These should be celebratory times for Democrats. But as Donald Trump is set to get booked on Tuesday over a hush money payment he made to a porn star, a chunk of the party is growing anxious. An uneasy déjà vu has set in.
“Last time people were rooting for Donald Trump, he ended up president of the United States,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif). “We’ve seen this story before.”
The electoral potency of Trump is once more the central element of the Democratic Party’s internal debates. Back in 2016, Trump was supposed to have been the perfect opponent: too crude and way too outrageous to win a general election. As Hillary Clinton’s campaign geared up for that November’s race, many were rooting for Trump to be the GOP nominee, believing that he’d be the easiest Republican to beat.
It didn’t work out as planned. And the shock many in the party experienced because of it compelled them to pledge that they’d take a more sober-minded approach to the possibility of a Trump revival.
But with Trump once more eyeing the White House, the conventional wisdom is again forming that he would be the easiest Republican to defeat, owing to the myriad of legal problems he’s facing.
“I’d say in a general election Trump may be the weakest of the major GOP contenders,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “And he likely will take on more water over time as several of the other legal cases play out.”
Tommy McDonald, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who worked as a media consultant for Sen. John Fetterman’s campaign, conceded that the “universal consensus” was that Trump was “the weakest candidate” in the GOP field. But he said he’s personally not sure of it — given the passionate following he maintains and the historic underappreciation of his support.
Inside the White House, a more bullish view of the race has come into focus.
President Joe Biden’s most senior advisors have watched Trump’s GOP poll numbers surge, which have only reinforced their belief that the nation’s 45th president will stand as the Republicans’ nominee to be its 47th, according to four Biden allies not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.
And they believe Trump is also likely the Republicans’ most beatable nominee.
First and foremost, Biden world points to the 2020 election as the top reason for confidence in a potential rematch: We beat Trump once, they say, and will again.
Trump won in 2016 by the slimmest of margins, losing the popular vote to Clinton but squeaking out victories in a series of battleground states to capture the electoral college. He did so in part because swing voters, Independents and some late-deciders broke toward him after a series of October surprises, along with Clinton fatigue and a thirst for change. Some first-time voters and disaffected Democrats also went for Trump, while some on the left opted to stay home.
But four years later, many of those same swing voters broke away from him, weary of his chaos and frustrated by his handling of the COVID pandemic.
Biden advisors are confident that those swing voters are now permanently out of Trump’s reach, according to the four senior people. They have a difficult time imagining that a voter who went for Trump in 2016, but then ran away from him in 2020, would return to cast their ballot for the former president after the Jan. 6 insurrection, several criminal investigations and years of election denialism.
“What possibly would you like about what Trump has done since Election Day 2020?” one Biden aide mused.
They also point to the affirmative case for Biden, including two years of job growth, as well as steady leadership during the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Anne Caprara, who ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 super PAC, Priorities USA, argued that 2024 is a fundamentally different political moment than when Trump defied the odds and captured the presidency.
“When we dealt with Trump the first time around, he was a different quantity. People knew him as an entertainer and he had this kind of bulletproof image … people saw him as this successful businessman who they’d grown up with or seen on TV for so many years,” she said. “And I just think he’s got a much different image now.”
It’s an image that she believes is far more flawed. “I think it’s absurd to think that the former president facing an indictment over allegations from Stormy Daniels is not a negative for him in the general election,” she said.
Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic strategist and Clinton campaign alumni, agreed. “It’s tough to tell where the public will be by the fall of 2024, but getting indicted has never served a candidate well,” he said.
But even as many Democrats are quietly betting that Trump is the most damaged potential GOP nominee, some are wondering whether that viewpoint misses something fundamental about his support. They fret that they might jinx the election too.
“Trump is a tremendously flawed candidate who has hurt his party in every election since 2016, but it’s impossible to say that he is the weakest because none of these other Republicans have been on the national stage before,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as an adviser to former President Barack Obama. “Given the Republican bias in the Electoral College — any Republican, including Trump, could win the election.”
Trump defied the odds once before. While his portion of the electorate may have shrunk since leaving office, he won more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 and his MAGA base remains fervent.
In private conversations, top Biden allies share two chief concerns.
The first is Biden’s age. He’ll turn 82 years old soon after he faces voters again and he moves and speaks noticeably slower than even two years ago. If he were to suffer some sort of health crisis, that would rattle voters and dramatically intensify the scrutiny on the person who is just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Already, Biden advisors are preparing for a greater number of Republican attacks on Harris this coming campaign as a means of stoking fears about the president’s age and the vice president’s readiness.
The other concern is that there could be a significant economic downturn. Few incumbent presidents fare well in the face of stiff economic headwinds. And while Biden advisors aren’t predicting it, they do worry that a recession could drive some voters to decide to ignore the chaos surrounding Trump in favor of nostalgia for what he sold as a strong economy under his watch.
But while the White House was spooked by last month’s bank collapses and inflation that is still running too high, they believe that the fundamentals of the economy are strong. And they see no need to rush into a campaign announcement, with some aides believing that Biden’s decision — and he is still expected to run — could slip until the summer or beyond.
They believe that they can take their time because of a lack of serious intraparty challengers as well as a slow-developing GOP field. Trump’s likely top rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, is not expected to kick off his campaign until late May or June.
They may not be in a rush or exuding any sense of panic. But other Trump opponents are beginning to.
Rick Wilson, the anti-Trump strategist who co-founded the Lincoln Project, listed all the ways that 2024 is shaping up to be like 2016: The media covering Trump wall-to-wall despite promises not to, Trump’s GOP opponents planning scripted zingers about him that don’t land, and Democrats feeling suspiciously confident that Trump will sink himself.
“A lot of Democrats in 2016 were like, ‘Oh yes, Hillary will wipe the floor with Donald Trump.’ And I warned them at the time: Don’t you bite that apple,” he said. “I feel like we’re in a very, very twisted time loop where God is punishing us for our sins.”
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