Democrats who believe former President Trump is unelectable in 2024 may have to pin their hopes on his personality and past conduct rather than his actual policies.
Trump may simply be too disliked by too many people to prevail in a general election. And the combined weight of two impeachments, the legacy of Jan. 6 and four criminal indictments could sink him.
But it’s notable that on three of the most controversial issues facing the nation — abortion, immigration and the war in Ukraine — Trump is either trimming his sails into an electable shape, or public opinion is shifting in his direction.
Some Democrats worry that their party colleagues are being far too complacent about President Biden’s chances of victory if Trump is his opponent, given the multitude of challenges the incumbent is facing.
“I’ve been talking about this for weeks and months,” New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told this column. “The only good news for Biden right now is the prospect of a government shutdown, and this impeachment talk.
“But there’s rising crime around the country, the economy is lousy regardless of what Biden says, Biden is seen as old and Kamala Harris is not really liked at all.” Sheinkopf added. “If the election was held tomorrow, Trump would win.”
Trump can afford to fix his focus on a coming general election, too. He has a huge lead in GOP primary polls, and his most serious rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), keeps drifting down.
The most conspicuous element of Trump’s desire to preserve electability is his position on abortion.
The former president has staunchly declined — at least so far — to endorse calls for a federal ban on the procedure after a specific number of weeks.
Instead, Trump has branded the six-week Florida ban backed by DeSantis a “terrible mistake.”
He has warned the GOP against bans that do not provide exceptions in cases of rape and incest, citing the political ramifications.
“Without the exceptions, it is very difficult to win elections,” he said at one recent rally. “We would probably lose the majorities in 2024 without the exceptions, and perhaps the presidency itself.”
Trump appears to be betting that his actions in nominating three Supreme Court justices who were instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022 will keep the bulk of Republican anti-abortion voters on his side, while his other equivocations can limit the damage with voters in the center-ground.
Democrats, meanwhile, cite their victories since Roe was overturned. They are eager to not let Trump wriggle out of the political consequences of the decision.
An email from Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz to reporters last week read in part: “Donald Trump spearheaded MAGA Republicans’ war on abortion, and he’s made clear that he will advance their extreme, pro-life agenda if reelected.”
Immigration is a different matter.
Whereas Trump has sought to finesse his position on abortion, immigration is a topic where external events have swung in his favor.
The huge swell in encounters at the southern border under Biden is a real vulnerability for Democrats. The related decision by southern Republican governors, including DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, to transport migrants to northern cites has also given the issue new salience.
On Friday, newly released figures for August showed that there had been almost 233,000 encounters between Customs and Border Patrol agents and migrants at the southern border.
This appears to be the biggest figure for any August on record. It’s also the largest figure for any month since the record high of approximately 252,000 such encounters last December.
Meanwhile, the Biden team is dealing with political headaches from within Democratic ranks, such as New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) warning that the migrant crisis could “destroy” his city.
To be sure, there will be some voters for whom Trump’s “build the wall” rhetoric is simply unacceptable. But warning signs are there for Democrats.
Immigration is one of Biden’s weakest issues in polls, and a Morning Consult survey earlier this year indicated voters prefer Trump’s record on the topic.
One Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly said that anyone who doesn’t think Trump can win in 2024 is “an absolute fool.”
The strategist cited inflation, concern about Biden’s age and immigration, emphasizing “the crisis that you are seeing playing out in multiple states because of the number of people coming across the border.”
The war in Ukraine is unlikely to be quite so pivotal in the 2024 election, given that foreign policy rarely dominates elections unless American forces themselves are in harm’s way.
Nonetheless, Trump’s skepticism about open-ended support for Ukraine is finding a wider audience than it did at the outset of the war.
A recent CNN/SSRS poll found that a majority of Americans — 55 percent to 45 percent — did not want Congress to authorize further aid to the Eastern European nation. A slimmer majority — 51 percent — also said that the United States had done enough to help Ukraine, while 48 percent said it should do more.
There are plenty of questions around Trump’s extremely vague promise that he could end the war in 24 hours if elected. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Trump to “publicly share his idea now, not waste time,” in an interview with CNN last week.
Still, it is clear that Trump’s stance on Ukraine doesn’t approach the status of a disqualifying factor for many voters.
Trump has huge liabilities, of course. His favorability ratings are notably poor, he brings chaos in his wake and critics see him as an existential threat to American democracy itself.
For all that, he is running neck-and-neck with Biden in early general election polls.
“It’s pretty clear that the Democratic strategy is, ‘Voters will never vote for an indicted or convicted nominee,’” said the Democratic strategist who wanted to remain anonymous.
“But my response to that is — it depends on how bad things are.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.