The 2024 Presidential Race Is Anything But Settled

From a Jonathan Martin column on headlined “A 4-Way Race? The 2024 Presidential Contest Is Anything But Settled.”:

To glimpse at the 2024 presidential race this summer, a year before the two nominating conventions, is to see a picture of predictability: the current president facing off against his predecessor, a rematch of the last election. Former President Donald Trump is better positioned now to reclaim the Republican nomination than he has been at any time since he left office, and that prospect, along with a growing economy, has only strengthened President Joe Biden’s grip on his own party.

Yet placid surface waters can be deceptive.

We are underestimating how turbulent next year’s campaign will be and how likely, on the current trajectory, it is to become a three- or even four-person race. If voters are faced with a nearly 82-year-old incumbent who may not be able to serve a full second term and a 78-year-old challenger who could be a felon by Election Day, millions will seek a safe harbor.

The possibility of Cornel West, tapping into the youthful discontent with the president, claiming votes from Biden’s left and a moderate, third-party candidate offering an escape hatch for voters who grudgingly supported Biden in 2020 is already panicking senior Democrats. But these officials have taken solace that, despite Biden’s weak approval ratings, no elected Democrat has emerged to challenge the president in the primary.

Yet even that may no longer be a sure thing. U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota moderate, has been receiving inquiries about his willingness to challenge Biden and is going to New York City next week to meet with Democratic donors about such a race, I’m told.

Phillips, who’s in his third term representing suburban Minneapolis, has drawn attention from contributors by both denouncing the “No Labels” attempt to field a third-party ticket and calling for a contested Democratic primary next year. A former executive, he’s also the sort of pro-business social moderate with private sector experience who corporate leaders usually pine for in a presidential candidate.

Phillips, 54, is highly unlikely to mount a primary challenge unless Biden’s health worsens or his political standing drops precipitously, I’m told, and does not want to further weaken the president. Yet he remains convinced that Democrats need a robust conversation about who to nominate and recognizes that the more obvious would-be challengers in the party will not get in unless somebody else first breaks the political ice — much as his fellow Minnesotan, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, did against Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

McCarthy’s candidacy eventually helped drive Johnson from the race and, yes I know Biden allies, Republicans reclaimed the White House that fall. Democrats of a certain age, and even those younger, recall this painful history and that of 1980, when Jimmy Carter spent the first half of the year fending off a primary challenger in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy before losing that fall to Ronald Reagan. (Less well-recalled is Reagan won an Electoral College landslide but more modest popular vote victory because a third-party moderate, John Anderson, claimed support from voters afraid of the Republican challenger but lacking confidence in the Democratic incumbent.)

As long as Trump appears on track to be the GOP standard-bearer, I think Biden will be insulated from any serious primary threat. Sowing doubts about the incumbent is a luxury to most high-ranking Democrats, but verboten when an exiled strongman attempts to take back the power he fought to hold even in defeat.

Yet there are two markers to watch this fall, by which time any other Democrat would have to get in the race: the president’s fitness for the job and his approval numbers. Put less delicately, does Biden have more spills, as he did at the Air Force Academy, and does he finally get credit from voters for the improving economy?

If he shows further signs of decline and the electorate continues to render a verdict that he’s too old, no matter how much the Dow soars and inflation falls, more Democrats may come around to Phillips’ view that the real risk is to unblinkingly back Biden rather than at least consider other options.

What’s increasingly certain, however, is that a Biden-Trump rematch will lure a moderate candidate into the race as an independent, most likely under the “No Labels” aegis. I’ve been skeptical of the group’s push, in part because it’s driven by donor wish-casting for a Bloombergian-style candidacy of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that’s more appealing in the C-suite than the ballot booth.

However, Trump’s resilience with Republicans and the three-dozen (and counting?) federal counts against him suggest there will be an opening next year for a third-party option. Put it this way: if Trump sweeps the early nominating states next winter and is then poised to stand trial during the general election, how could there not be another candidate?

One person who clearly grasps this is named Donald J. Trump. That’s partly why, I’m told, he made clear to Representative Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) that he would not endorse Mooney’s Senate candidacy. Trump knows that Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would much rather run against the hardline Mooney than Gov. Jim Justice next year. If Justice appears to be the certain GOP Senate nominee, by this logic, it’s more probable Manchin would run for president and potentially siphon votes from Biden.

Even likelier to run as an independent than Manchin may be former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who just left office after two terms in a deep-blue state.

I asked Hogan directly this week: will you run for president on a third-party ticket if it’s clear Trump will be the nominee next winter?

“I’m not going to say I absolutely wouldn’t consider it,” Hogan told me, before quickly adding his preference was for Republicans to defeat Trump in the primary.

But then said, “I get why so many people want a third choice” and pointed to polls showing clear majorities of voters would be open to an independent candidacy.

“Today it looks like we have two really terrible choices,” he said. “Most people in America, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, they will say: ‘Is this the best we can come up with to serve as leader of the free world?’”

I should mention he also pointed out he left office with approval ratings in the 70s, thanks to strong support from both parties, and that he just happened to post a well-crafted, nearly 10-minute-long biographical video this week that ended with him saying: “The future is still to be decided — stay tuned.”

Subtle, it’s not.

Neither were the concerns expressed by the Republican elite at a pair of summer getaways this month, I’m told.

At The Bohemian Grove, the secretive conclave of men who gather in Northern California, the attendance was a Who’s Who of pre-Trump Republicans, a murderer’s row of bundlers and Wall Street Journal editorial page favorites including former House Speaker Paul Ryan and ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as my colleague Ryan Lizza reported. With fear setting in about Trump’s re-nomination, the gathering became something of a fantasy camp on how to avert that prospect or at least confront it. One name that came up as a potential apolitical independent nominee was retired Admiral William McRaven, the former special operations commander who became chancellor of the University of Texas.

Over in the Rockies a few days later was the annual Aspen retreat for donors to the Republican Governors Association. There was similar how-do-we-stop-him chatter there, I’m told, along with much fretting about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ailing candidacy. Two contenders showed up to work the donors and governors, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence, but a candidate-in-waiting also received ample attention. Contributors buttonholed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, an attendee told me, with some asking if he’d run and others skipping pleasantries and pushing him to get in the race.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who thinks Trump is “almost certainly” going to be the GOP standard-bearer, said because of his wealth and potential appeal Youngkin “is an overnight serious national candidate” and likened his potential path to that of Wendell Willkie, the businessman who emerged late to claim the 1940 Republican nomination

If Youngkin runs it won’t be until after Virginia’s legislative elections in November.

And by that point, it may be as much a referendum on DeSantis’ weakness as Trump’s strength.

The Florida governor’s financial difficulties and resulting staff cuts have earned him weeks of bad headlines and prompted rounds of sniping between aides at his campaign and super PAC. But the person to blame is the man in the Tallahassee mirror.

It’s DeSantis who seemingly wants to run his own campaign, refuses to elevate peers around him or take advice from his younger aides about projecting a coherent message and engaging with the media. I’m told that some of his top supporters, not donors, didn’t even have the candidate’s cell phone number until recently.

And it wasn’t a staffer who made DeSantis float Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to run his FDA or CDC, the sort of comment that underscores his unwavering instinct to get to Trump’s right but really just amounts to an in-kind contribution to Tim Scott for President.

DeSantis’ super PAC polling still has him running a strong second in Iowa, but with Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy creeping up toward double digits. Fragmentation is Trump’s friend and the clock to the Jan. 15 caucuses is ticking.

DeSantis may not be capable of a reset, but the first GOP primary debate offers his best chance to shift the narrative, as he would call it. He’s brought in Republican strategist and longtime debate prep Svengali Brett O’Donnell to help ahead of the Aug. 23 forum.

Of course, if Trump doesn’t show it will mean fewer viewers and lowered stakes.

Yet seemingly still waters can be particularly misleading with Trump.

In private, his advisers are having to routinely cool his anger about Republican holdouts to his candidacy and are going to great lengths to convince him he should skip the August debate.

For all Trump’s insistence that he won’t give in, few in his orbit think it’s a settled question. The former president is hearing from Republicans who think he should debate: Dick Morris is not shy about telephoning to make that case, I’m told, and Kellyanne Conway’s comment on Fox caught the anxious ears of Trump’s inner circle. More helpful to the Trump high command were a group of Ohio lawmakers who over dinner at the former president’s Bedminster, New Jersey, home this week dutifully urged him to stay away from the debate when Trump surveyed the room.

They’re hardly the only visitors he’s had over. Trump also invited National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry and Washington Examiner columnist Byron York, longtime conservative writers, to Bedminster for meals, smoothing relations with the right-leaning press in the same fashion he recently did with podcaster Megyn Kelly outside a Florida event.

As with his courtship of GOP lawmakers, Trump knows that in the face of further indictments he must earn all the goodwill he can on the right and project inevitability in the party. An improviser to his core is being made to plan. As Trump would say: we’ll see what happens.

Yet as another famed New Yorker, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once put it: “the future outwits all our certitudes.”

As prospects grow for a government shutdown and an impeachment inquiry of Biden — and the last remaining bulwark of the pre-Trump Republican Party, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, appearing increasingly frail — the 2024 race is only one element of an increasingly combustible political moment.

It may seem quiet now, but I’ve never been a believer in the myth that nothing happens in August.

Jonathan Martin is POLITICO’s politics bureau chief and senior political columnist. His reported column chronicles the inside conversation and big-picture trends shaping politics.

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