Ignore Conventional Wisdom: 2024 Election Won’t Be ‘Déjà Vu All Over Again’

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For many pundits and politicians, the 2024 U.S. presidential contest is beginning to look like Yogi Berra’s famous line, “Déjà vu all over again”: a Joe Biden and Donald Trump matchup.  Yet, as much as the anticipated rematch might seem like a replay of the 2020 election, there are striking differences that would make this a very different election. As the campaigning heats up, ignore most of the conventional wisdom and political reporting and consider the following.

Despite the possible rematch, much in the same way there is an adage that you “cannot stick your arm in the same river twice” — meaning, in this case, that no election is truly like any other. The 2020 and 2024 elections may have parallels, but they’ll also be notably different.

Consider, first, how much the 2024 election may look like 2020. In doing that, ignore all national polls and approval ratings that are to come in the presidential race. We do not elect presidents based on the national popular vote but in a 50-state (plus District of Columbia) Electoral College, where the goal is to get 270 electoral votes. The race again will come down to what a few swing voters in a few swing states do. If, in 2016, the Electoral College victory was a matter of 90,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and in 2020 it was 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, in 2024 it could be some combination of these swing states, along with, perhaps, Nevada. For the rest of the country’s voters, the election is a sideshow.

Unless things change, President Biden will likely receive the Democratic nomination and keep Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate. There is not much enthusiasm for this ticket among the party faithful or the general public, but that was also true in 2020.

Trump’s present and potential future legal troubles may change things, but since his Manhattan indictment, he has consolidated support in the Republican Party. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is his closest competitor, trailing by around 30 points in recent polls. It is a good bet that former Vice President Mike Pence will not be Trump’s running mate, if he wins the nomination, and instead it may be an election-denier such as Kari Lake, from the critical swing state of Arizona. But generally, vice presidential candidates do not matter in presidential elections. Trump is the drawing card for Republicans and his base appears to remain solidly behind him.

Here the parallels end.

This time, Biden is the incumbent — and an unpopular one. If four years ago it was all about Trump, it is now all about Biden. His approvals are similar to Trump’s at this time four years ago. In a polarized era, low approval ratings may matter less than before, when large numbers of swing voters existed. Perhaps a looming recession and the economy might doom Biden, much like COVID did to Trump. 

But the real problem for Biden is his age and his vice presidential pick. While generally running mates do not matter, there is one recent exception to the rule — 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCain selected Alaska’s Sarah Palin as his running mate. Evidence suggests that voters’ concern about his age and whether McCain might die in office and enable Palin to become president moved enough people to affect voting in several states. Given Biden’s age, look to see how voters evaluate Harris, compared to Trump’s eventual running mate.

But the biggest difference from 2020 likely will be the electorate. Since 2020, a lot of people have died and a lot have turned 18.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 3.4 million adults died in 2021. Respectively, estimated deaths for 2022, 2023 and 2024 will be 3.2 million, 3.2 million, and 2.9 million — for a total of 13 million people who were potential voters in 2020 but are now deceased. Conversely, for 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024, based on CDC birth records, there will be approximately 4 million, 4.1 million, 4.1 million, and 4.2 million respective 18-years-olds in the U.S. who could vote. Granted, this number does not account for premature deaths, immigration and naturalized citizens, as well as lower voting rates for younger Americans compared to older voters. Nonetheless, there could be 16.4 million new voters in the U.S. compared to 2020.

In 2020, voter turnout was approximately 159 million. Based on deaths, there will be 8.2% fewer of those who voted in 2020, and 10.3% who can now vote but were ineligible then.  In effect, about 18.5% of the electorate will be different in 2024 compared to 2020.

But not only will the raw aggregate numbers be different, in terms of who votes, but where the voters are and for whom they might vote is critical. Republican-leaning states such as Florida, North Carolina and Texas have gained Electoral College strength. Democratic-leaning states such as California, Illinois and New York have lost electoral votes, and former or current swing states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have also lost electoral votes. Arizona and  Georgia, critical in 2020, remain the same. While possibly a wash, potentially this shift could slightly help Trump.

More importantly, the content of the electorate is changing. The 2020 election represented the first in more than 30 years where baby boomers were not the largest voting bloc. It will get smaller in 2024, as millennials and members of the Gen Z generation — far more liberal than boomers — replace them. While demographics are not destiny, but suggest possibilities, these younger voters are more aligned with Democrats than Republicans, especially on issues such as abortion or transgender matters that were nowhere near as salient in 2020 as they are now (and probably will be in 2024).

Finally, let us not forget how trifecta politics plays into the 2024 election. There are 39 states with one-party legislative and gubernatorial control. Both sides have been active in passing  election laws in their favor. The impact of this — again, in the critical swing states — is yet to be seen.

Overall, despite superficial parallels to 2020, I predict the 2024 presidential election will not be “déjà vu all over again.”

David Schultz (@ProfDSchultz) is Distinguished University Professor at Hamline University, teaching in the departments of political science, legal studies and environmental studies. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.”

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