The Biden-Trump Rematch Feared by Many Voters Has Now Arrived

AP Photo
In this combination of photos, President Joe Biden, left, speaks on Aug. 10, 2023, in Salt Lake City, and former President Donald Trump speaks on June 13, 2023, in Bedminster, N.J.

President Biden’s campaign aides have long said that once the presidential race becomes a clear contrast between two choices, their electoral prospects would brighten as voters come face to face with the stark prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

With the Super Tuesday contests completed and Trump’s last major GOP rival, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, suspending her campaign, Biden’s allies now have their chance – and eight months of political combat – to prove their theory.

The 2024 general election has kicked off in earnest – promising to be the longest, most expensive and, perhaps, most divisive presidential race in recent memory.

The reactions of both men to Tuesday’s results – with each rushing to attack the another and casting the election as an existential moment for the country – offered a hint of what voters can expect to see in a rematch of the 2020 race that many have long said they dreaded.

“He is driven by grievance and grift, focused on his own revenge and retribution, not the American people,” Biden said of Trump in a statement Tuesday evening.

“He’s the worst president in the history of our country,” Trump told supporters around the same time, calling Election Day 2024 “the single most important day in the history of our country.”

As the two campaigns pivot more strongly to the general election, voters face a choice between candidates whose temperamental and policy differences reflect a country riven not just by political preference but also by deep social and cultural divisions. “This is a ‘two Americas’ election,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. “There’s one America where it’s about pluralism and inclusivity and democratic norms – and that’s Joe Biden. Then you have another America that is fed up and angry and cynical – and that’s Donald Trump.”

In a rare rematch of two presidents, Payne added, each man has found success appealing to the version of America he thinks represents a path to 270 electoral votes.

“There’s proof of concept with both of them,” he said. “We’ve seen a winning coalition with both of them.”

Both campaigns have narrowed the battleground map primarily to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, with the possible addition of North Carolina. The Trump campaign is planning a general-election message focused on inflation, immigration and Biden’s mental fitness. Advisers expect Biden to attack Trump over his role in ending the constitutional right to an abortion and over his efforts to overturn the result of the last presidential election, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Even as Haley remained in the race over the past few months, both Biden and Trump increasingly turned their fire on each other. Biden aides have responded to the president’s struggles in polls, many of which have shown Trump leading in key states, by pointing out that Trump-backed candidates have lost in several races over the past two years.

Biden frames his reelection as pivotal for the preservation of America’s democracy, casting Trump and his most incendiary proposals as antithetical to the nation’s fundamental freedoms and values. While the president spent much of last year touting his record on the economy – promoting the catchphrase “Bidenomics” – he has often used his more recent public comments to directly attack his predecessor.

In his statement Tuesday evening, which mentioned Trump by name four times, Biden said that his GOP rival wants to “destroy our democracy” and “rip away fundamental freedoms.”

That argument could be on display during Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday, when he is expected to tout his accomplishments and lay out his case for another term by arguing in favor of moving forward as opposed to reversing the progress made over the past three years.

For his part, Trump has sought to frame the race as an opportunity for the country to return to what he has described, often falsely, as an era of prosperity, unity and tranquility under his leadership.

“Every single group was doing better than ever before – and it was a beautiful thing,” Trump said in a victory speech Tuesday. “Our country was coming together. And now we have a very divided country.”

He did not mention Haley during his remarks, instead blasting Biden repeatedly on issues including immigration, inflation and global unrest.

“We’ve watched our country take a great beating over the last three years,” Trump said, adding that he would unify the Republican Party and the country by returning the United States to an era of great “success.”

The next few months will present key tests as both men seek to shore up support within their own parties, after dominant performances thus far in primary races that nonetheless exposed potential weaknesses in their electoral coalitions.

Trump’s battle against Haley showcased his poor standing among some traditionally Republican constituencies, including college-educated center-right voters and people who reject his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Haley’s victor in Vermont and D.C., and her strong showings in college towns and suburban communities, highlight the work Trump will need to do in the coming months to unify his party.

Haley pointedly did not endorse Trump as she bowed out of the race Wednesday, saying the former president needs to earn the backing of her supporters.

Biden advisers have been studying the results of the Republican primaries. By tracking where and with whom Haley has performed well, they hope to have gained insight into how to target their own spending over the coming months.

In a memo released Tuesday, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez and strategist Jen O’Malley Dillon pointed to Haley’s performance as evidence that “Trump is greatly underperforming with the voters who will decide the election in November.” In particular, they noted that Haley had done well in GOP primaries in Michigan, North Carolina and the Virginia suburbs.

“A significant share of moderate and Haley voters across the country are saying that Trump cannot count on their votes in a general election,” they said.

Biden has already begun to make a play for those voters, hailing Haley for the race she ran in a statement Wednesday. “Donald Trump made it clear he doesn’t want Nikki Haley’s supporters,” Biden said. “I want to be clear: There is a place for them in my campaign.”

But Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist, predicted that “a good chunk” of Haley’s voters will eventually back Trump, though some will find it difficult to back either candidate.

“Some of them are never going to come around,” Reed said. “And you’ve got this new phenomenon this cycle, which some are calling ‘double haters,’ because of both candidates’ being old and being very polarizing.” Biden is 81 and Trump is 77.

Biden, whose little-known Democratic challengers have struggled to gain traction in the primaries so far, nonetheless faces a challenge in shoring up his own coalition, particularly when it comes to divisions exposed by his support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Arab Americans, progressives and other key constituencies have mounted campaigns to vote “uncommitted” during Democratic primaries to showcase their displeasure with the war and Biden’s handling of it.

Nearly 20 percent of the vote share in Minnesota on Tuesday went to the “uncommitted” option rather than Biden, after pro-Palestinian activists sought to turn the primary into a protest of Israel’s actions in Gaza that have left more than 30,000 people dead. Last month, more than 100,000 voters in the key state of Michigan voted “uncommitted.”

Beyond that, Biden must put to rest voters’ concerns about his advanced age and also attempt to reverse his poor poll numbers on such hot-button issues as the economy and immigration. He is likely to face a barrage of attacks on those and other matters with the Republican war chest and party establishment now fully behind Trump.

Political advertising from both parties is certain to ramp up in the months ahead, with each candidate attempting to define his opponent in the minds of voters. The tracking firm Ad Impact expects $2.7 billion in spending on presidential ads this cycle.

While Biden in coming months faces pressure to improve his polling numbers, Trump has a similarly urgent need to catch up to Biden and the Democrats in fundraising, while at the same time needing to cover some half-billion dollars in legal judgments after losing civil lawsuits. He also faces four criminal trials, the first of which is scheduled to start March 25, that his legal team is trying to delay until after the election.

Since the criminal investigations started intensifying, Trump has signaled that he sees returning to the White House as perhaps his best chance to defeat them. If elected in November, Trump could try to appoint an attorney general who would drop the two federal cases against him and intervene to stop state-level trials of a sitting president.

But even as Biden has amplified Trump’s most incendiary comments and Haley has attacked him for his legal problems in recent months, the former president’s dominance in the Republican race has concerned some of the Democrats who are now tasked with finding a way to blunt his momentum.

“There’s this stubborn resistance of Trump, despite the indictments, despite the caustic rhetoric,” Payne said. “There are no unknowns about Trump. It’s not like you’re going to vet Trump again and expose some new stuff. That’s what’s most concerning to me.”

Michael Scherer contributed to this report.