Biden vs. Trump — the sequel. You may not like it, but it grows more likely by the day

Former President Trump and President Biden.
(Pool / Getty Images)

It’s hard to ignore just how many Americans would prefer not to face another election between President Biden and former President Trump.

But ignoring the unhappiness is exactly what the nation’s two major parties seem determined to do: A rematch appears increasingly inevitable.

If you watch cable news or read politics-oriented sites, you might not think the concrete is close to set. We’re in the silly season of the campaign, when voting remains a long way off and political journalists and pundits have time to spin out improbable scenarios and pretend to take them seriously.

But don’t be fooled.

Barring some sudden, dramatic event, the die is pretty much cast.

Party leaders versus the voters

Evidence can be seen in our latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies - Los Angeles Times poll of California voters as well as in several recent nationwide surveys.

On the Republican side, the California poll showed Trump’s support has grown over the summer and now stands at 55%, putting him on track to sweep the state’s 169-member delegation to the Republican National Convention, the largest of any state.


That sweep, if it happens, would be possible because of a recent change in state party rules under which a candidate who gets more than 50% of the vote wins all the delegates. It’s one of several changes in rules that Trump’s operatives have engineered in states over the last few months — the sort of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that can determine a nomination.

Nationwide, the picture is much the same: The latest CNN poll, released Tuesday, showed Trump with support from 52% of Republican voters. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in second place, drew only 18%. No one else broke into double digits.

On the Democratic side, the California numbers show Biden with two-thirds of the vote, way ahead of undecided, which was in second place at 17%. A lot of Democrats have doubts about Biden, but he doesn’t face any credible challengers. Neither of the two most prominent candidates running against him, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, broke into double figures.

Nationally, a survey this week by Morning Consult found that 76% of Democrats said they would back Biden in their state’s nominating contest. In the CNN poll, two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said Biden’s renomination was very or extremely likely. Two-thirds also said they wished the party would pick someone else.

How we got to this point says a lot about where power lies in the two parties.

On the Republican side, Trump’s grassroots support is overriding the deep misgivings of party leaders.

Among Democrats, the reverse is true: Party leaders and elected officials have significantly more enthusiasm for Biden — or concern about the alternatives — than do average voters.


Republican leaders see Trump as a loser who will drag the party to defeat, much as they feel he did in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

Most of the party’s voters don’t buy that. They see Biden as a sure loser. Beyond that, they also believe Trump is their strongest candidate.

Voters aren’t always right, of course. Last year, Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona brushed aside warnings from the party establishment about right-wing candidates for Senate or governor. The warnings were accurate — those candidates lost.

The gap between the GOP elite and the majority of the party’s voters isn’t just about style or rhetoric. It reflects a deep split over what Republicans should stand for.

Former Vice President Mike Pence publicly acknowledged the split between the GOP’s traditional conservative establishment and its populist majority in a speech Wednesday at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

“The fundamental divide between these two factions is unbridgeable,” Pence said, as he called for the party to reject the “siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles.”

The speech, which Pence also summarized in an op-ed article for the Wall Street Journal, cogently described the wide gap within the party — although it also raised the question of just what Pence thought he was doing during the four years he served as Trump’s second.

What it didn’t do was acknowledge that the big debate over the party’s future that Pence is calling for already happened — and his side lost.

It’s not just that Trump has a huge lead in polls of Republican voters. The second-place candidate, DeSantis, also identifies with the populist wing Pence deprecates. So does the candidate who sits in third place in most polls, Vivek Ramaswamy.

Add up support for those three in the polling average maintained by the FiveThirtyEight website: 78% of Republican voters back a populist, compared with 15% who support an establishment conservative like Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Trump is the champion of that populist wing, they’re not interested in a substitute, and there’s no evidence that any of that is changing even as the former president faces four criminal indictments with the first trial scheduled to begin March 4 — the day before California and more than a dozen other states hold their primaries.

Democrats lack any similar deep ideological split despite their divisions over specific policies.

What they have is a nagging worry about Biden’s age — he’ll turn 82 a couple of weeks after the election — and his vitality.

In our poll of California, by far the biggest Democratic state, 48% of voters said they were “very concerned” about Biden’s age, and 42% said they believed Biden’s age would “hurt his chances to win reelection ... a lot.” Republicans were most likely to say his age would hurt Biden’s candidacy a lot, but more than a quarter of the state’s Democratic voters agreed.

In the CNN poll, just 49% of Democrats nationwide said Biden had the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president. That’s down 14 points since a previous CNN poll in March.

Party leaders, however, admire Biden, feel he’s gotten a lot accomplished and insist they’ve seen no decline in his abilities. They’re also keenly aware that if Biden were to suddenly step aside, Vice President Kamala Harris would face intense skepticism from many voters. And any move to replace Harris would crack the party open along lines of race and gender.

Democratic leaders have successfully discouraged any credible challenge to Biden. That’s kept the party unified, but at the price of constant worry about a serious physical or verbal stumble between now and an election that remains 14 months away.

Biden also faces the challenge of motivating younger voters — especially younger Black and Latino voters, as I wrote last month. Their tepid support is a big reason that current polls show a Biden-Trump rematch to be so close.

But a lot of the talk about close polls ignores reality.

“We live in an era of close elections,” political science professor Seth Masket noted this week.

The idea that a fresh, new charismatic candidate could sweep in, break the political stalemate and unite the country — or even win by a big majority — flies in the face of what we know about the dug-in nature of American politics today.

Voters have picked their sides. They may not be excited about Trump-Biden 2, but it’s the sequel they seem likely to get. It’ll probably be close. Buckle up.

Our latest California poll

Trump is on track to sweep California’s delegates in presidential race, poll shows

Trump dominates his rivals so heavily that he’s on track to win all of California’s delegates for next year’s Republican convention — a haul that would give him a major chunk of the votes needed to secure his third presidential nomination, Seema Mehta reported. The finding from a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times highlights a turnabout from earlier this year. In February, Trump faced a serious challenge from DeSantis among California Republicans.

Schiff and Porter increasingly dominate race for Senate, poll shows

California has more registered Republicans than any state in the union, but that doesn’t mean one of them will make it to the runoff for the state’s U.S. Senate seat. Six months ahead of the March 5 primary, two Democrats, Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, appear likely to face off next year to decide who will replace longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by The Times. The prospect of Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers and Padres legend, entering the race as a high-profile Republican hasn’t scrambled that dynamic, Benjamin Oreskes reported.

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