some questionable validity in New York. It also seems he’s on a trajectory to face potential prosecution in Georgia over meddling in the election, and it’s possible that more could happen around the January 6 riots.
Does anyone stand out as a viable alternative to Trump?
I think it could be anybody. DeSantis is clearly the leader at this point, coming in second to Trump in the national polls. But somebody like Christie, as he gets rolling, could have success. Former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott or Mike Pence (whom many have written off) could also break through. Or you could see Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin join the race. He has conservative credentials, but comes off as more moderate and has the resources to come in late and run an effective guerrilla-style campaign.
Let’s talk about the Democrats. Biden is the presumptive nominee with a number of policy successes, and yet he is polling quite poorly.
There seems to be a consensus now that age has affected Biden, physically and possibly mentally. We weren’t there six months ago, but now you hear this regularly from Washington Democrats, who are very concerned. Do I think that he can function as president? Absolutely, but the problem is not now, but in the five-plus years he would still be in office. The polls reflect this. NBC recently released a poll showing that 68% of voters have major concerns about the president’s mental and physical health if given another term.1 It’s amazing how many Democrats are worried about him and don’t want him to run, but he's just plowing ahead.
Should Biden Run?
GOP Voters Would Prefer Trump Talk About…
|Plans for the country||96%||4%|
|What happened in 2020||32%||68%|
Source: CBS News poll, June 7 – 10, 2023.
What happens next?
I don’t know where the party goes with this. They’re not going to dump him; they’ve reset the primary system so that Iowa and New Hampshire were pushed out of the way, and we go immediately to South Carolina, where he has an extraordinarily strong base of support. It was South Carolina that got him the 2020 nomination in the first place. So, they’ve completely upended their primary system to accommodate him.
If, for some reason, he is not the nominee, then I think we’ll see an Oklahoma Land Rush of people who want to run, maybe 15 or 20 candidates. In my view, the nomination will not be handed off to the vice president, who is polling worse than the president and has a limited base of support. We are seeing steady activity from California Governor Gavin Newsom, who even sat down for an interview with conservative Sean Hannity in June. He and others are laying the groundwork to fill the void if Biden opts out or can’t run.
Newsom is a well-recognized figure, but do the Democrats otherwise have a “bench problem”?
I think they do. Part of it is that any bench of candidates will atrophy for the party in the White House, because no one wants to be seen as challenging the incumbent. In my view, the Republicans do appear to have a stronger field at this point, largely due to the caliber of various governors, including Georgia’s Brian Kemp, who I didn’t mention earlier, but about whom we’ve heard a persistent hum as a conservative “anti-Trump.” On the Democratic side, possible names are generally coming from the Senate, while Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, despite his challenges, remains on the radar.
The president accomplished a lot in his first two years, and worked out an agreement with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on the debt ceiling. Does anything else of substance happen over the next 18 months?
Now that we’ve gotten through the debt ceiling, a few issues remain to fight over with Republicans. These include the passage of 12 appropriation bills, where some conservatives will be looking for more spending curbs—a process that could get messy. Farm legislation is coming up and may include limits on Chinese purchases of U.S. agricultural property. However, by year-end we will probably just enter full campaign mode.
How about regulation and taxes?
The regulatory scene should continue to be active. Although positioning himself as a moderate, Biden has kept progressives happy by letting them run an array of agencies and departments, including, for example, the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Antitrust, which usually defers to the Federal Reserve, is taking a much keener interest in banking mergers, which could limit that activity over the next couple years.
I do think that taxes will get more play from here, given that much of the Trump tax reform expires after 2025. Again, we won’t see new laws, but we could have more hearings as the two sides gird for battle after the election.
Will we see more activity on geopolitical issues?
I think that’s largely where the substantive action will be. We are seeing a realignment of free market democracies in Asia and Europe around commerce perceived as central to security—specifically semiconductors and other technologies, as well as pharmaceuticals. NATO has quietly opened up an office in Tokyo, and you may see an enhanced military relationship between NATO and Japan, which could be replicated in South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently completed a state visit to the U.S., where security was a key topic of discussion.
Who benefits politically from this trend in the presidential contest?
I think there will be competition over who “brought home the bacon.” In key battlegrounds like Ohio, the president is likely to talk up the new semiconductor facilities and higher-paying jobs achieved through his industrial policy—it’s “Make America Great Again” by another name. Republicans will also seek to take credit.
The culture wars remain a key part of the landscape. When it comes to the general election, how does this play out?
I believe the impact will be state by state, depending on electoral makeup. Voters are very divided—something that COVID exacerbated as people gravitated to places with political views more consistent with their own. You’ve seen a big drain out of New York, California and Illinois, concentrating progressive political power in those states and reaffirming the conservative makeup of destinations like Texas and Florida. More granularly, people are increasingly isolating themselves by neighborhood and political affiliation, lessening their exposure to—and understanding of—those who disagree with them.
Ironically, this means that social issues such as abortion and transgender rights may have less impact on the election because extreme viewpoints will be concentrated in safe blue and red states. However, they could be important in “pink” (swing) states—think Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina—where the election could ultimately be decided.
With a divided electorate, will we see another very close contest?
That seems likely, but it depends on who the candidates are. If there is somebody who can appeal to moderates, who can strike notes that may be important to a large cross-section of the country, then you could still see a significant victory or even landslide. The problem is, we’ve gotten so Balkanized that candidates have to appeal to their own crowds first, which makes it harder to move back to the center. But that’s something that Biden is already trying to do, and that DeSantis, if nominated, would probably do as well.
Do you think Biden can win again in the swing states?
In part it depends on who the competition is, but I believe he can—if he’s out there physically disproving the theory that he’s old and infirm. Unlike in 2020, he cannot rely on Zooms and videos to move the needle. He’ll have to be on the campaign trail, and that will make it hard—it would be tough on anyone, let alone an 80-year-old.
Will the Republican debates matter?
It’s unclear at this point. It’s also unclear what happens if key figures don’t show up to the first debate on August 23. Some candidates may feel like it’s pointless to get in the middle of a dogfight between DeSantis and Trump. Someone like Glenn Youngkin could wait for them to take each other out, and then join the race without campaign fatigue and with money in the bank. On the other hand, I believe that the first debate will help to clarify whether this competition will be real or not, and who has a fighting chance.
Of course, the elephant in the room remains Trump’s legal troubles. Proceedings in the New York accounting fraud case are slated to begin in March, during the primary season. Jack Smith, the prosecutor in the federal documents case, wants to move fast, with the current trial date set for May. And there is the election interference investigation in Georgia and the probe into the January 6 riots (also led by Jack Smith), which could result in further indictments of the former president. Do these events knock Trump out? So far, they have helped him politically, but it’s anyone’s guess.
What do you make of the polls at this point?
I think they are of limited value. Not only is it early, but most of the polls are national, which tends not to reflect the state-by-state dynamics that will most affect the presidential race. For example, DeSantis appears to be doing better in Iowa than in the national polls, although he trails Trump in both instances. If he or someone else is able to score an early win, it may not provide many electoral votes, but it could generate momentum. All told, I think we are entering a highly unpredictable election contest that could go any number of ways due to Trump’s legal issues and Biden’s age and perceived weakness. We’ll just have to strap in for the ride.
Happy to assist.
1 As of June 16 – 20, 2023.
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