The 2024 presidential campaign will look, superficially, like those of previous cycles, with debates and rallies, canvassing and television commercials, conventions and commentary — and endless polling. Yet it will be unlike any other, shadowed throughout by the singular focus on former president Donald Trump and his multiple legal battles.
Campaign 2024 will be more about the past than the future. It will be more about alleged crimes of the former president than about a fresh start for the nation.
Presidential campaigns are supposed to be about the future. They should be about which candidate’s vision connects most effectively with the aspirations of a majority of the people. Although rarely as inspiring as the civics books describe, the best of campaigns and the best of candidates offer something positive and forward-looking.
Trump, the apostle of grievance and victimhood, promises the opposite. The 2024 campaign cycle has barely begun, but Americans already have been subjected to an endless loop of revelations, commentary and now criminal indictments involving Trump’s actions.
This campaign will be about the past for another reason. Trump wants to take the country back if elected to a second term — back to the attacks on government institutions with even more fervor than in his first term, back to the divisiveness that marked his tenure from 2017 to 2021. He has said that he will be his followers’ retribution. There’s nothing forward-looking in that pledge.
There will be talk about a year of split screen — campaign venues on one side and courtrooms on the other. That is a form of compartmentalization that some might like to believe will be the case, in the hope that the campaign can continue as normal for as long as possible. The reality is otherwise. The two are inseparable.
Issues that have shaped previous campaigns still will be ever-present, starting with the economy. On that issue, the focus will be the success or lack of success of what has become known as Bidenomics, President Biden’s policies that have invested trillions of dollars in various projects and enterprises, which have helped to fuel continuous job growth and low unemployment but that his critics say have caused the worst inflation in 40 years. Whether it will be defining or decisive in the face of Trump’s legal woes is another question.
Never in modern times in this country has a campaign been waged around such elemental questions about threats to democratic institutions and questions about the judicial system. That is the defining agenda for 2024, no matter on which side of the divide voters stand and regardless of other traditional issues that will be talked about over the next 15 months.
As in previous campaigns, candidates for the Republican nomination will spend countless days wooing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states with the first caucuses and the first primary, respectively, and that historically have winnowed the field of candidates. The candidates not named Trump will target evangelical Christians in Iowa, independents in New Hampshire and military veterans in South Carolina, all jockeying for an advantage as they seek to become an alternative to the former president. The latest legal news about Trump will swamp coverage of their travels.
As the Republicans are engaged with those matters, Biden will bide his time until the primary season begins, performing as The President rather than The Candidate for as long as he can. He will ignore to the best of his ability the fact that two others — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson — are challenging him for the Democratic nomination, although with little hope for anything but embarrassing the sitting president.
Throughout, the incumbent can and will have little to say about Trump’s legal situation and may struggle to gain the spotlight as a result. Perhaps Biden likes it that way — forcing voters to make a choice rather than viewing the election as a referendum on his stewardship.
Trump has been indicted for alleged crimes in three jurisdictions. In New York, a Manhattan grand jury indicted him for allegedly falsifying business records as part of a hush money scheme involving an adult film actress. In Florida, a federal grand jury charged him with mishandling and withholding classified documents, and with obstruction. In D.C., in another federal case, he has been indicted for actions allegedly designed to subvert the results of the 2020 election.
Of the two federal cases, the allegations involving actions that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, are the most serious, the most defining of what the Trump era has represented.
A fourth indictment could be coming, in Georgia, where the Fulton County district attorney has been investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the election in that state, a state Biden won by just two-tenths of a percentage point.
Trump’s rivals have divided into two camps, those who say the indictments render him unfit to be president and those who have sided with Trump in his claims that the charges represent the weaponization of the judicial system and of the Justice Department itself. In these two camps, the most interesting candidates are former vice president Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Pence has been forthright and increasingly harsh toward the man he served loyally until Jan. 6, 2021. He appears now to be one of the strongest witnesses against Trump in the Jan. 6 case. Pence has paid a political price for breaking with Trump to the degree he has. He languishes in the polls and has yet to qualify for the first candidate debate, which takes place in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, although he has expressed confidence that he will be on the stage.
DeSantis is the opposite. He has chosen to try to ingratiate himself with Trump’s supporters, attacking the Justice Department and claiming that he would move such trials out of D.C., which he asserts is so swampy that a Republican could never get a fair verdict from a jury in the city. He has dodged questions about the charges and even came to Trump’s defense last week while acknowledging that he had not read the indictment.
Scheduling these cases will present huge challenges. Trump’s rights as a defendant will take precedence in determining the timing of the trials, but the rights of voters to see and hear the government’s evidence and the former president’s defense ahead of the election is, politically, of utmost importance.
The timing will bear heavily on what voters know before they cast ballots, and the issues are complicated. The case involving efforts to subvert the 2020 election and disrupt the ratification of the electoral count, for example, involves issues of free speech and Trump’s state of mind.
Will GOP voters know the outcome of the Jan. 6 case before they pick a nominee? Will general election voters know the answer by November 2024 if Trump is the nominee? Will Trump be a convicted criminal ahead of the election?
Attitudes about Trump are firmly fixed. The indictments have not yet hurt him politically; in fact, they have helped him inside the GOP. He continues to lead the Republican contest by significant margins in national and most state polls. He remains competitive with Biden in general election polls, which is due as much to the weaknesses of the president as to love for Trump. But this is August 2023, not the middle of the primary season or the fall 2024 campaign. Things can change.
The coming trials will hang over the election, a cloud of legality around the former president that will obscure other issues and personalities. They are the through line and the principal narrative theme defining the coming campaign year. This is what Trump has brought to the country.