In the United States, every presidential election is unique. But that doesn’t mean election trends don’t exist.
Speaking Friday at the 2024 American Truck Dealers (ATD) Show in Las Vegas, Charlie Cook, founder of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, shared how in cases where an incumbent is running for a second term, the election often becomes a referendum on the sitting president and how they are perceived by the electorate.
Cook said that’s unquestionably happening to President Joe Biden in 2024. But Cook also added because this November’s election is shaping up to the seventh election between two prior presidents in American history, it additionally offers voters the rare opportunity to evaluate how their lives have changed not just under current leadership but also the challenger.
Cook said polling today shows former President Donald Trump well ahead of Biden in many of those head to head comparisons. And barring any major economic or geopolitical shifts in the next nine months, he said that’s likely to remain the case until Election Day. Cook stopped short well short of predicting a winner — and actually suggested both parties could fare better in November by replacing their presumptive candidates — but said the path the Biden campaign needs to walk to win re-election is a precarious one.
“I believe this race is a whole lot harder for [Biden] than a lot of people think,” said Cook. “The best minds in the Democratic party are scared to death that Biden is going to lose.”
He added, “I keep looking at the polling data and see how difficult this could be for him. I’m actually a little surprised he’s hung in.”
Cook said his pessimism around Biden comes from non-partisan polling results seen across the country in the last year. The U.S. economy continues to post strong results that should, in theory, buoy the Biden campaign. But in politics, where ‘perception is reality,’ Cook said just because national data is positive doesn’t mean individual voters feel the same way. Economic pessimism is found throughout country (and the dealer industry) still exists and “until the swing voters decide [the economy] is better, it isn’t.”
Biden also doesn’t fare well in head-to-head comparisons against Trump. Cook said the former president holds small but steady polling leads in many of the most respected polls in the swing states that defined the 2016 and 2020 elections. And in cases where voters — both in swing states and nationally — are asked if their lives were improved by President Trump or Biden, the former holds substantial advantages.
Cook cited a Wall Street Journal poll that said 49% of voters said Trump helped them and 37% said Trump hurt them. That same poll showed only 23% felt Biden helped them and 53% said he hurt them. He also referenced a New York Times swing state poll where 51% of voters said Trump helped them and 34% said he hurt them. Biden in the same poll helped 35% of voters but hurt 51% of responders.
Biden’s age is another issue. Cook said though only three years separate the two candidates, there is a perception among voters that Biden appears much older and less energetic than Trump. Cook quipped that Biden might beat Trump in a footrace but that doesn’t matter. Cook also noted if Biden was to win, he’d be 86 during his second term. He said polling data indicates envisioning a president closer to 90 than 80 causes a not insignificant subsection of voters to recall.
But Cook’s not sold on Trump’s candidacy either. He said it’s incredibly unlikely there will be any legal event that would force Trump out of the race and said many Republican voters believe the charges against Trump are “politically motivated” and wouldn’t be swayed away from him anyway. And because the Republican primary structure is designed to identify and coalesce behind a candidate quickly, Trump could officially secure the nomination in the coming weeks.
Yet Trump comes with real baggage. A subset of the population will not vote for him under any circumstances and swing voters — the 10% of the electorate that in key states that decide most elections — could sway closer toward President Biden if economic sentiment continues to rise. Cook also noted Trump’s temperament and prior actions are a blight on the candidate and said Republicans would likely be fairing even better in polling against Biden if their candidate didn’t have that history.
He also noted the struggles Republicans had in the midterms when the party nominated what Cook called several “exotic and potentially problematic” candidates that were unpalatable in general elections. He said those nominees cost the party a congressional majority and repeating that mistake in 2024 could do the same.
In closing, Cook added Democrats could learn from that mistake too. He said he tells Democrats to get on their knees “three times a day to pray that the President doesn’t run.”
“If the Dems would nominate someone else without that baggage it would [make the election] about Trump and I think Dems would have a huge advantage,” he said.