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Deep Breaths

Don’t Panic, Democrats!

They’re freaking out about a Biden-Trump rematch. It’s far too early to start worrying.

This is shaping up as a presidential election designed to Donald Rumsfeld’s specifications. At a 2002 press conference during the run-up to the disastrous Iraq War, George W. Bush’s hawkish defense secretary began talking about “known unknowns,” which he defined as things “we know ... we do not know.”

In an election that offers the first rematch between an incumbent president and his predecessor since 1912, the campaign tactics and TV advertising blitz by both sides are likely to be dwarfed by a version of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns.” These are the hard-to-handicap external events that could shape voting behavior and turnout. Examples: Will Donald Trump be wearing an ankle bracelet as a convicted felon on Election Day? What are voter perceptions in October and November about the state of the economy and conditions on the border with Mexico? Will there be a cease-fire in Gaza or a wider war in the Middle East? And, perhaps crucially, what are the prevailing media narratives about the health and mental acuity of both Trump and Joe Biden?

It is not normally like this. Virtually all presidential elections involve a challenger who must be introduced to the wider public after prevailing in the primaries. But not in 2024. The familiarity of the candidates (despite Donald Trump’s ability to find new ways to signal his contempt for everything from NATO to democracy) offers the campaigns little latitude to define themselves. As a result, external events will loom so large and political gamesmanship will seem so small until the conventions—and maybe until the fall.

Ever since The Making of the President 1960 dramatized the behind-the-scenes machinations of John Kennedy’s successful presidential bid, Americans who care about politics have been caught up in the cult of the campaign strategist. James Carville (Bill Clinton 1992), Karl Rove (George W. Bush 2000), and David Axelrod (Barack Obama 2008) have all become familiar figures to the cognoscenti. Cable television—desperate to recapture the record ratings of the 2016 election cycle—will breathlessly chronicle every strategic move as if graduation from the Electoral College will pivot around a negative spot aired in Wisconsin in May.

But for all the media frenzy, little of this is likely to make a difference in an election defined by intense partisan certainty. The fact that the Constitution is on the line doesn’t elevate the significance of the day-to-day political skirmishing, which University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala likened to “trench warfare.” A strong case can be made that nervous Democrats and frightened Never Trump Republicans could turn off the political news until the eve of the GOP convention in July and not miss anything. As Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari put it, “If ever there was a time for a three- or four-month presidential campaign, it would probably be now. Both candidates are known entities, and the issues are clear.”

For all the glib talk of swing voters, they have become close to an endangered species. In their chronicle of the 2020 campaign, The Bitter End, political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck note that “about 95 percent” of Hillary Clinton and Trump voters in 2016 cast their ballots for the same party in 2020. That level of what the authors call “calcification” in political preference is unprecedented in modern history. In contrast, a little more than 80 percent of voters stayed with the same party allegiance between 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.

There is scant evidence from political science research that dive-bombing these up-for-grabs voters with TV spots in May or June has any effect other than padding the fees of the campaign ad makers. Early indications suggest that the 2024 presidential cycle will break the record for campaign spending, topping the $5.7 billion lavished on the 2020 presidential race. With the election pivoting around maybe seven swing states, voters in places like Arizona and Michigan will be shell-shocked from the fusillade of voice-of-doom negative spots from both sides.

Trump and Biden are such shopworn figures that it is hard to imagine that any up-for-grabs voter will gravitate to his or her eventual choice with enthusiasm. Most presidential elections are a battle between the political status quo and a candidate offering hope for something different. But Azari stresses, “We’re in a situation where no one can depict themselves a change candidate.” So it is a choice between the stability of the Biden status quo and the vengeful clamor of a return to the Trump status quo.

Democrats are back in their familiar state of fending off panic attacks as they read the polls showing waning support for Biden among Black, Hispanic, and younger voters. Some of the problem may be insoluble, as historically about half of eligible voters under 30 sit out presidential elections. “Turnout is a hard thing to move,” said Christina Wolbrecht, a political science professor at Notre Dame. “And the things that drive it are things like enthusiasm for the candidates.” That is not a plausible outcome with Biden and Trump on the ballot.

More encouraging for the Democrats is the reality that most apathetic voters eventually come home. Sides, who teaches at Vanderbilt University, explained, based on political science research, that “Democrats who are not enthusiastic about Biden will become more enthusiastic as time goes on. That’s a very conventional finding.” The key moment, if tradition holds, will be the Democratic convention in Chicago at the end of August, which will serve as a four-day informational ad for Biden. In similar fashion, the Republican convention in July is likely to be the moment that reconciles Nikki Haley voters with the reality that the GOP is stuck with Trump for the third time.

In the silly season of breathless late winter political coverage, a dominant topic has become whether Taylor Swift will transform the election for Biden. The right-wing megaphone has been spewing crazed conspiracy theories that Swift’s globe-girdling popularity was due to the intervention of the deep state, and the Super Bowl was rigged for her love interest, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. In truth, there is almost no political science research to support the thesis that celebrities can change political allegiance or motivate turnout.

Wolbrecht sees in the Swifties-will-reelect-Biden mania the kind of dismissive attitudes toward women voters—portraying them as shallow and flighty—that date back to the days of the suffragist movement. “It seems to me,” she said, “that the kind of person who won’t vote for Biden over Gaza won’t say that on one hand there is a human rights crisis and on the other hand say there is a pop star.”

With so many reporters chasing so little meaningful political news, it was not surprising that the Trump vice presidential speculation was in full flower while the ground was still hard in early February. The veepstakes is normally a June media obsession, but with the GOP race all but over following Trump’s New Hampshire primary victory in January, reporters began cannibalizing future stories in their desperation to have something to write.

Particularly dubious is that the idea Trump’s running mate, who will almost certainly have to demonstrate lickspittle loyalty to the Great Man, will make a difference, even in a close election. It is not in Trump’s nature to pick a veep who would ever dare upstage him. Even in normal campaigns (and nothing about 2024 with Trump on the ballot is normal), the unveiling of the second banana is one of those events continually overrated by the hyperactive press corps. Political scientists Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko, in their 2020 book, Do Running Mates Matter?, conclude, “running mates have a real, but marginal, effect on voting behavior.” But writing about Trump tapping Mike Pence in 2016, the authors describe his selection as “exceptionally ineffective.”

Even after the conventions, it is easy to exaggerate the likely significance of campaign gambits on both sides. The fall presidential debates are often when strategists prove their mettle by concocting devastating put-downs and emotional sound bites for their candidates. But, despite popular expectations, the odds are high that there will not be any Biden-Trump debates in September and October.

Acting at Trump’s bidding, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously in early 2022 to boycott all candidate face-offs arranged by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission has handled the arrangements for all post-convention debates since 1988. But GOP chair Ronna McDaniel claimed that (surprise) the bipartisan commission was “biased.”

Instead of actual debates, we will most likely have an enervating debate over debates. Both candidates will purport to be eager to face off, but negotiations will probably break down over the arrangements. It is easy to envision that the Trump campaign will demand their choice of moderators, with Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Maria Bartiromo as probable impartial candidates. The Biden camp, under this scenario, would make a reasonable counterproposal, which Trump would reject, screaming that “Senile Joe” is afraid to debate. And things would unravel from there.

Back in 2002, making the dubious case that Saddam Hussein had to possess weapons of mass destruction, Rumsfeld also spoke of “unknown unknowns,” which were black-swan events that no one could anticipate. Anyone with the temerity to handicap the Biden-Trump race should remember that over the last four years the nation has endured a once-in-a-century pandemic and a mob ransacking the Capitol for the first time since the War of 1812.

Until the conventions, skittish Democrats can take comfort in a “known known.” That is, none of the spring political news (as opposed to external events) is likely to be remembered in November. So, hard as it may be emotionally, political obsessives can relax ... for the moment.