washington — In an election year beset with uncertainties, one thing is clear: Americans find a November rematch between U.S. President Joe Biden and his leading Republican challenger, former U.S. President Donald Trump, even less appealing than the first time around in 2020.
A January Reuters/Ipsos poll showed most Americans do not want Biden and Trump to run again and that they are tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections.
Trump is besieged by legal woes, and both he and Biden are seen as too old, although polls show more Americans worry about Biden, who would be 81 on Election Day, than Trump, who would be 78.
So, why are Americans in this predicament?
The short answer, according to analysts, is that both Biden and Trump want another term, and they operate in a political system geared to favor incumbents.
Trump wants four more years
A second term could deliver vindication for Trump who since losing to Biden in 2020 has pushed baseless claims that the election was stolen, said Thomas Schwartz, a presidential historian with Vanderbilt University.
Trump’s critics accuse him of running not for the good of the country but to stay out of prison, something he denies. Trump faces 91 criminal charges under four indictments: for falsifying his business records in New York, for withholding classified federal government documents in Florida, and for attempting to overturn the 2020 election in two separate cases in Washington and the state of Georgia.
These indictments have not hurt his poll numbers, said Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs in the U.S.
“Trump has a very strong connection with his base,” Young told VOA. “It’s almost unbreakable.”
Revisiting grievances that resonate with MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans, Trump dominated the primaries — the statewide voting processes in which voters select a party’s nominee who will compete in the general election — held so far. He is expected to handily win the rest, capitalizing on a system that amplifies the most ideologically fervent voices of the electorate.
This is particularly true in states with “closed” primaries where voters must register with a party before voting. The process shuts out independent and unaffiliated voters, and candidates win by taking on the most ideologically extreme positions.
“You have an overwhelming vote for Donald Trump among Republican primary voters,” Schwartz told VOA.
But even “open” primaries, where registered voters regardless of their political affiliation can vote for any candidate, reflect only a small share of the electorate. In U.S. elections since 2000, the average turnout rate for primary elections is 27% of registered voters, compared to 60.5% for general elections.
Biden wants four more years
Like any incumbent American president, Biden sees a second term as a vindication of his achievements, Schwartz said.
Biden secured a series of legislative wins, led the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and presided over an economy where recession fears have eased, growth and job gains are beating expectations, and inflation is cooling.
“It is possible for Joe Biden to declare himself a successful one-term president and step aside. He just doesn’t want to,” Schwartz noted, citing Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who decided not to run again in March of 1952 and 1968 respectively. “And the party is not strong enough to tell him to do so.”
Democrats see Biden as the best barricade against their biggest fear — another Trump administration, Schwartz said. Had Trump not been in the race, he added, they would have been more willing to challenge Biden.
“What I’m hearing is, we’re riding with Biden,” said Democratic strategist Corryn Grace Freeman.
This despite progressives’ frustration with the president’s inability to fully cancel student loan debt and his response to the Israel-Hamas war, she told VOA.
“There are many people that cannot support this president, who also don’t like Donald Trump, who just feel like the Democratic Party consistently fails us,” she said, adding that support from Blacks and Latinos “is beginning to dwindle because of how this president has shown up.”
Democrats are now stuck in an extraordinarily high-risk gamble where a potential health or other age-related incident could further discourage voters, Schwartz warned. But despite Biden’s weak poll numbers and questions about his age, there is no Plan B for Democrats.
“No viable alternative got into the race,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in Governance Studies and the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings Institution. “You can’t beat something with nothing,” she told VOA.
This notion was put to the test early, during the January New Hampshire primary that Biden skipped because he had promised South Carolina Democrats that their state would host the first primary. The president was not on the New Hampshire primary ballot, but the majority of voters there wrote in his name, delivering his overwhelming victory over two longshot challengers, Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and self-help author Marianne Williamson, who were on the ballot.
System favors incumbents
Both essentially running as incumbents, Biden and Trump have huge influence over their party apparatus and resources. They also benefit from a primary system where a small number of states have outsized influence and candidate choices are locked in far in advance of the election, even if they become less popular.
The latter feature of the system is the unintended result of efforts to fix the former, said Geoffrey Cowan, a professor at the University of Southern California.
During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Cowan pushed for reform to ensure voters in all 50 states are represented, replacing a system where fewer than 20 states held primary elections and caucuses and presidential nominees were mostly selected by party leaders during their convention.
“I put together this commission which said that all delegates to the 1972 convention would have to be picked through a process open to full public participation in the calendar year of the election,” Cowan told VOA.
In mandating that primaries are held the same year, the commission did not anticipate that state rules would evolve to lock in candidates early, even if voters’ attitudes about them change, Cowan said.
Most states now require candidates who want to run in a party’s primary to register by the first week of election year. States also race to hold their primaries as early as possible, a process known as frontloading.
This means by the third week of February, it would be difficult for a candidate to launch a campaign against Biden or Trump even though there are still more than 250 days to the election. Primaries have been held in critical states such as New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and candidacy filing deadlines have passed in many others.
Which means, unless one of them drops out and the party scrambles to nominate a replacement during the convention, Americans are stuck with either Trump, who will be the Republican nominee by championing MAGA grievances, or Biden, because he is seen as the only one who can beat Trump.