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The 2024 Presidential Election? Democrats Have Already Won

8 minute read
Engel is director of the Center for Presidential History, Southern Methodist University

The 2024 presidential election is already over. Democrats won. Or rather, they will. Just ask New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, beneficiary of his opposition’s inability to settle upon a single nominee in 1912. More accurately, and for the purpose of this example only, ask the Donald Trump of his age: Theodore Roosevelt. A former president from New York with inherited wealth, a loyal base of supporters, and an insatiable need to be the center of ever story, Roosevelt’s refusal to step aside, even for a once-loyal successor who promised virtually the same agenda, broke the Republican Party’s lock on the electoral college.

History is revving up for a repetition of that fateful election. For forty-four of the fifty-two years preceding Wilson’s tenure, and for another twelve after, the presidency belonged to the Grand Old Party. Roosevelt himself won the election of 1904 in a landslide, before handing his party’s standard four years later to his personal and ideological friend, William Howard Taft. TR left office the youngest former president in history—a distinction he still holds today—but couldn’t stay retired. More accurately he couldn’t stay out of the spotlight, and ran against Taft a mere four years later for the Republican nomination.

Here is where the story gets particularly interesting for understanding 2024. Indeed, here is where it starts to sound familiar. Taft won the nomination, yet Roosevelt refused to admit defeat, claiming the entire nominating process was fixed from the start. “Never has there been anything more scandalous” in American political history, TR railed with a sense of hyperbole wholly familiar to those of us who have lived through the Trump era. “They are stealing the primary elections from us.” If his supporters, indeed the American people, wanted the country they deserved, the time for talking had passed. It was time instead to fight. “We stand at Armageddon,” Roosevelt declared before leaving Republicans behind to forge his own party, “and we battle for the lord.”

Ego clearly drove Roosevelt. His own daughter quipped he was only happy if the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Yet his continued candidacy also channeled genuine public anxiety over a rapidly changing nation. The industrial, transportation, and communications revolutions of the late 19th century hit the 20th like a locomotive, giving rise to labor movements that demanded more, waves of immigrants who arrived seeking something better, and native-born American fears that the future might well leave them behind. Roosevelt spent his years in office on the vanguard of the progressive movement, whose unofficial mantra was ‘change a little now, lest we have to change everything later.’

Change wasn’t happening fast enough voters, however. Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft too claimed the progressive mantle in an election many perceived a referendum on America’s soul, while 1912’s fourth major candidate, Eugene Debs, cast his lot with the rising strength of the Socialist Party. Roosevelt’s supporters broke away first, fueling and fueled by a candidate whose own sense of restraint and desire for incremental change died the day he was denied his party’s nomination to run again. The system was rigged when powerful and largely unseen forces could deny true Americans their champion, Roosevelt railed from the campaign trail. Voters needed a leader willing to break any barrier required to ensure they got the “square deal” promised as their birthright. Warned his staying in the race would wreck not only the Republican hold over the Electoral College but also the foundation of the entire political system whose peripheries already called for revolution, Roosevelt accepted the bargain. “If that is a revolution,” he declared, “make the most of it.”

Which brings us back to 2024. Trump is running. Perhaps President Joe Biden too, setting up a repeat of their 2020 contest. Just as every candidate in Theodore Roosevelt’s last election vied for the progressive label, the last time round both Biden and Trump promised to bring change to a sclerotic political system and an economy that appeared to leave too many Americans behind. Trump wanted to “Make America Great Again,” and Biden offered the largest overhaul of American society since the New Deal of the 1930s. Their party’s potential alternatives will likely promise the same, especially given the widespread expectation that economic headwinds for the typical American household will only increase between now and 2024.

Then as now, however, math will matter more than mere words, and the simple math is this: just as in 1912, neither party can afford to split its vote. Roosevelt siphoned off some Democrats in 1912, but split Republicans even more, while Debs captured six percent of the overall vote (impress your friends with this factoid, as it was the largest socialist vote in American history). All of which added up to Democratic victory, something inconceivable except in the one scenario where Republicans couldn’t make up their minds. Indeed, it took something as consequential as World War One to ensure Wilson’s re-election in the razor-thin 1916 campaign. In any ‘normal’ contest between major party candidates devoid of a global cataclysm or a split-party ticket, Republicans would otherwise have maintained their lock on the White House all the way until the Great Depression finally ended their stable hold on the electoral college.

We are hardly as locked into one party’s Electoral College dominance as Americans in 1912, which is why, though historians are typically loath to predict the future, the evidence pointing to a Democratic victory in 2024 is impossible to ignore. One of two things will happen. The less likely option is that Trump, despite his immeasurable political baggage and increasing legal troubles, will win the Republican nomination, yet fail to win the White House in the end. More than 50% of American voters hold a negative view of the former president, and a plurality if not a majority of Republicans who still think favorably of him would prefer a different candidate with the same policies. These are not auspicious numbers with which to begin a presidential bid. Just ask Hillary Clinton, whose overall disapproval numbers exceeded the number of Americans, across the board, who embraced her as a candidate in 2016.

So, if Trump wins in August, Republicans will lose in November. In the more likely event that he loses the nomination, he will run as a spoiler—or at least tell his supporters to stay away from a clearly fraudulent election. With little room to spare in a country so evening split between red and blue, a Democrat, indeed any Democrat, will win.

How can we be so sure Trump will rally his base until the end, like Roosevelt refusing to stand behind his party’s duly-selected nominee? Because for all of Donald Trump’s unpredictability, he has shown two things clearer than anything else. First, that he, like Theodore Roosevelt before him, will ultimately denigrate any former supporter and friend in pursuit of his goal, and like TR as well, he doesn’t accept defeat well. Imagine this scenario: Trump runs for the Republican nomination—and anyone who thinks his current legal woes will preclude his campaigning has not been paying one bit of attention to the man’s character or playbook—and loses to another America First candidate with less political baggage. Perhaps Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis or Texas’ Greg Abbott wins instead, and Trump graciously takes the stage at the GOP convention to pledge his full support for the man who beat him fair and square for the right to champion his party’s banner.

You can’t envision such a thing, and that’s the point. Trump will never admit defeat, graciously or otherwise, and cannot be imagined successfully campaigning for someone else to win the job he thinks rightly his. He, too, demands to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the top-name on any yard-sign or bumper sticker. Because we can’t imagine Trump not running, just as we can’t imagine him graciously conceding defeat so another Republican can possibly win, we know a Democrat will win instead. Just ask Woodrow Wilson, one of the most influential presidents our nation has seen in the realm of foreign affairs, who never should have had the opportunity to leave New Jersey. Barring that, ask Debs, who ran for President from a jail cell eight years later, proving that even prison need not keep Trump from yet determining the fate of our republic.

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