U.S. presidential elections have been rocked by economic disaster, stunning gaffes, secret videos and a pandemic in recent years. But for all the tumult that defined those campaigns, the volatility surrounding this year’s presidential contest has few modern parallels, posing profound challenges to the future of American democracy.
Not since the Supreme Court effectively decided the 2000 campaign in favour of Republican George W. Bush has the judiciary been so intertwined with presidential politics.
In the coming weeks, the high court is expected to weigh whether States can ban former President Donald Trump from the ballot for his role in leading the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, a federal appeals court is weighing Mr. Trump’s argument that he’s immune from prosecution.
The maneuvers are unfolding as prosecutors from New York to Washington and Atlanta move forward with 91 indictments across four criminal cases involving everything from Mr. Trump’s part in the insurrection to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his hush money paid to a porn actress.
Depending on how Mr. Trump’s appeals play out, he could be due in court as early as March 4, the day before Super Tuesday, raising the unprecedented prospect that he could close in on the GOP nomination from a courtroom.
On the Democratic side, President Joe Biden is seeking reelection as the high inflation that defined much of his first term appears to be easing. But that has done little to assuage restless voters or ease widespread concerns in both parties that, at 81, he’s simply too old for the job.
And at least three serious candidates who have launched outsider presidential bids threaten to scramble the campaign and eat into the support from independent voters who were critical to Mr. Biden’s success in 2020.
Facing such uncertainty, few expect the traditional rules of politics to apply in 2024. Jim Messina, who managed former President Barack Obama’s reelection, said Mr. Trump could very well defeat Mr. Biden in the fall, even if the former President is in prison. “Everyone in the world knows, especially me, that this election is going to be really, really close,” Mr. Messina said.
The results will have long-term implications on everything from the future of abortion rights and immigration policy to the role of the U.S. in the world. A Trump victory would raise the possibility of the U.S. largely abandoning Ukraine as it seeks to repel Russia’s invasion. Domestic politics could also test Mr. Biden’s commitment to Israel, a policy that threatens to erode his standing with young voters and people of colour who are critical elements of his coalition. One of the few certainties at this point is that Mr. Biden is a virtual lock to be the Democratic nominee again, facing only token opposition in this year’s primary despite overwhelming concerns within his own party about his physical and mental fitness. And though a few rivals are fighting furiously to stop Mr. Trump, he is well positioned to win the GOP nomination for the third consecutive election.
The strength of the GOP opposition to Mr. Trump will become more clear on January 15 when the Iowa caucuses launch the nomination process. Mr. Trump holds a commanding lead in most national polls, although former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are fighting to stop him.
That hasn’t been easy, however, as Mr. DeSantis has struggled to connect with voters and has embraced culture war topics that often left him competing for the same base of support as Mr. Trump. And Ms. Haley’s pitch as a more sensible, moderate candidate was threatened last week when she was pressed on the cause of the Civil War and didn’t mention slavery. Allies of Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Haley privately concede that their best chance to wrestle the nomination away from Mr. Trump would come in a long-shot push for a contested convention in Wisconsin in July. Many leaders in both parties are already convinced that Mr. Trump will be the GOP nominee. More than 90 House Republicans, 18 senators and seven governors have endorsed Mr. Trump. Ms. Haley and Mr. DeSantis have secured the endorsements of just six House Republicans, no senators and two governors combined.
Echoing strongmen leaders throughout history, Mr. Trump has framed his campaign as one of retribution and has spoken openly about using the power of government to pursue his political enemies.
He has repeatedly harnessed rhetoric once used by Adolf Hitler to argue that immigrants entering the U.S. illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.” He said on Fox News last month that he would not be a dictator “ except for day one. ” And he shared a word cloud last week to his social media account highlighting words like, “revenge,” “power” and “dictatorship.”
Mr. Biden, like his party more broadly, has leaned into concerns about the future of democracy should Mr. Trump return to the White House, but that has done little to improve his standing. People on Mr. Biden’s team do not fear that his base will defect to M r. Trump in the general election, but they privately worry some of the Democratic President’s supporters may not vote at all. They’re betting that Mr. Biden’s achievements, which include landmark legislation on gun control, climate change and infrastructure, will eventually help overcome pervasive concerns about his age.
Ultimately, however, Mr. Biden’s campaign believes that voters will rally behind the President once they fully understand that Mr. Trump could realistically return to the White House.