No matter who wins in the end, divisions across the electorate are only likely to deepen during the course of this presidential campaign season.
Twenty years ago, my brother John Zogby called that year’s presidential contest “the Armageddon Election.” He was referring to the way each side was characterizing the dangers to the country and the world should the other side win. Since then, that term has been used to describe every presidential election and will no doubt be dragged out and repurposed again in 2024. And for good reason.
As Stephen Walt thoughtfully argues in a recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine, the most significant differences between former President Donald Trump and President Joseph Biden are not in the areas of foreign affairs. There will be differences, to be sure, but with regard to the most significant challenges we are facing—Ukraine, the Middle East, and China—policies in a second Trump or Biden administration will largely follow the same trajectory. The contest over whether to bring on or avoid Armageddon will be fought on the domestic front.
We’re still early in the primary calendar, but with President Biden facing no real opposition for the Democratic nomination and former President Trump having vanquished the substantial array of Republicans who challenged him, we appear set for a Biden-Trump rematch. While the first two primaries demonstrate Biden’s and Trump’s ability to win, they also point to questions about both candidates’ vulnerabilities.
Trump’s supporters have bought into his nightmare vision of an America in which politically correct elites are destroying our traditional culture and allowing our country to be overrun by foreigners from the south who are taking our jobs, bringing crime and disease, and “tainting our blood.” And Trump loyalists have come to believe that their leader must be defended against the threats he faces from law enforcement, the courts, and media because they accept his boast that he, and only he, can save America from devastation and the chaos of the apocalypse.
Meanwhile, Democrats and supporters of President Biden will point to Trump’s many court cases for crimes ranging from financial fraud and sexual assault to compromising government secrets and encouraging insurrection, and note that his threats of revenge and refusal to accept the outcome of past elections expose him as a vengeful authoritarian who threatens America’s democracy.
But while this November’s Biden-Trump rematch appears to be a classic example of an Armageddon election, it comes with a difference. As things stand right now, barring the unforeseen, this election will be a contest that many voters do not want and about which even some partisans are currently unenthusiastic.
Recent polls show that only four in 10 voters are even somewhat pleased with this rematch. Both men have low approval and even lower job performance ratings. And among members of their respective parties, both prospective candidates are only polling in the low 70% range. The result is that this election, a clash between two dramatically divergent visions of the future of the nation, features standard bearers about whom many voters are simply not excited.
Trump’s Republican problems come from those in his party who are appalled by his political and personal behavior. Biden’s difficulties with his Democratic base come from younger voters and non-white voters who are concerned about his age and disappointed with his failure to deliver on promises he made during his 2020 campaign regarding immigration reform and domestic spending priorities, and, interestingly, his unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza.
Despite the lukewarm reaction to both candidates, national head-to-head polling matchups show the two within a few points of each other—with neither ever crossing over 50%. When the current lackluster field of “third party” candidates are thrown into the mix, the share garnered by Biden and Trump drops to less than eight in 10. This situation creates an inviting environment in which a more serious independent candidate could challenge the two parties’ nominees in November. At that point, this election will be about Trump and Biden competing to win over undecided voters, while attempting to shore up their support among less than enthusiastic members of their own parties. This will, of course, make partisanship even more intense. Meanwhile, the third-party candidates will most likely be working to win over voters disaffected with both parties and lukewarm toward their nominees.
What’s certain is that both major parties and their supportive Political Action Committees will have billions of dollars to spend in November. They’ll use their fortunes to tout their candidates’ records, to project their contrasting visions, and even more so to slam their opponents. And here’s where it gets ugly.
Years ago, I was in a departure lounge at New York’s JFK Airport. The television was on and those waiting with me for their flight were watching a popular TV show. During each commercial break, there were nothing but political ads, alternating between those in support of the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor. Since I was flying to an Arab country, most of those watching were Arabs. Trying to see it all through their eyes, I became embarrassed at the extremely hostile personal attacks that characterized the ads, thinking “What must they think of our democracy and the choices we have to make between a cheat and liar or a criminal with ties to organized crime?”
The billions spent on attack ads will exacerbate the polarization, only intensifying the sense that this is an Armageddon election. An additional byproduct of these negative ads will be to further deflate interest among those voters already displeased with the choices before them. When it’s over, no matter who wins, we will be more divided with our fragile democracy and our country’s unity at greater risk.