Biden and Trump: A tale of two primaries

One wields influence in the party even as some want to prevent him from running for office ever again.  The other’s presence is defined primarily by his absence while some question his ability to run for office ever again.  Strange days in primary season indeed.

Calculating the precise influence former President Donald Trump maintains in the Republican party is something of a cottage industry among political pundits.  It’s primary season and every week offers another opportunity to update Trump’s endorsement scorecard, like any good sporting event, and attempt to assemble something resembling a narrative of political capital, whether waxing or waning.  Axios, for example, actually has a “Trump endorsement tracker,” which “analyzes the outcome of competitive races where Trump-endorsed candidates ran.”  Politico provides another example, also updated weekly.  On May 15, they reported that “Donald Trump endorsed 27 candidates across Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and the Texas runoffs. His win-loss record took a hit Tuesday.”  On June 9, it was “The former president ran the table with his endorsements Tuesday. But he largely backed candidates who were likely to win anyway.”  Overall, it is clear that Trump has had his share of wins:  Almost single handedly plucking candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and JD Vance in Ohio from the jaws of defeat, or settling some old political scores by ousting incumbent House member Tim Rice who’d previously voted for impeachment.  He has also had some setbacks.  In Georgia, he was unable to defeat the incumbent governor, Brian Kemp, or Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who he’d feuded with in the aftermath of the 2020 election.  He was also unable to oust South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, another Trump detractor.

To date, President Trump has endorsed 204 candidates according to Ballotpedia.  Of the races that have been run so far, he is 119-16.  Axios provides slightly different numbers, citing an “analysis of Trump’s 173 endorsements found his record — while still positive overall — is far weaker when candidates running unopposed or in non-competitive races are filtered out.  Seven candidates endorsed by Trump were defeated in GOP primaries last month, including four high-profile challengers in Georgia who were crushed by incumbents.  Nine of his candidates in competitive races have lost so far, while 26 have won.  Another 20 competitive races are still in progress.”  In other words, it’s not a question of whether or not Trump has influence, only how much and what it means for the future.  We see this in a slew of headlines such as “Trump gets impeachment revenge on Tom Rice in South Carolina – but Nancy Mace Prevails,” “Trump exposes the limits of his power with ill-fated endorsements,” (both from NBC News), “Trump reshapes GOP primaries as party notices big win in House special” (Politico), “Some Trump voters buck the former president in GOP primaries” (NPR), and “Trump’s Primary Losses Puncture His Invincibility” (The New York Times).

NPR quotes “veteran GOP strategist” Dallas Woodhouse, who claimed the incredibly obvious, “Republican voters are not monolithic.  They are not falling all over each other waiting to hear who Trump endorses to make their decision,” even though “it can be a big factor, but it’s not necessarily the determinant factor.”  I guess you could say it matters, but maybe not much, except when it does. Perhaps not surprisingly, The New York Times took a decidedly more negative view, claiming that, “Donald J. Trump had cast this year’s primaries as a moment to measure his power, endorsing candidates by the dozen as he sought to maintain an imprint on his party unlike any other past president.  But after the first phase of the primary season concluded on Tuesday, a month in which a quarter of America’s states cast their ballots, the verdict has been clear: Mr. Trump’s aura of untouchability in Republican politics has been punctured.”  Where have I heard that before over the last 7 years?  In their opinion, “The mounting losses have emboldened Mr. Trump’s rivals inside the party to an extent not seen since early 2016 and increased the chances that, should he run again in 2024, he would face serious competition.”  Whether this is wishful thinking on their part or not, even they concede that Trump remains a unique force in American politics, wielding influence without holding any actual office.

Love him or hate him, we have not seen anything like this in the modern era.  One term Presidents do not frequently continue as the de facto head of the party for long.  Even actual, in-office Presidents often struggle to influence an electorate scattered across 50 states. In that regard, current President Joe Biden serves as a perfect example.  The occupant of the Oval Office itself has barely been a factor this primary season.  You might say his presence has been defined by his absence.  As Bloomberg described it, “Biden Shuns Kingmaker Role in Primaries as Trump Rushes In.”  “President Joe Biden has made just two endorsements in Democratic primary races for House seats this year, drawing a contrast with his predecessor while showing limited influence with his party’s voters.”  Axios claimed he’s “split from Trump on presidential endorsements,” and “has made fewer endorsements during the 2022 campaign cycle than virtually any major political figure in either party.”  Incredibly, they claim this restraint is “traditional for most Presidents,” without providing any details or any explanation how it’s possible for Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has made some 33 endorsements, could be exerting more influence on the party than its leader.  A Presidential advisor told Axios that Biden is merely being “strategic” and it’s been his “long standing position” not to get involved in open primaries.  All the same, “you can expect to see some endorsements from the President moving forward,” and these will go to “incumbents who have been with him on votes and supporting his agenda, which is helping the American people.”

Color me skeptical considering the results of his two endorsements.  One prevailed, but the other lost handily to a more progressive challenger, prompting the Washington Free Beacon, an admittedly conservative outlet, to call it the “kiss of death.” This is doubly so when this particular primary season has been accompanied by rumblings from Democrats that President Biden is too old to run again in 2024 and should consider stepping aside.  The New York Times took the lead last week, asking the question “Should Biden Run in 2024?” and answering it with “Democrat Whispers of ‘No’ Start to Rise.” As they put it, rather succinctly I should say, “Midway through the 2022 primary season, many Democratic lawmakers and party officials are venting their frustrations with President Biden’s struggle to advance the bulk of his agenda, doubting his ability to rescue the party from a predicted midterm trouncing and increasingly viewing him as an anchor that should be cut loose in 2024.”  They quoted Steve Simeonidis, Democrat National Committee member from Miami, who said “To say our country was on the right track would flagrantly depart from reality,” and Biden “should announce his intent not to seek re-election in ’24 right after the midterms.”  The Atlantic followed up with helpful reasons “Why Biden Shouldn’t Run in 2024” and Vanity Fair reported on “Democrats’ Worries About a Biden 2024 Campaign are Getting Louder.”

At the risk of adding insult to injury, President Biden currently trails former President Trump in potential head to head matchups and personal favorability ratings as well.  For example, a recent YouGov.com poll of 1,541 US adults found that Trump would best Biden 44-42 among registered voters, nor were the underlying metrics positive for the current President.  Trump leads in personal approval by 3 points while 64% of independents have an unfavorable opinion of Biden with only 28% claiming they would choose him over Trump.  In fact, far more independents say President Biden shouldn’t run again, 76%, than Trump, 57%.  This includes a whopping 40% of previous Biden voters in 2020 who now say he shouldn’t run again.  Things get even more incredible when you consider all of these events are taking place amid the televised January 6 hearings from the House Select Committee, otherwise known as Anti-Trump TV.  For close to two weeks, the country has been treated to an ad campaign designed entirely to prevent the former President from running again, either legally or simply by making him too toxic, and yet Biden still looks worse in comparison.  One wonders how that’s possible, except a significant percentage of voters no longer trust Democrats in Congress or the mainstream media, and they don’t care at all what horror they happen to be saying about Trump this week, especially as we’ve seen it all before across two impeachments and a 3 years Russia investigation.

The result, at least at this point in time, is President Trump continuing atop his party and polls while Biden continues to sink.  The only question is whether or not anything can change that dynamic should they choose to run again.

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