Less than one year from now, Americans will head to the polls to vote for President of the United States. Never before in modern history has the biggest race in American politics been in such disarray at only 12 months out.
For starters, more than half of the country does not want the presumptive nominee for each major party to run for the office. That reality, combined with one of the most robust and interesting fields of third-party and independent candidates in modern history, suggests that it will be a wild ride, indeed.
A majority of Democrats and two-thirds of Democratic-leaning voters do not want President Joe Biden to be the party’s nominee in 2024. They mostly cite his age and whether he’s mentally up to the task, and worry that he is more likely to lose to Donald Trump than other party members. Those concerns are validated by polling consistently showing Trump ahead of Biden but behind an unnamed “generic Democrat.”
However, the Democratic Party has maintained iron-clad control over the nominating process, successfully rallying the troops and tipping the scales in favor of their donor-class approved candidates. With the help of corporate legacy media outlets (the networks, CNN, MSNBC, WAPO, the New York Times, etc.) that either ignore candidates who haven’t been blessed by the DNC or misrepresent both their chances of winning and their platforms, candidates like Biden and Hillary Clinton have enjoyed enormous and thus far insurmountable advantages.
For example, Marianne Williamson, the first Democrat to challenge Biden in the primary, has consistently been polling higher than Vivek Ramaswamy in the GOP. However, ask yourself if the coverage from those outlets has reflected that. When Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips entered the race recently, most coverage failed to mention that Williamson was also in the race, even though she is five points ahead of Phillips in recent polling.
After filing to seek the Democratic nomination, Robert Kennedy Jr. quickly decided that the DNC would not allow him to compete on a level playing field and filed to run as an independent. In addition to his family name, Kennedy has the advantage of a well-funded campaign, and has embarked on a strategy of tirelessly working the independent media-sphere, making appearances on popular podcasts, some of which draw far larger audiences than even primetime programming on MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News.
This has been shockingly effective, as evidenced by a recent Quinnipiac poll that had him at 22 percent in a hypothetical three-way match against Trump and Biden. An NYT/Siena College poll had Kennedy at 24 percent. Both are higher than the 21 percent that Ross Perot managed in 1992—the last time an independent candidate finished with more than two percent of the vote, and he has another year to build support without a primary to survive or even spend money on. Given both his name recognition and the considerable independent media profile he has been able to build, Kennedy could be a legitimate threat come next November if his loosely defined platform and hawkish position in the Middle East do not ultimately reverse those fortunes.
Of course, if the powers that be decide that Biden is dead in the water, the most likely time to replace him would be after both the primary and convention, if only because it would allow the DNC control of the process. The problem for the Democratic establishment is essentially the same as it is for their counterparts in the RNC. Its entire slate of stamped-as-approved replacements for the presumptive candidate keeps getting rejected by voters.
The donor class tried to push Buttigieg, and they tried to push Kamala, but neither could build more than fledgling support, hence the consolidation around Biden in 2020. The fact that California Governor Gavin Newsom is very clearly positioning himself as a potential “if Biden dies or steps down only” candidate demonstrates how desperate the powers that be have become. As Mayor of San Francisco, Newsom left the city much worse off than he found it; as Governor of California, he has done the same for the state. Indeed, it seems as though Democratic Party politics is the only place where the ability for someone with the right connections to fail upward is all but endless.
If Democrats are banking on a just-run Joe and count on the never-Trump vote to get him over the finish line strategy, it seems as though they will almost certainly lose, and the party will not be able to say it didn't see it coming.
For the GOP, the challenge is a little different in that they have already lost control of their process and, amazingly, they lost it to a single individual, Donald Trump. Unlike Democrats, Republican voters have consistently shown a greater tolerance for risking potential losses to get candidates that they feel are more representative of their principles. The RNC can also shoulder some of the blame after years of trying to court a patch-quilt coalition of genuine conservatives, religious zealots, right-wing extremists and other factions that set the table for someone with enough cult of personality to hijack its apparatus.
In other words, the Republican donor class is currently dealing with the exact dynamic that Democrats are fighting tooth and nail to avoid. They have lost the reigns, and no matter how much money they throw at promoting candidates like Ron DeSantis, Chris Christie or Nikki Haley, Republican voters simply aren’t buying what they're selling.
In the RealClearPolitics national average, Trump is leading the field with a whopping 58 percent of the vote despite not having participated in a single debate. No matter what your opinion of the man, given the amount of money that Republican donors have invested in candidates with national profiles, that is one of the most impressive outcomes in the modern history of American politics, especially since Trump has never managed to get the approval of a majority of Americans.
Because none of his competitors are offering much more than a return to the Neo-Con policies of the early aughts, Trump hasn’t even had to articulate anything approaching a coherent platform. He just holds his rallies, insults his opponents and offers a few vague and often contradictory platitudes and his numbers remain rock solid among the right. It is all but inconceivable at this point that he will be the Republican nominee.
If the under-30 vote outperforms its high water mark of 2008, and I suspect that it might, it will play a pivotal role in 2024. The openness to third-party candidates that this demographic has demonstrated will also be an interesting dynamic. In addition to Kennedy, progressive liberal Cornell West has launched an independent campaign, while Jill Stein has announced that she will again seek to represent the Green Party.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s announcement this week that he will not seek another term has raised speculation that he may enter the race, most likely as the No Labels Party’s candidate. While only Kennedy has built enough momentum to be seen as a potential contender at this point, the other candidates would seem to have the ability to draw similar levels of support as West, who has consistently polled at two to three percent.
With the potential for several of them to be on the ballots in most states and the possibility that Williamson could decide to launch an independent bid, it seems likely that candidates outside of the two-party system could have a greater impact in 2024 than any time since at least 2000.
Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.