The 2024 Surprise Few Can See Coming

In ways few analysts have yet to realize, the 2024 presidential campaign is likely to mark a dramatic break from a norm most of institutional Washington has come to take for granted. It’s not just that the coming contest promises to be a brutal or nasty campaign, though that may well be true. It’s not just that the rhythms of the campaign may be different because the sequence of primaries and caucuses is shifting. It’s that 2024 is likely to mark the first time that the two parties’ standard-bearers make no investment in—and have no intention of appealing to—voters outside their base. The long-established balance between “mobilization” and “persuasion” may finally come unhinged. As a result, the exhausted majority that hungers for balance and bipartisanship will truly have nowhere to go. And that may open the door to dynamics that simply were outside the realm of possibility in previous contests.

The moment is ripe for a big disruption. A lot of Democrats are currently unhappy with President Biden’s leadership—and he’s wildly unpopular with Republicans. But assuming he runs, as he says he will, the president will be the odds-on favorite to win his party’s nomination. The same largely holds true on the other side: As a recent Harvard/Harris Poll makes clear, if former President Trump were to throw his hat in the ring, he would immediately command support from more than half of the GOP, 58%, compared to a mere 13% for his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The race might still tighten, of course, but that’s a massive gap for any challenger to close.

Think what that means. If the coming contest does become a rematch of the last election, neither of the two major-party candidates will have any real capacity to appeal to voters in the other party, nor independents, nor swing voters. It was that very promise which fueled their campaigns when they won their respective bids for the White House, with Trump pledging to be a break from the stale version of conservatism that had previously dominated the GOP, and Biden vowing to steer Democrats away from their activist base toward “unity.” But for whatever reason, once in office, both presidents ended up caving largely to their supporters on the various extremes. And that’s created a very odd situation: Two figures running against one another, both of whom appealed, at one point, to the political center, but now carry water for only their respective bases.

We’ve rarely seen that sort of dynamic play out in a national contest. In nearly every recent election, the victor has managed to elicit at least some cross-party appeal. Ronald Reagan is remembered today as a paragon of the GOP’s conservative wing—but remember the “Reagan Democrats”? Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” mantra was designed explicitly to entice moderate Republicans. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a play to Democrats. And Barack Obama’s rise to national stardom was propelled by a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention where he attacked the notion that there were two separate Americas, red and blue.

In other words, 2024 would mark the first campaign in earnest where neither major party candidate has any real potential to resonate with the voters in the middle of the electorate. Biden vs. Trump redux would be a base vs. base election. And that would open the door to a new, unique, and underappreciated possibility—namely the likelihood that a third, independent candidate could emerge as a credible contender for the Oval Office. Of note, the same Harvard/Harris poll found recently that a full 58% of voters would consider a moderate independent candidate if Biden and Trump were nominated by their respective parties.

For years, I’ve generally dismissed the idea of a third party for a whole host of reasons. And I still believe that an essential part of the way forward is to drive the sort of bipartisanship exemplified by the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House and the sorts of bicameral dynamics that have emerged among our movement’s House leaders and figures including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). But the political landscape promises to be different in the period before us, leaving open a world of possibility. Don’t forget that Ross Perot was commanding 40% support in 1992 before dropping out (and then re-entering the race to earn only 19%). This time, a moderate independent third ticket could run and win.

Washington should be prepared for a big change. In a world where the two parties aren’t really capable or interested in building and governing with broad coalitions—where their standard-bearers have alienated nearly everyone outside their respective bases—everything is on the table. Washington isn’t working, and the country is frustrated. In ways many aren’t considering, 2024 may prove to be a whole different ballgame.

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