It is the envy of the world for its diversity and vitality. Yet America appears on a likely course for a presidential election between a white man in his 80s and a white man in his 70s. And yes, they’re the same guys as last time.
Joe Biden, the 46th president and oldest in history, this week formally launched his campaign for a second term in a video announcement. The 80-year-old faces no serious challenge from within the Democratic party and told reporters: “They’re going to see a race, and they’re going to judge whether or not I have it or don’t have it.”
Donald Trump, the 45th president and second oldest in history, is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. He holds a 46-point lead over Ron DeSantis in the latest Emerson College poll amid growing doubts over the Florida governor’s readiness for the world stage. Trump, 76, has chalked up far more endorsements from members of Congress.
There is a very long way to go, and Trump faces myriad legal perils, but most pundits currently agree that a replay of the 2020 election is the most likely scenario next year – one that polls show voters have little appetite for.
“I don’t think Americans want to see a sequel,” said Chris Scott, a 34-year-old Democratic strategist from Detroit, Michigan. “Americans are fed up with the Donald Trump saga, even though he still has a number of acolytes in the GOP. They’re just ready to be over that chapter and move on.
“With Biden, there’s a lot of people that question: does he have the stamina to do another four years, even though there’s things in his record that have been effective and he’s gotten done? I don’t think anybody wants to see exactly the same rematch that we got four years ago.”
Biden’s re-election bid was all but inevitable. This will be his fourth run for the presidency in four decades and, having finally achieved his ambition in 2020, he has little cause to walk away. He can point to arguably the most consequential legislative agenda since President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and sealed the deal with a better-than-expected performance in last year’s midterm elections, where abortion rights were a pivotal issue.
Furthermore, he has no obvious challenger with the Democratic party and benefits from the same conditions as 2020: the fear that Trump poses an existential threat to democracy and the constitution and Biden is best placed to beat him.
The president duly promised this week to protect American liberties from “extremists” linked to Trump. A video released by his new campaign team opened with imagery from the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters.
Biden said: “When I ran for president four years ago, I said we’re in a battle for the soul of America, and we still are. This is not a time to be complacent. That’s why I’m running for re-election … Let’s finish this job. I know we can.”
To retain the White House, Biden will need to enthuse the coalition of young voters and Black voters – particularly women – along with blue-collar midwesterners, moderates and disaffected Republicans who helped him win in 2020.
But while the leftwing senator Bernie Sanders and most Democratic elected officials are backing him, voters have doubts about a man who would be 86 by the end of a prospective second term, almost a decade older than the average American male’s life expectancy.
Some 44% of Democratic voters say he is too old to run, according a Reuters/Ipsos poll, although it showed him with a lead of 43% to 38% over Trump nationally. Trump also faces concerns about his age, with 35% of Republicans saying he is too old.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that a majority of registered voters do not want either Biden or Trump to run again. But they may be stuck with it as both men are difficult to dislodge. Biden has the advantage of incumbency while Trump, as a former president with an iron-like grip on his party’s grassroots base, is a quasi-incumbent on the Republican side.
Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said: “Until both parties put something different on the ballot, what’s America going to do? Now the challenge becomes how to keep the respective party bases animated, how to engage independent voters and young people to participate in an election that they’re not thrilled about.”
He observed bleakly: “There’s nothing inspirational about American politics today.”
Bill Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “I’ve believed for a long time we’re in for a rematch. There is not a lot of enthusiasm for the rematch but, in the end, people are going to choose sides very firmly and I do not expect it to be a low-turnout election.”
America is diversifying culturally and racially but it is also ageing – since 2000, census records show, the national median age has increased by 3.4 years. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, added: “It is still the case that people above the age of 50 vote in much higher percentages than people below the age of 50 and especially below the age of 30.
“The new generation will become much more decisive when it begins to vote in numbers commensurate with its potential demographic clout. But not before.”
Following Hillary Clinton v Trump in 2016, and Biden v Trump in 2020 (which saw the highest turnout in more than a century), a rematch between the two men would be the third consecutive election to foreground negative partisanship, with many voters animated by their dislike of other side’s candidate.
John Zogby, an author and pollster, said: “Republicans have been worked into a frenzy about Biden and Democrats view Trump as the devil incarnate.
“Significant numbers of ‘antis’ really hate the other person. That in itself is a driver. That helps turnout for both sides. At this moment I’ve got to think advantage Democrat. But there’s a long way to go here. There is pressure on Biden. He can’t stumble physically, he can’t make a horrible gaffe, and that’s enormous pressure.”
A Biden v Trump rematch would also leave America facing its 250th birthday in 2026 with no female presidents and only one Black president in its history. It fares poorly by comparison with Australia, Britain, Finland, Germany, New Zealand and numerous nations that have elected women as leaders.
Trump could choose a female running mate, with potential candidates including Nikki Haley, a former US ambassador to the UN and one of his rivals for the Republican nomination. Biden will be joined in his 2024 bid by his vice-president, Kamala Harris, who features prominently in his campaign video.
Bonnie Morris, a history lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, and author of books including The Feminist Revolution, said: “An interesting question is, given the concerns about Biden’s age or his possible frailty, it sets up the potential for a Black woman to take over should he be elected and fall ill.”
The race is not a foregone conclusion, however. Some Republicans say they are weary of Trump’s grievance politics and boorish behaviour – and his repeated electoral defeats. DeSantis has not yet formally launched his campaign and Trump could also face competition from his former vice-president, Mike Pence, Senator Tim Scott and others.
Trump is uniquely vulnerable this time after becoming the first former president to face criminal charges and because of an array of investigations. In a jarring contrast to Biden’s campaign announcement, Trump was on trial in a civil lawsuit this week over writer E Jean Carroll’s accusation that he raped her in a department store dressing room in the mid-1990s. He has denied raping Carroll.
But if Trump does prevail, Democrats insist that they can overcome voter fatigue.
Malcolm Kenyatta, 32, the first openly LGBTQ+ person of colour elected to the Pennsylvania general assembly, said: “This campaign is going to be the clearest contrast that maybe you’ve ever seen because I do believe Donald Trump is going to be the nominee. A lot of times you have somebody who’s never been president running against the incumbent and they’ve talking about what they want to do. You have two presidents who have actual records.
“Under Trump, you saw the most job losses of any president in American history, an economic moment of turmoil coming out of Covid. I’m excited to get out there and be a part of telling the story of what the president’s real successes have been. You don’t have to sadly vote for President Biden. I’m going to be happily, vigorously excited to vote for him because he has accomplished so much and frankly I don’t give a damn how old he is. I give a damn about what it would mean for working families like mine.”
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