Why the 2024 presidential race will start later than expected

Factors include Trump’s penchant for suspense and Biden’s age and political standing

A motorized race vehicle sports a Trump banner in Urbandale, Iowa, in 2016. By holding off on revealing their 2024 plans, Donald Trump and Joe Biden could freeze the field for the next presidential contest, Gonzales writes.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A motorized race vehicle sports a Trump banner in Urbandale, Iowa, in 2016. By holding off on revealing their 2024 plans, Donald Trump and Joe Biden could freeze the field for the next presidential contest, Gonzales writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 16, 2021 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — While campaigns are starting earlier and earlier, and there certainly isn’t an “off year” from elections anymore, the 2024 presidential race is primed to get off to a late start.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have the ability to freeze the presidential field of other official contenders because of their unique personal situations, personas, offices (or lack thereof) and relationships with their parties.

And their decisions about whether to run in 2024 aren’t likely to come anytime soon. Trump would risk spoiling the intrigue around his potential to run again for the White House, while Biden might risk his political clout while in office.

Trump’s intrigue

According to some of his former campaign aides and close allies in Congress, Trump will likely run for the White House again.

I believe it is likely Trump runs again, but I doubt he announces anytime soon. Trump is an entertainer who seeks to create suspense, whether through a commercial break or from episode to episode, or taking off his mask with the cameras on him while returning from his hospitalization from COVID-19.

It would be out of character for him to end the speculation so quickly. Announcing now, three years from the next election, would take out the intrigue of whether he’ll run again.

That apparently aligns me with one of Vanity Fair’s anonymous sources. “Knowing Trump, he’ll dangle it right up to the New Hampshire primary filing deadline,” a Trump confidant told Gabriel Sherman.

Until Trump makes a final decision on 2024, no other Republican candidate is going to make any big move. The former president is still the most popular figure among GOP voters, and it’s not even close. At this point, anyone thinking of challenging Trump in a primary would get destroyed.

Amid the uncertainty, at least a couple of dozen Republicans are publicly and privately positioning themselves to take the reins of the party. But if they fly too close to the sun, by being viewed as a contender before Trump officially declines, they risk his wrath for trying to steal the spotlight.

All of this is likely to delay the entire GOP nominating process.

Biden’s clout

The 2024 Democratic presidential race is going to have intrigue and tardiness, as well.

To even suggest that Biden will not seek reelection seems preposterous considering that every president who could has sought reelection since Lyndon B. Johnson opted not to in 1968. Less than a year into this first term, however, I think it’s less than 50-50 that Biden runs again.

First of all, he will be 81 years old when the next New Hampshire primary rolls around. The country has never had a president finish his time in office at age 80 or older. Yes, Trump would be 77 years old at the beginning of 2024 when a campaign would be accelerating, but age is not Biden’s only potential hurdle.

Biden could also be politically damaged goods. He’s near the lowest point of his presidency as of Wednesday, with 46 percent of voters approving of the job he’s is doing compared with 49 percent disapproving, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight average.

Biden could also see Democratic majorities in the House and Senate slip away in the 2022 midterms, although terrible first midterms didn’t prevent Trump, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton from seeking reelection.

While Biden was viewed as a political asset in 2019 and 2020 because of his ability to defeat Trump, he could be much less valuable as a political commodity come 2023 and 2024. By that point, the progressive left could also be fed up with Biden for botching an opportunity to push their policy goals when Democrats had more control of Washington.

And there could be overall concern that Biden running for reelection would risk the White House falling into Republican (and potentially Trump’s) hands.

Yet even as pressure could mount on Biden to not seek reelection, it’s unlikely the president would make that decision anytime soon. Once Biden announces he’s not running, he would immediately become a lame duck and lose significant influence.

Biden’s public indecision will make it difficult for candidates to overtly campaign and position themselves when it looks like they are challenging a sitting president in a primary. While vice presidents are typically viewed as a natural successor, Kamala Harris’ fate in this scenario rises and falls with the popularity of the Biden administration.

I’d expect a crowded Democratic field if Biden declines to seek reelection, similar to the crowded Republican field if Trump doesn’t run.

It’s possible that even if Trump and Biden delay their official public announcements, both men end up running and we’re in a rematch from 2020. And there would be a lot of disappointed politicians who will have to wait at least another four years.

But for now, Trump and Biden have the ability to freeze the fields of presidential contenders and pause the constant campaign.