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One Year to the US election: what happens next?

US Election 2024
By Fraser Raleigh
05 December 2023
Public Affairs
US Election

As the new year approaches, next November’s US presidential election is looming into view with the world steeling itself for an(other) unprecedented and unpredictable campaign. The result will have enormous consequences not just for the US domestically, but for how it approaches international security, trade, climate change and much more over the rest of the decade. 

Last week, SEC Newgate UK hosted a look ahead with our US colleagues from Global Strategy Group Erin Billings, a former state and national political journalist in Washington DC, and Matt Canter, a former top official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee advising candidates and guiding campaigns across the country. 

Here are a few key takeaways from that discussion with SEC Newgate Senior Counsel Tim Rogers: 

It will be a replay 

While the primary season still has many months to rumble on it is for all intents and purposes already over. Neither Joe Biden or Donald Trump faces any credible challenger and so – despite most US voters wanting a different choice of candidates – they aren’t getting one.  

This sets the US up for the first presidential rematch since the 1950s between perhaps the two most unpopular candidates in the history of American politics. 

It might be a replay, but it will be a new ball game 

The fundamentals of the race will be very different this time around. In 2020, Biden’s campaign focussed heavily on the Trump administration’s mismanagement of COVID and on Trump himself.  

This time, Biden has an agenda and a brand that is about him, not Trump. He has passed hugely popular legislation over his first term, including the CHIPS Act and Inflation Reduction Act that form the core of ‘Bidenomics’. And the bombshell Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs Wade in 2022 has catapulted abortion rights back to the centre of US politics, propelling the Democrats to far better than expected results in last year’s mid-term elections.  

A new brand of “MAGA-Republicanism” in the post-Trump era has also shaken up US politics even further since 2020. Not to mention the small matter of Trump himself facing multiple criminal trials that if he is convicted could see him facing prison while he campaigns to reclaim the White House. 

The “spoilers” could swing it  

With such unpopular candidates, how the significant part of the electorate that dislikes both of them behaves will matter hugely. 

Will those voters make their decision on other factors than the candidates themselves and hold their noses? Will they simply not vote at all? Or will they vote for a third candidate? Third party presence will be stronger than in 2020 and while the ceiling of support will only be 3-4% that is more than enough to act as a “spoiler” that tips the election one way or the other.  

The Biden campaign will also be focussed on the 15% of voters who “somewhat approve” of the President. Encouragingly for Biden, the breakdown of that 15% suggest that they are overwhelmingly pro-choice and anti-Trump. Importantly, they also don’t watch FOX News.  

How these voters act will be critical; only half of them voted in last year’s midterms as opposed to 70% of those who approve of Biden. Getting them to the polls next November could make the difference to holding onto the White House. 

Framing matters 

Voters’ views on Biden and the economy depends on how the issue is framed. If it is question of which party is better to grow middle class (which really translates to “working people” in UK terms) then the Democrats are trusted more by a significant margin. But the Republicans are seen as doing a better job if the issue is jobs and inflation.  

The economy will be a key battleground – as it always is – with the Republicans benefiting from people associating Trump with a booming, strong economy.  

Framing the question in the right way, then, will be essential for Biden. As will claiming the credit for all that popular economic legislation which voters like but which somehow hasn’t translated into popularity for Biden himself. 

More divided than ever 

Unsurprisingly, this all sets the scenes for a campaign that – somehow – will plumb new depths of division and rancour.  

An increasingly polarised country seems certain to be pulled even further apart, with the memory of the January 6th riots on Capitol Hill following the last election casting a long shadow over this one.  

The rest of the world will be watching closely – and nervously - to see what happens next.