We pundits always ignore the cries of “TOO SOON!” when we start talking about the next presidential election. And for good reason: The prospective candidates are already looking ahead, and we should, too. It’s not hypothetical: They’re maneuvering for 2024 right now, and their jockeying will impact the direction of our two major parties and their ability to govern.
Right now, as 2020 ends and 2021 begins, both major political parties are philosophically in flux, torn between the fervor of their ideological bases and the fickleness of swing suburban voters. Both parties have presidents, incoming and outgoing, with unknown plans that greatly complicate the strategizing and calibrating of the many ambitious long shots. Both of those presidents have loyal vice presidents who would become instant frontrunners for their parties’ nominations—but only if the presidents they served under pass up campaigns of their own. And both parties have a smattering of governors, senators and congresspeople hoping to make themselves into household names and eager to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Too soon to talk 2024? Hardly.
So as 2020 closes, which would-be candidates are best positioned for 2024—and what should we watch out for in the year ahead?
Though President-elect Joe Biden has never publicly pledged to forgo reelection, many have assumed that Biden will be a one-term proposition, as he would be 82 years old in 2024. But the somewhat modest margin of Biden’s victory over Trump has had a counterintuitive political effect, with more Democrats concluding Biden’s middle-class roots and middle-of-the-road politics give him a unique ability to contain Trump’s larger-than-presumed base in swing suburban communities.
What to watch for in 2021: Biden didn’t win strictly because he was not named Trump, but also because he offered an end to our exhausting polarization. Can Biden deliver quickly on his promise to restore bipartisanship, perhaps with the policy idea Trump should have began his presidency with: infrastructure investment?
And if Republicans prove intransigent, can Biden at least convince the public he’s doing all he can to make Washington work, so that Republicans pay a higher political cost for obstruction than they did during Barack Obama’s presidency?
On the health front: can Biden convince the public he’s staying in shape over the next few years? As long absences from the spotlight can easily foment rumors of decline. Watch for Biden to keep his fitness regimen in public view, possibly with images of home gym workouts in winter, and bike rides in the spring and summer.
The Attention Hog
Trump lost 2020 decisively, but not catastrophically, and the prospect of a comeback can’t be easily dismissed. He won 74 million votes—more than any presidential candidate in history except the man who defeated him. In each of the six battleground states he lost—Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—he had a margin of less than 3 percentage points. With a slight improvement in those battlegrounds, he could win again.
Granted, election number crunching may be beside the point. Trump simply retains deep loyalty from many Republican voters, a large number of whom (baselessly) believe the election was stolen from him and want redemption. And consider this: If he actually makes a run for the GOP nomination, can you really name another GOP contender who could stop him?
But even as he publicly teases another White House run, Trump has privately sent out mixed signals whether he is actually committed to one. He could conclude the nomination isn’t worth having if it leads to another humiliating general election defeat.
What to watch for in 2021: Expect him to flirt with a 2024 campaign, if for no other reason than to keep himself in the spotlight. The potential of another run for president would probably also be good for his business, attracting financing and deals from wealthy international sources eager to curry political favor.
But if Trump is serious, Trump will stay involved in party business, seek control over the Republican National Committee chair, keep hitting the rally circuit, pressure congressional Republicans to deny Biden policy wins and maybe even take swipes at potential 2024 primary competitors. If he isn’t, perhaps we will see him hosting a new season of “The Apprentice,” as The Daily Beast recently reported.
The (Almost) Ultimate Loyalist
I said it last year, and I’ll say it more convincingly this year: Vice presidents almost always win presidential primaries. They can be dismissed by pundits as uninspiring second bananas. But veeps who seek the ultimate promotion begin every presidential primary with a four-to-eight-year head start over their competitors in media coverage, travel, voter contact, donor lists and perceived readiness. Biden is just the latest vice president to score his party’s nomination, after Al Gore, George Herbert Walker Bush, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon (twice). In the era of the modern primary, the only vice president who has sought his party’s presidential nomination and never was able to win it was Dan Quayle.
If Trump bows out of the 2024 campaign, Mike Pence instantly becomes one of the GOP frontrunners, perhaps the frontrunner. He can sell himself as a candidate who can both retain the Trump loyalists and appeal to right-leaning Romney-Biden voters by embodying what Trump never could: stability.
That’s not to say he’s without weaknesses: Pence’s low-key style provides an opening to more bombastic, colorful personalities in the Trump mold. To debunk the perception he can’t rally the base, Pence is already hitting the trail hard for the Republican Senate candidates in the Georgia runoff election, visiting the state four times for seven rallies so far. Look for him to continue traveling the country, making campaign appearances aimed at appealing to the Trump base without broadcasting the toxicity that turned many suburban voters away from Trump.
And as a more traditional foreign policy hawk than Trump, Pence may seize opportunities to subtly distance himself from Trump on issues regarding Russia and North Korea.
What to watch for in 2021: Pence’s loyalty to Trump faces a severe test on January 6, when he presides over the Electoral College count in a joint session of Congress. He has the perfunctory constitutional role of announcing the vote count, but as Axios reports, “Trump views Pence as not fighting hard enough for him” and “would view Pence performing his constitutional duty—and validating the election result—as the ultimate betrayal.”
Technically, Pence could no-show the proceedings, in which case, Senate President Pro Tempore Chuck Grassley would preside. Even so, Pence may not be able to fully avoid Trump’s ire. He may find it easier to justify his role if there is a formal objection to the count, which requires at least one House member and one Senate member. In that scenario, both chambers hold a two-hour debate then vote on the objection. As that vote would surely reject the objection, Pence could accurately say it was Congress that voted to validate the Electoral College result.
But if only one or more House members object, Pence would find himself in the position Al Gore was in after the disputed 2000 election, lecturing the House members that they don’t have a senator joining them and, under the law, cannot register an objection. Gore ended up pilloried for enforcing the rules in Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” After January, it may by Trump himself doing the mocking, damaging Pence’s ability to play the loyalist card.
The Barrier Breaker
Much like Pence, Kamala Harris would be the obvious beneficiary if the president she served under decides he’s one-and-done. On top of being the most qualified Democratic available after four years of veephood, Harris would enthrall Democrats who want to elect the first woman of color to the presidency. But she has work to do.
Harris’ untested ability to compete in heavily white Rust Belt states and moderate Sun Belt states could trigger Democratic skittishness. While progressives may hope she will be able to nudge Biden to the left, she has strong incentive to deepen her association with Biden’s average American persona.
What to watch for in 2021: How often does Harris visit battleground state factory floors, farms, schools and perhaps even police stations to neutralize concerns she can’t connect in the American heartland?
And inside Washington, some Harris observers (according to the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein), believe Harris—as a creature of the modern, partisan Senate—will be a voice discouraging Biden from making concessions to elusive Republicans. Will that prove to be the case, or will she end up being tasked with selling bipartisan compromises to skeptical progressives, further positioning herself for the future as Biden-style moderate?
The Republican Barrier Breakers
Nikki Haley and Tim Scott
Nearly every House Republican candidate who flipped a Democratic seat was a woman, a person of color or both—three of whom won in Biden-majority congressional districts. That strengthens the case for Republicans to further diversify their candidate pool in order to better compete in urban and suburban areas. And that strengthens the presidential case for two South Carolinians: former Governor. and Trump Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott.
Both Haley and Scott won praise for their polished addresses to the Republican National Convention, providing a stark contrast to the cringe-inducing histrionics that otherwise marked the event. Both suggested the Republican Party was superior to the Democratic Party as a vehicle for racial harmony. And both sought to appeal to the capitalistic, entrepreneurial strains in people of color communities, extolling small-business owners and condemning socialism. But they have slightly different approaches to positioning the Republican Party on race-related issues.
Haley, whose parents emigrated from India, takes pride in having taken down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds when she served as governor. Yet she suggests that racism in America is largely a relic, as when she told the GOP convention, “America is not a racist country.”
Scott has shown more willingness to acknowledge present day racism. The only Black Republican in the U.S. Senate, he co-sponsored federal anti-lynching legislation with Democratic Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. When he was tapped by GOP leadership to draft a police reform bill in the wake of the George Floyd killing and some progressive critics charged him with being used by Republicans as a political pawn, he shot back sarcastically on Twitter, “you DON’T want the person who has faced racial profiling by police, been pulled over dozens of times, or been speaking out for YEARS drafting this?”
Republicans often profess to be above identity politics, but they have been known to get quite excited about the prospect of nominating a woman or a person of color. Herman Cain and Ben Carson had brief turns as primary frontrunners. Female candidates such as Michelle Bachmann and Carly Fiorina have also sparked bursts of interest. Two Cuban Americans, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, generated big buzz in 2016 and could run again. Considering that increasing GOP support among nonwhite men was a major boon to the Republicans’ 2020 House campaigns—and that Haley and Scott are the two of the best credentialed non-white-male Republicans in history—one or both of them has a solid opportunity to shake up 2024.
What to watch for in 2021: Like his fellow ’24ers in the upper chamber, Scott may not be helped by dwelling in the derided “swamp.” Moreover, he is invariably described as introverted in media profiles, which is not usually a helpful trait for conquering the primary trail. Will he prove able and willing to identify signature issues and stand out from the pack?
Haley’s tendency to mix loud support of Trump with mild criticism got her pegged last December by conservative commentator Philip Klein as a political “chameleon.” Postelection, Haley has again zigzagged. Last month, she raised general concerns about “election fraud” in a Twitter post. But she never went as far as insisting Trump actually won, and in a December 16 Washington Post op-ed, took the leap and addressed Joe Biden as “president-elect.” Free from taking congressional votes, can she use 2021 to settle on distinctive philosophy and articulate a vision for her party?
The “Move On” Republicans
Larry Hogan, Chris Christie and Ben Sasse
With so much of the Republican Party bowing to Trump’s whims, it will take a lot of moxie for a Republican to run against Trump and what he represents in 2024. But it looks like some will try.
The GOP officeholder most aggressively defining himself as the opposite of Donald Trump is Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. Earlier this month, his organization (“An America United”) released a video calling the Republican Party “the party of Lincoln and Reagan,” worrying aloud that the party “can’t win national elections.” A week after the video launch, Hogan was named co-chair of the bipartisan, centrist group “No Labels,” which could put him further at odds with the GOP’s conservative faithful.
But Hogan may have competition in the party’s moderate(-ish) lane. On December 13, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie—a longtime Trump defender—called the president’s legal strategy to overturn the election results “an absurdity,”and counseled his party to turn the page from Trump: “Republicans now need to say, thank you, Mr. President, for your service. Thank you for the good things you did while you’re in office that we agree with, and we now need to move on.”
Christie then made another break with Trump by starring in a new ad airing on conservative TV stations addressing viewers “who refuse to wear a mask,” sharing his own experience suffering from Covid-19 and admitting “how wrong I was to remove my mask at the White House.”
Lagging behind Hogan and Christie in activity is Senator Ben Sasse, though the intellectual conservative Nebraskan has stepped up his criticism of Trump since October. During the 2020 campaign, he risked telling town hall participants that the president “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” “treated the presidency like a business opportunity” and “flirted with White supremacists”—statements he surely knew would be picked up by the press. It remains to be seen if his sharper tone is a sign he will try to steer his party away from Trump’s right-wing populist path with a presidential bid.
The moderate lane has not been big enough for one candidate in recent Republican presidential primaries, let alone more than one. Success would likely require a logjam on the right, allowing a moderate alternative to scoop up delegates with plurality wins. But Hogan, Christie and Sasse have this much going for them: distinctive personas that are not pale imitations of Donald Trump’s.
What to watch for in 2021: Unlike Sasse, Hogan and Christie aren’t burdened with taking votes on congressional legislation. But Hogan’s new position with “No Labels,” which is linked to the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, may force him to weigh in on any bipartisan deals in Washington. Will he back such legislation, in all likelihood putting him on the same page as his possible 2024 opponent President Biden? Or will he distance himself and create tension with his “No Labels” colleagues?
The Trump-ish Senators
Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Rick Scott
The Senate has not been a good launch pad for Republican presidential candidates. In the past 100 years, covering 26 presidential election cycles, only four of the 17 GOP presidential nominees were sitting senators. The two most recent—1996’s Bob Dole and 2008’s John McCain—were both elder statesman with big national profiles. (No Republican sitting senator has won the presidency since Warren G. Harding in 1920.)
The typical senatorial presidential candidate is too cooped up in Washington and too bogged down by his voting record to make a powerful connection with voters. The ‘24ers in the Senate—including Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Rick Scott—by and large appear no different, with their statures further diminished by Trump’s long shadow.
These five senators have decided their futures require emulating Trump and displaying loyalty to him, but that puts them on a likely collision course with the consummate loyalist Pence, or Trump himself. As of December 16, none of the five has publicly accepted Biden’s victory. Trying to validate Trump’s baseless allegations of fraud, Cruz offered to argue Trump’s case before the Supreme Court, and Hawley said on December 16 that, despite the Electoral College casting 306 votes for Biden, he doesn’t plan on accepting the result until January 6, tenuously claiming Trump still has legal options until then. Beyond 2020, Rubio recently said, “If the president chooses to run again in 2024, I think he’ll be the Republican nominee,” and Hawley said he would support Trump if he ran, both meekly indicating they wouldn’t even try to run against him.
In hoping to receive Trump’s torch and recreate his populist magic, all five often wage culture war and lacerate China on Twitter. (And Scott has been starring in his own hard-edged Georgia TV ads, ostensibly produced to help the Republican incumbents win the upcoming runoff elections.) Some promote their own pet issues. For example, Hawley is breaking with conservative orthodoxy by partnering with Senator Bernie Sanders to attach direct payments to most Americans in the pending pandemic relief bill—a move which, in theory, could endear him to working-class Americans, or create debate fodder and ad material for his 2024 opponents.
But despite all that hustle, none of them have earned significant support among Republican voters; a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll had them all below 5 percent support, with only Trump and Pence in double digits. They have time to turn those numbers around. The problem is that the Senate has never been a good place to do it.
What to watch for in 2021: When a bevy of Democratic senators geared up for the 2020 primary, they often crowded around the same progressive positions, sometimes co-sponsoring legislation together, hoping to avoid getting tagged as a (gasp) moderate. But in doing so, they largely failed to distinguish themselves and clogged the progressive “lane,” making it easier for Biden to run up the middle.
Will these Republican senators exercise a similar preprimary détente? Or will the brawl begin early, allowing for the strongest fighter to emerge as the most plausible alternative to Trump or Pence?
The Red-State Governors
Kristi Noem, Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott
Despite Republican dominance in the nation’s gubernatorial mansions, very few governors are being treated as 2024 material. And those who are have been struggling with pandemic-related controversies.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, in the face of one the nation’s worst Covid-19 spikes, has not only refused to issue any stay-at-home orders and questioned the scientific data supporting the use of masks. She has also sought out national attention for her defiance, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending her record and traveling out-of-state for political events while caseloads were rising.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis back in May fired a state health department data scientist (Rebekah Jones) who accused the state of manipulating pandemic statistics. Then this month, Jones was the subject of a police raid after being suspected of sending unauthorized messages about Covid-19 protection on government emergency message platforms. In response, DeSantis defended the state police’s decision and continued to denigrate Jones.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has not been ideologically doctrinaire or consistent in his pandemic management. Abbott initially threatened to sue cities that imposed mask mandates, but then he imposed one himself and got sued by conservatives. Conservatives also sued him for his hire of a contract tracing firm. His job approval number in the University of Texas-Austin poll dropped from 56 percent in April to 47 percent in October. (However, the Texas Tribune reports that Abbott’s political standing improved after he opened up his campaign war chest to help successfully protect the Republican majority in the state House.)
What to watch for in 2021: Their poll numbers. Florida, Texas and South Dakota all have gubernatorial elections in 2022. If their numbers sink for any reason, they may attract credible challengers, either for their primary or the general election. And if there is any reason for them to worry about reelection, do any of them avoid the risk of a gubernatorial campaign and head straight to the GOP presidential primary?
The Big Blue Governors
Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom
On the Democratic side of the ledger, the two most obviously ambitious big blue state governors—New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom—have had rocky pandemic management experiences after an initial wave of positive press. Both were recently scorched for being poor models of social distancing. Cuomo planned to see family for Thanksgiving before relenting under pressure. Newsom was caught at a fancy restaurant celebrating a lobbyist friend’s birthday.
By the time the 2024 primary begins in earnest, gubernatorial coronavirus responses may no longer be on anyone’s mind. But the preoccupation with the pandemic has made it hard for governors to set their own agenda and control their own narrative. Any of these officials may have a hard time challenging a president or vice president regardless of the pandemic, but the pandemic isn’t making it any easier.
What to watch for in 2021: Cuomo was also recently hit with an accusation of sexual harassment. His accuser, who leveled her charge on Twitter, said she would not talk to journalists about it. And Cuomo issued a denial. But it remains to be seen if further media investigation could cause him serious political problems.
Newsom is facing a possible recall election in 2021, as conservative antagonists have already collected more than half of the signatures necessary ahead of a March deadline. A recent poll found Newsom retained 58 percent approval statewide for his performance on “jobs and the economy,” suggesting he’s not at imminent risk of losing a recall election. But during such a volatile time, it’s a headache Newsom would rather avoid.
And in the midst of economic disruption, both governors may have to consider politically tricky tax increases and spending cuts. New York has a $15 billion deficit to close. California’s fiscal picture brightened with official estimates of $26 billion in more-than-expected tax revenue, but budget analysts still project deficits that start small next fiscal year then grow the following three years.
The Bernie Heir
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is still just a first-term congresswoman without a significant legislative achievement. But her outsize social media platform, with more Twitter followers than any other House member, combined with Republican eagerness to use her as a foil in attack ads, has made her one of the most famous politicians in America, and a great hope for leftists who chafe at the Democratic Party establish and Biden’s devotion to moderation.
But 2020 did not help Ocasio-Cortez maintain the notion that her brand of youthful socialism represents the future of the Democratic Party. Biden’s sound defeat of Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, the pummeling that centrist Democrats took from being associated with Ocasio-Cortez and her calls to “defund the police,” and the weak performances of progressive challengers in red congressional districts all prompted Democratic moderates—many of whom are also young first-termers—to more forcefully lay their claim to steer the party’s direction.
True, the party’s populist/socialist wing has its own victories to tout, such as the primary victories by Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush over longtime Democratic incumbents. These victories show left-wing strength only in America’s deep-blue cities, but they solidify the democratic socialist presence in the party.
In turn, Ocasio-Cortez may be compelled to continue Bernie Sanders’ quest to shove the Democratic Party further left through presidential primary grassroots organizing. But facing off against either Biden or Harris would be a daunting challenge, made even stiffer by the Democrats’ emboldened moderate faction.
What to watch for in 2021: As Biden hunts for bipartisan common ground so legislation can reach his desk, will Ocasio-Cortez seek to shape compromises, or thwart them? This month, led by Senator Bernie Sanders, progressives successfully shaped the Covid-19 relief bill by pressing Democratic leaders to include direct payments to millions of households. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but they appear inclined to accept the deal.
Ocasio-Cortez could follow that model in 2021, generating popular support around specific policy proposals and working to include them in compromise packages. Or, as she unsuccessfully attempted with the CARES Act, she could try to organize opposition to compromise bills, in line with her critique that the current political system is failing most Americans. With both congressional chambers narrowly divided, resistance from the left (and right) could prevent compromises from clearing Congress.
Her most zealous supporters would probably prefer she take the more confrontational path, and that may make the most sense if her primary objective is to build a passionate socialist movement. But as there aren’t enough socialists to win a presidential primary, the collaborative route would indicate she is serious about broadening her base of support for a future run.
The TV Populist
Meanwhile, some Republicans have been openly intrigued by the prospect of a Tucker Carlson candidacy. The prime-time Fox News host has built one of cable TV’s biggest audiences with his own brand of conservative populism and a penchant for culture war battles, often involving race. He characterized those who protested pandemic lockdowns as representing “America” and those who protested the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police as representing “tyranny.” He has claimed that white supremacy is “not a real problem in America” and that litter in the Potomac River is “left almost exclusively by immigrants.” There’s no getting around the fact that there is a market for such racist commentary.
Carlson has given no indication he is planning a run. “No, I’m not running for anything, come on,” he said in an August podcast interview when asked directly about his political ambitions. But if he is quietly plotting a run—one that would have to rely on support from Trump loyalists—he potentially damaged his prospects when he said on air that Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell wouldn’t come on his show or provide any evidence to back up her election fraud claims (though Carlson has also said an investigation is needed into the electronic voting machines and that the entire political-media-internet system was “rigged” for Biden). A ratings-driven need to generate controversy on a daily basis has its political downsides.
What to watch for in 2021: We can be confident Carlson will be sharply critical of the Biden administration. But will he train any fire on likely 2024 candidates, knowing they may soon be his competitors?
The ‘This Sounds Crazy, But Hear Me Out’ Wild Card
Donald Trump wasn’t the first celebrity businessman without any experience in elective office who got traction in a Republican presidential primary. In 2012, it was former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. In 1996 and 2000, it was magazine publisher Steve Forbes. Back in 1940, utility executive Wendell Willkie snagged the GOP nomination.
Today, who is the most famous, politically active Republican businessman? MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. That may sound crazy, but no crazier than what we experienced in 2016.
Lindell is a leader of the bitter-enders trying to overturn the democratic results of the presidential election. He claims to have spent $1 million on legal work and “Stop the Steal” rallies to support Trump’s delusional cause. On December 19, he tweeted out a call for Trump to “impose martial law in these 7 [Biden-won] states and get the machines/ballots!” though he soon deleted the post.
He became a conservative darling in part because he heavily marketed his pillows on Fox News; in the second quarter of 2020, MyPillow was Fox News’s top advertiser, spending more than double the amount of the second-place company. But now he accuses Fox News, and its early call that Biden won Arizona, of conspiring to defeat Trump
Lindell has been openly considering a 2022 run for governor of Minnesota. That decision—however he decides, win or lose—would not close off a presidential bid. And if Trump does bow out, perhaps no other possible 2024 contender—not even Pence—could claim to have tried harder to keep Trump in office.
What to watch for in 2021: While Lindell has been thinking about a Minnesota gubernatorial bid, he has managed to visit neighboring Iowa several times in 2020. Let’s see which state he campaigns in more in 2021.