Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida finds himself in an unexpected predicament as he vies for the title of the Republican Party’s most promising candidate in 2024. Surprisingly, it’s not Donald Trump, but President Joe Biden, who’s causing the buzz.
For months, Republican voters have been served a steady diet of clips showing Biden stumbling over words and looking unsteady. Consequently, they now view the 80-year-old Democratic incumbent as so fragile that almost any Republican could defeat him – even a former president who was indicted four times and lost the previous election.
As Trump’s rivals prepare for the inaugural debate of the 2024 primaries, the perceived weaknesses of Biden have undermined one of the main arguments put forth by DeSantis and his peers: that the party should move past Trump and embrace a fresh approach to secure victory in 2024.
The concept of “electability” – essentially, which candidate has the best chance of winning a general election – gained traction after the disappointing 2022 midterms. Republicans were stung by losses in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This idea provided a path to convince a Republican base still under Trump’s influence to consider a new face in 2024, a sort of permission to move forward.
However, nearly a year later, conversations with pollsters, strategists, elected officials, and Republican voters in early-voting states reveal that the less-than-stellar opinion of Biden’s mental and political abilities has complicated this argument in unexpected ways.
“I mean, I would hope anybody could beat Joe Biden at this point,” remarked Heather Hora, 52, waiting in line for a photo with Trump at an Iowa Republican Party event. This sentiment echoed through more than 30 interviews with Iowa Republicans.
Trump’s competitors continue to emphasize electability against the former president. Yet, even their advisors and other strategists acknowledge that the diminished view of Biden has dampened the urgency to nominate someone new. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed that when Republican primary voters were asked which candidate was better suited to beat Biden, 58% chose Trump and 28% picked DeSantis.
Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and a trusted adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell, pointed out, “The perception that Biden is the weakest possible candidate has lowered the electability question in the calculus of primary voters.”
While the importance of electability has dwindled, it remains a potent tool for Trump’s rivals to pry the party away from him. Some privately hope that Trump’s mounting legal troubles will reignite the urgency of this issue. Currently, the fact that many polls indicate a close contest between Biden and Trump makes it a harder sell.
Conservative media, led by Fox News, played a role in shaping GOP opinions. The network has elevated DeSantis as the future of the Republican Party, frustrating the former president. Yet, their relentless focus on Biden’s vulnerabilities may have inadvertently hindered efforts to bolster DeSantis’ campaign.
Over two-thirds of Republicans who primarily rely on Fox News or other conservative outlets for news believed Trump was better suited to beat Biden, according to the Times/Siena College poll. This advantage over DeSantis was as much as 40 points. Those citing mainstream news sources also favored Trump, albeit by a smaller margin.
There’s no doubt that Biden has visibly aged. A moment that resonated for Republicans was his onstage slip during an Air Force graduation ceremony in June, attributed to a stray sandbag by his staff. This incident solidified the perception of Biden as frail.
Google search data showed peaks of interest in “Biden old” three times in 2023 – during his State of the Union address in February, his 2024 run announcement in late April, and his onstage fall in June. Interviews with Republican voters in Iowa reinforced the impression of Biden as weak and deteriorating.
“It’s just one gaffe after another,” said Joanie Pellett, 55, at the Iowa State Fair. Rick Danowsky, a financial consultant in Sigourney, Iowa, questioned Biden’s strength as a candidate. Jack Seward, a county supervisor in Washington County, Iowa, deemed him a “train wreck.”
Biden’s campaign spokesperson, Kevin Munoz, dismissed claims of his age as “recycled attacks.” He stated, “Put simply, it’s a losing strategy and they know it.”
Republicans are concerned that voters are complacent about beating a Democratic incumbent. The last to lose was Jimmy Carter over four decades ago. “Electability is more than just beating Biden,” emphasized Dave Winston, a Republican pollster.
Running a primary campaign focused on electability comes with structural challenges. For years, Republican voters have disregarded insiders’ opinions on electability, rebelling against the party establishment’s preferences. Then there are the unique hurdles posed by Trump, who was once deemed unelectable and whose 2020 loss still faces resistance within the party.
A Times/Siena College poll highlighted that today’s Republican voters prioritize a candidate who aligns with their issues over one who can best beat Biden. DeSantis, heading into the first debate, has sharpened his own electability argument. He called out Trump, stating that revisiting past issues with him would be detrimental to the party’s future.
DeSantis enjoys higher standing in Iowa, backed by public polling and voter interviews. He’s investing heavily in the state, but his electability is influenced by the views of college-educated Republicans. They see him as better equipped to beat Biden compared to Trump.
However, DeSantis faces his own electability challenges. Some worry his hard-line stances, like signing a six-week abortion ban, might alienate independent voters. Regardless, the focus on electability is fading, and policy positions are taking precedence in voters’ minds.
In the end, the competition for the most electable candidate continues, shaped by the changing perceptions of Biden and Trump’s enduring influence. As the 2024 election unfolds, the unpredictable dynamics of American politics will undoubtedly play a defining role in determining the path forward for the Republican Party.