A Biden-Trump rematch is increasingly likely. But neither side wants to move first.
The 2024 election begins as a high-stakes staring contest.
President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have both told aides and confidants that they’re more likely to run for the White House next cycle — and confident in their chances of winning — if the other runs, too. But as each camp gears up for a rematch of the bitterly contested 2020 contest, there remains a small hiccup: Neither is inclined to take the plunge first.
It’s a game of political chicken that — as described by more than a half dozen advisers to the two men — has largely frozen the field among Democrats and Republicans alike, raising questions about the future health of two parties being led by a pair of candidates who, by that Election Day, would have long ago celebrated their 75th birthdays.
“It’s a very unusual situation where there are people in both parties who would likely clear the field, and for the first time in modern history we might not have a very competitive primary on either side,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid. “So it’s hard to think of what that would look like other than it being a brutally long election campaign.”
Inside the White House, for now, it’s all systems go for 2024. An official decision has not been made and may not for some time, according to three administration officials not authorized to discuss private deliberations. But Biden has repeatedly said he plans to seek reelection, and White House aides and Biden advisers are taking initial steps to mount a bid, believing he has a strong record and would overcome intraparty concerns about his age — on Election Day 2024 he will be just shy of 82 — and shaky poll numbers.
He has little choice to say otherwise; an admission that he was making himself a lame duck would dramatically curb his political power. Some Democrats have expressed private hope that Biden will make his final decision soon after this November’s midterms, giving the party plenty of time to prepare for what would likely be a wide-open primary if he opts not to run.
But presidents often wait until after the midterms to declare a reelection candidacy, in part because of the campaign finance restrictions that doing so would bring. On a personal level, moreover, acting promptly is not a Biden strength, sparking fear within the party that an announcement could be delayed until deep into 2023. The one factor that could hasten a decision and all but certainly ensure that Biden runs again: if Donald Trump says he will, too.
The current president has had repeated conversations with allies that he would need to run again to prevent Trump from reclaiming the Oval Office. Like he did in 2020, Biden views Trump as an existential threat to American democracy. And like he did in 2020, Biden thinks he’s the only one who can beat him. He plans to more aggressively target Trump as the midterm season approaches — both as a means of turning around his party’s standing for the midterms but also to set up a contrast for the future.
“This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in recent American history,” Biden said on Wednesday.
But Trump is in no hurry to move first. He has hinted strongly that he will run again, but advisers don’t expect a decision until much closer to the midterms. Barely a year since leaving office in disgrace, Trump has enjoyed reclaiming his perch atop the GOP and playing kingmaker in the primary season — as reinforced by J.D. Vance’s victory Tuesday in the Ohio Senate GOP primary. But he has not committed even privately to running himself. And he has admitted that he is hesitant to announce soon, because once he does he would be restricted in how he could utilize and coordinate with certain political committees tied to him.
Even his closest allies are left to read the tea leaves. Trump’s enthusiasm to hold rallies, his flirtations with a 2024 run in media interviews, and his super PACs’ deep coffers, advisers say, are all signs he is likely to run again. But he also remains obsessed with relitigating 2020 more so than taking concrete steps to prepare for 2024. Relatedly, they add, he would likely jump into the fray if assured that Biden was running too.
“Biden running helps shape his decision. I think it’s an opportunity to avenge a loss and right a wrong, whereas if there was a younger candidate, I don’t know how motivated he’d be,” said a former adviser to Trump.
The potential rematch would have only one historical parallel. In 1888, President Grover Cleveland’s reelection bid was toppled by Benjamin Harrison. But four years later, Cleveland defeated Harrison in their rematch, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
Trump’s pollster, John McLaughlin, said his firm’s surveys show that the 45th president is favored to walk in Cleveland’s dusty footsteps. An April nationwide poll of likely voters by McLaughlin & Associates showed Trump with 50 percent support compared to Biden’s 43 percent. Other national polls have shown a tighter race, but polling this far out is functionally pointless in predicting a race.
“If they keep attacking him, he’ll run,” McLaughlin said. “If they keep trying to attack him and his supporters — Trump’s the type of person where if you tell him he can’t do something and if you personally keep attacking him, he’s going to try to prove you wrong.”
But some Trump allies believe he may ultimately opt against a run, either for health reasons or, if Biden’s poll numbers rebound, because he doesn’t want to risk a second loss, even though he has yet to acknowledge the first defeat.
So far, a slew of prominent Republicans have begun making overt moves to run in 2024. Whether they will abandon their own White House dreams if the former president were to run again is another matter entirely.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are among those who made appearances in early voting states, and some have started securing top political consultants. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has hinted she’d mount a bid but wouldn’t run against Trump if he decides to enter the race. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has suggested he may run even if Trump does. And there is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has emerged as an heir-apparent to Trump and the populist MAGA movement.
Things may be just as uncertain on the Democratic side of the ledger. If Biden opts against seeking reelection, the field may not clear out for Vice President Kamala Harris, who has yet to find her political footing in the role. Two 2020 candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), each have held recent high-profile events on hot button election topics.
If Biden opts to seek a second term, a serious primary challenge would be unlikely.
“Everything is frozen until after the midterms. I expect Biden to run, I hope he runs. And I think if there is a credible primary challenger against Biden there is almost a certain Trump victory,” said Paul Begala, former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Historically, incumbent presidents have a losing track record if someone from their own party poses a significant challenge: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992 all held off their primary opponents but emerged wounded and later would lose the general election.
During the 2020 campaign, there was some idle chatter in Biden’s campaign of making a one-term pledge, becoming a “transitional” president who would rid the nation of Trump and then usher in a new era of Democratic leaders. But those ideas were dismissed even before Biden took the oath of office.
Still, some allies and Democrats privately worry that Biden may not be able to handle the rigors of another campaign.
A bone he broke in his foot while playing with his dog in late November 2020 still occasionally bothers Biden, resulting in a slower and shorter gait. And the White House has largely abandoned using the Oval Office for press events in part because it can’t be permanently equipped with a teleprompter; Biden aides prefer the fake White House stage built in the Old Executive Office Building next door for events, sacrificing some of the power of the historic backdrop in favor of an otherwise sterile room that was outfitted with an easily read teleprompter screen.
And if Biden were to run again in 2024, it almost certainly would be a more rigorous campaign than the one he previously mounted. The outbreak of Covid kept Biden in his Delaware home for much of the 2020 general election campaign, sparing him the wear and tear of relentless travel.
As for Trump, the issues are not related to physical health so much as psychological conditioning. He wants to run, those who know him say, but wants to be sure he will win.
“I always said that he would run if Biden is under 44 or 43 [percent] but if Biden is at 46, 47, he will pass,” said Bryan Lanza, a GOP strategist and former Trump campaign official. “Right now he is at 41 so I have to say yes right now — there has to be a dramatic turning out in Biden numbers for him to pass.”