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Many people and analysts have asked why Joe Biden continues to lead Republicans Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis in at least some of the trial heats for president, despite an approval rating hovering around 40%, persistent inflation, and high interest rates. 

Typically, when an incumbent falls to the point where President Biden is, they are more likely than not to trail well-known and visible challengers such as the former president or the Florida governor.

Quite simply, what accounts for Biden’s surprising lead is that Republicans have increasingly moved outside the mainstream on a number of key issues and refuse to address central concerns that voters have. 

For example, on abortion, the Republican Party has embraced a pure pro-life position. A number of Republican-controlled states have recently passed near-bans, such as Florida (6 weeks) and North Carolina (12 weeks), joining 17 other states with complete or near-complete bans on the procedure. 

With pending legislation or court rulings in five other states that aim to ban or severely restrict abortion, women in nearly one-half of the states in this country may soon lose the right to have an abortion.

To be sure, this hurts the party incalculably with independents and moderate suburban Republicans, particularly women. One need only look at the judicial race in Wisconsin, where Democrat Janet Protasiewicz ran on safeguarding abortion rights and won, as well as the recently completed mayoral race in Jacksonville, Fla., which saw Democrat Donna Deegan win an upset victory against a DeSantis-backed opponent.

So far, the Republican Party shows no signs of moderating on abortion, but they would do well to listen to Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), who has rightly stated that unless Republicans find “middle ground” on the issue and stop pursuing strict state-level bans, the GOP will “lose huge” in future elections.

The other issue that works against the party — and against Gov. DeSantis, in particular — is the issue of guns. With an open-carry provision just passed by the Florida legislature, no longer will gun purchasers have to go through background checks. This effectively means that, come July, anyone, whatever their background or history, will be able to buy a gun in Florida, no questions asked. 

President Joe Biden gives remarks to reporters before a bilateral meeting with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in the Oval Office of the White House on May 12, 2023.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The American people, while strongly supporting the 2nd Amendment and gun rights, overwhelmingly support background checks and overwhelmingly want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. This legislation, which some segments of the Republican right loudly embrace, will do exactly what the American people don’t want done.

Ultimately, the party generally remains in the sway of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the failure to embrace commonsense background checks and “red flag” laws will put the party at a disadvantage going forward.

Beyond that, there still is no positive message coming from the GOP on inflation, the economy and interest rates, other than that “we need some spending cuts as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.” And while that may well be the case, Republicans have even extended their willingness for spending cuts to those receiving Medicaid. The Freedom Caucus has gone even further, calling on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to stop negotiations — essentially (and unthinkably) saying that the country should default on its debt.

The absence of a fiscal plan, combined with irresponsibility among a significant part of the Republican base, exacerbates the weakness of the party going forward. 

Of course, the other challenge facing Republicans in a 2024 general election is the increasingly controversial Donald Trump, who recently was indicted for falsifying business records in the Stormy Daniels case and was hit with a recent civil finding of liability for sexually abusing and defaming author and columnist E. Jean Carroll.

Further, Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith is looking at the potential of additional charges related to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot in the Capitol and to the handling of classified documents. It is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that the former president will face one, if not two, additional charges to go along with the charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. 

Increasingly, this makes it more and more difficult for Trump to win a general election. And while Trump’s performance in the recent CNN town hall with Kaitlan Collins played extremely well with his base, it remains unclear whether the wider electorate will necessarily embrace what he continues to say about election denial circa 2020 or the Jan. 6 protests inside the Capitol. 

Indeed, if you look at the results of the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections, in different ways and at different times Trump has been a drag on the Republican Party ticket. There is every reason to believe that if he is the party’s nominee — which seems increasingly likely — and in the absence of a forward-looking campaign plan, Trump will remain difficult for the broader electorate to stomach, even as Biden’s approval numbers hover between the high 30s and low 40s.

Put another way, the Republican Party is facing a crisis of unity, message and future orientation, as well as the likelihood of a divisive primary. That is why the White House, despite all of the problems Joe Biden has faced (and particularly so with the economy) has reason to be cautiously optimistic about the 2024 election, even though in most instances, any such optimism would be unfounded and ill-placed. 

Douglas E. Schoen is a lawyer, political analyst and consultant. He advised President Bill Clinton during his 1996 reelection campaign and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg during his 2020 presidential campaign, among other public figures. He is the author of numerous books, including “Power: The 50 Truths” (2023).

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