August 10, 2023 - 7:00am

After riding an anti-Trump wave to three electoral victories in a row (2018, 2020, and 2022), some Democrats seem eager to run against the former president again in 2024. But the waters of American politics can be unpredictable. While a Trump nomination could bring significant advantages to Democrats, they might also have reasons not to be complacent about a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024.

Political vulnerabilities dog Trump. His personal approval rating currently bobs around 40%. In the 2022 midterms, swing-state voters rejected one Trump-branded candidate after another. The legacy of 6th January, 2021 and numerous legal indictments have covered his campaign in a fog of scandal. Personal grievance seems to have edged out much of a positive message, and his campaign funds are haemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.

However, none other than Barack Obama has warned Joe Biden that a Trump rematch should not be taken lightly. To some extent, this might be bait for Republicans, but there is reason to believe the former president has a point. 

One is polling. In 2020, Biden was much more popular than Trump. In the lead-up to the 2020 election, almost all polls had Biden with a net positive approval rating (often in the range of five to 10 points). Conversely, Trump’s net approval rating was around -10 or so. By 2023, Trump is still in negative territory (around -16), but Biden’s net approval is now also negative (at -11). This means that the dynamic of the 2024 campaign could be closer to the 2016 election, which pitted two deeply unpopular candidates against each other. That election did not turn out so well for Democrats. 

Related to polling is the question of a third-party candidate. Surveys consistently show that voters would prefer to have a choice for president other than Biden or Trump, and a Quinnipiac poll from July found that almost half of voters would consider voting for a third-party candidate. Voters are generally more favourable to third-party candidates in the abstract; in the voting booth that support often evaporates, as they pull the lever for a Republican or a Democrat. Nevertheless, a Trump-Biden battle might be an environment in which an outsider could get more traction, which could add to electoral uncertainty.

How a third-party candidate would play out in 2024 would depend on who that candidate is, and polling on this issue is mixed. A number of state-level polls have shown that a third-party candidate could boost Trump’s margin by a few points, which could tip the scales in some states. Another national poll found that a third-party candidate would not really affect the top-line Biden-Trump margin (and that Trump would come in third to a generic third-party candidate). 

Nevertheless, many Biden allies are fearful of an insurgent figure from neither of the two main parties, and have launched a scorched-earth campaign against the group No Labels for daring to entertain a third-party candidacy. Jill Stein’s Green Party campaign pulled votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Democrats do not want to see that repeated in 2024.

Republicans should not fool themselves. As a presidential candidate, Trump retains considerable structural vulnerabilities. Many cases for his electability admit the slimness of his chances by focusing on some black-swan event — an economic slowdown, a foreign-policy crisis, a Biden health emergency, or a third-party candidate who catches fire.

But Democrats should also remember that, while on the endangered-species list, black swans are not yet extinct.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.