Column: A 2024 Biden-Trump election would be a contest of unpopularity

A woman sitting onstage above a large CNN logo across from former President Trump, gesturing as she speaks to him
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins questions former President Trump as she moderates a town-hall-style show in New Hampshire last week.
(John Nowak / CNN)

Two television events in the last 10 days — a raucous Donald Trump rally billed as a CNN town hall and a far more sedate interview with President Biden on MSNBC — offer a sobering preview of the 2024 presidential campaign.

It won’t be pretty. It may not be inspiring. And it will mostly be about which candidate you dislike more.

On CNN, Trump repeated his bogus claim that the 2020 election was “rigged,” praised the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and made fun of the woman who won a lawsuit against him for sexual abuse.


On MSNBC, Biden meandered through jumbled answers on infrastructure spending and the debt ceiling, said he’s doing the best he can on immigration, and defined the stakes in 2024 as preventing Trump from returning to the White House — although he couldn’t bring himself to say his opponent’s name.

“We cannot let this election be one where the same man who was president four years ago becomes president again,” he said.

Eighteen months before election day, it’s foolish to try to forecast the outcome, except for this: Either candidate could win, and the results are likely to be close.

In the last two elections, a shift of less than 1% in three or four states would have changed the national result.

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Events — especially what happens with the economy — will drive the outcome.

Biden began his tenure as a widely popular president, but unexpected events — a resurgence of COVID-19, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising inflation — have brought him down.

The president defends his record on the economy by pointing to strong job creation, low unemployment and inflation slowly ebbing to about 5%. But prices remain higher than before, and that’s what voters notice.


If the economy strengthens and inflation falls, Biden can breathe more easily. If inflation ticks up and the economy slides into recession, his problems will deepen.

The other uncontrollable event is the inexorable process of aging: Biden is 80, Trump 76.

Whatever else he accomplished on CNN, Trump showed that he hasn’t changed — or apparently aged much — since 2016, when he was 70.

But Biden looks and sounds his age, and voters have noticed. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this month reported that only 32% of Americans believe he remains mentally sharp enough for the job, versus 54% who think Trump does.

The president needed three tries to deliver a solid answer to the now-inescapable age question. His first response was denial: “I can’t even say the number,” he said last month. His second was a wisecrack: “I call it being seasoned.”

On MSNBC, he finally tackled the problem head-on. “I have acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom,” he said. “I’m more experienced than anybody that’s ever run for the office, and I think I’ve proven myself to be honorable as well as effective.”

Expect to hear that refrain over the next 18 months.

As long as Biden stays healthy, the competition with Trump may not be too punishing. But if a younger Republican pulls off a surprise and wins the GOP nomination, the president could face more trouble.


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Trump could also be indicted in connection with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his storage of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. But it’s not clear what the impact would be. His recent indictment by a New York prosecutor over hush money payments to a porn star prompted some voters to rally to his side.

If Biden and Trump are the nominees as expected, it’s tempting to call their matchup a rerun of 2020 — but it’s different in one important respect.

The 2020 election was a referendum on Trump’s presidency. This time, Biden is the incumbent, and Trump will want to turn the election into a referendum on his successor’s economic record.

The president would understandably prefer a rerun of 2020, so he’s reminding Americans why they rejected Trump then.

So the campaign is likely to be a double referendum: a battle over which candidate voters loathe more.

If that’s the contest, Biden may hold an edge. Even though his approval rating has settled around a dismal 42% — a level at which no previous incumbent has won reelection — Trump is even less popular. In an NBC News poll last month, 48% of voters said they hold a negative view of Biden, while 53% said they hold a negative view of Trump.


Trump’s performance on CNN may not have helped him on that score.

The former president doubled down on divisive positions in a way that may cement his lead for the GOP nomination, but alienate independent voters.

He said he would probably pardon Jan. 6 rioters who have been convicted of crimes for storming the Capitol. He suggested that Republicans in Congress should force a default on federal debt, which could lead to a financial crash. And he said he would separate migrant children from their parents at the border, a policy he ended as president in response to public revulsion.

Trump’s words on CNN made it clear how high the stakes will be.

Almost every presidential election is described as the most important of our lifetimes. That was truer than usual in 2016 and 2020.

It will be true again in 2024.