The Case for Why Biden Will Win
We're all gonna make it.
I’ve been feeling more pessimistic than usual, because let’s be honest: Things are not great.
There’s a yawning disconnect between voter sentiment and economic reality.
The most successful first-term president since either Clinton or H.W. Bush has an impeachment proceeding against him for [reasons] and voters don’t seem to care.
Republicans are going to nominate a guy who attempted a coup and now expressly says he’d like to be a dictator.
This aspiring dictator is leading the incumbent president in most polls.
Ukraine has bogged down, Russia is making small gains, and America is wavering in its support for the most consequential European war since WWII.
But last night on TNB our economist friend Noah Smith made a pretty radical argument:
Even though it feels like we’re in a moment that is outside of historical norms, the long-running dynamics of economics and politics are still at work. And these dynamics suggest that Joe Biden is likely to win reelection.
So let’s unpack Noah’s thesis.
It begins by believing that the consumer sentiment numbers we keep talking about here are rational because they are lagging indicators. There was a bad bout of inflation in 2022; consumers reacted to this reality.
Inflation is now—we think—finished. This week’s suggestion that the Fed is looking at multiple rate cuts in the coming months caused the markets to jump. Projections now suggest that the economy will continue to be strong through 2024.
As these economic realities continue to stack on top of one another and prices remain stable, consumer sentiment will eventually come around—as it always does. By the middle of 2024 we should see a measurable uptick in people’s perception of the economy; by late 2024 voters should be fully caught up.
And as the electorate’s economic views catch up with the facts on the ground, Biden’s support will also recover. His job approval numbers will rebound—as they do for all presidents when the economy is strong—and his general election poll numbers will similarly improve.
By staying the course, not panicking, and letting the growing economy do the work, Biden will be in a strong position for reelection simply because of the fundamentals.
I like this argument because here are some things it doesn’t do:
Require us to ignore/unskew current polling.
Believe that abortion will be a magic bullet.
Fall back on “but D’s did well in the last three elections, so don’t worry.”
Instead, it supposes that for all of the weirdness on the exterior of the car—the insurrection-inciting former president, the dictator talk, the criminal trials—under the hood everything in America is basically the same as it ever was.
And I like same-as-it-ever-was heuristics, because (1) they tend to be true1 and (2) they assume persistent levels of low information among voters.
So that’s your bull case for Biden. The economy is good. Most indicators now suggest that it will continue to improve. Consumer sentiment lags reality. Once voters catch up to the real economy, they will reward the incumbent president. Because that’s how reelection campaigns work.
All the stuff we talk about every day—the autocracy, the indictments, etc.—will turn out to be only marginally relevant to the election outcome because in American politics, economic reality is overly determinative.
Do you buy that?
Because I can see it. Certainly as one scenario. Maybe even a likely scenario.
Yet even so, I’m not sanguine.
2. The Inches Matter
I could give you a full deconstruction of the bull case, explaining why it has holes in it, why the underlying relationships have changed, or why this time might be different.
But not today.2
Instead I want to tell you why even the bull case doesn’t make me super-duper happy.
Let’s pretend that everything above comes to pass. What would Biden’s odds of winning reelection be? Maybe 3-in-5?
That still leaves a 40 percent chance that an authoritarian wins a free and fair election to the presidency.
If we got to run the election ten times and then take the average outcome, that would be great. In a one-time game, I’m not sure how much better 60 percent odds are than 40 percent odds. Certainly not enough for me to feel comfortable. If Flash asked me to come and throw a baseball around in the yard and told me that there was a 40 percent chance I’d get hit in the face with his fastball, I’d be pretty nervous.
But there’s a deeper reason, still.
We now know that tens of millions of Americans want illiberalism.
Not everyone who will vote for Trump will do it because they want a dictator. Probably less than half of the Republicans who will vote for Trump in the general election will do it because they want a post-liberal politics.
But some very large number of them will. Maybe it’s 10 million. Maybe it’s 30 million.
Until Trump, such people either didn’t know that they wanted to abandon liberalism, or they did know, but didn’t think it was possible. They thought that the guardrails would never let them get what they wanted.
Trump showed these people what was possible. And even if he’s defeated and goes away, they won’t. They’re activated. They have a clear sense of what they want. And they know that they are a large enough force to dominate one of our two political parties.
Looking at this reality and feeling a sense of existential dread about the future isn’t panicking, or bed wetting, or being addicted to doom.
It’s having a clear sense of the fundamental challenge facing America’s liberal order.
And it’s why The Bulwark—this thing of ours —exists. Not to stan for a single political party or get one guy elected president. It’s to identify the fundamental challenge to liberalism that has resurfaced in America. To be unsentimental about what it is and the threat it poses. And to defeat it and drive it back into the darkness
If you’re willing to stand with us in this mission, we’d be honored to have you.
3. Ariana vs. Run-DMC
Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” is the most successful original Christmas song of the last decade. Grande also released a “naughty” version of the track for grownups.
Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” was written for a 1987 compilation album that also featured Whitney Houston, Sting, and Madonna. “Christmas in Hollis” was—hands down—the best song on the album.
(This compilation also included Bon Jovi’s creative low point, “Back Door Santa.”)
“Christmas in Hollis” is now a bona fide classic. In fact, I’d argue that it gets the spirit of Christmas more completely than any other song in this tourney. It’s unabashed joy.
For example: For all of the “polls are broken” talk in the age of Trump, polling averages have been highly predictive from 2016 on. There have been some misses—Wisconsin state-level polling in 2016 was a big one. But on the whole, if you’ve been watching the polling averages, then you haven’t been too surprised by the results.
Okay, fine. Here’s a sketch: This election features two presidents, which changes the insurgent-incumbent dynamic in fundamental ways. The Electoral College makes minority rule possible in ways that have not existed in American politics prior to the current era. This is the first time that a truly post-liberal candidate has been a major-party nominee. Biden’s advanced age makes him unique and not comparable to previous incumbent presidents. Etc.