An indicted Trump leads the polls with one year to go before the presidential election

With Biden popularity plummeting, there is a real possibility the former president could return to the White House, even though he is facing criminal charges

Donald Trump Elections USA
Donald Trump, during a campaign event held on Thursday, November 2 in Houston (Texas).ADAM DAVIS (EFE)
Miguel Jiménez

A year ago, the Republican Party achieved a disappointing result in the November midterm elections, the worst for an opposition party in 20 years. The blame was cast on Donald Trump. Republican leaders pointed out that the former president had played an excessively prominent role in the campaign and that nearly all of his hand-picked candidates had failed to win. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was re-elected by a spectacular margin.

But a year later, the situation has turned around. Despite being indicted in four different cases for 91 alleged crimes — or perhaps because of it — and despite the chaos of House Republicans, Trump is not only the clear favorite to win the Republican primaries, he is also narrowly ahead of Joe Biden in the early presidential polls. There is now a real possibility that Trump could return to the White House four years after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.

A lot is riding on the 2024 presidential elections. Biden has warned that Trump — who has still not admitted his 2020 defeat — is a risk to democracy. While Trump is presenting the election as a kind of popular vote on his criminal indictments, arguing that he is the victim of a politicized justice system. The direction of America’s international and domestic policies will be vastly different depending on who wins. What’s more, the two presidential hopefuls are rejected by most of the population.

Dave Wasserman, an election analyst at Cook Political Report, noted last month: “What’s so wild about the current political environment is that if the 2024 election were held this November, I believe a) Biden’s numbers are so bad he’d lose to an indicted Trump and b) House Republicans are so dysfunctional/out of sorts they would lose the majority.”

For her part, Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chávez, wrote in a strategy report last week: “We expect this to be a very close race.”

No surprise in the Republican primaries

In the Republican primaries, there appears to be little room for surprises. According to the Fivethirtyeight poll average, Trump has a voting intention of 58.3%, compared to 14% for Ron DeSantis and 7.7% for Nikki Haley. The race will officially kick off on January 15 in the Iowa caucuses, and the election of delegates is concentrated in the first quarter, with no time for Trump’s judicial calendar to alter the forecasts.

But there is a whole year to go before for the presidential elections on November 5, 2024. That is a long time, particularly in such a close election, where the outcome depends on a handful of swing states (principally Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona). Other factors may also affect the result, notably the trials facing Trump (two for attempting to subvert the results of the previous elections), who may face a possible prison sentence. The state of the economy and international issues may also have an impact. Another variable to take into account is how the campaigns of independents Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Cornel West may affect the race.

With all these caveats and a few more, the polls so far favor Donald Trump. The former president is practically on par with Biden in the popular vote, but he is ahead in most of the key states. The average of national polls calculated by the aggregator RealClearPolitics gives Trump an advantage over Biden of 0.5 points in the popular vote (45.4% compared to 44.9%). One year before the 2016 elections, Hillary Clinton had a lead of 2.1 points (she eventually won by two points in the popular vote, but lost the presidency in the electoral college) and one year before the 2020 elections, Biden led Trump by 8.9 points (in the end he won by 4.5 points), according to that same pollster. The race between Biden and Trump is so close that not even the models of the survey aggregators have the same forecast. RacetotheWH gives Biden a lead of 0.10 points, and 270towin shows Trump ahead by 1.2 points.

What’s more, when voters were also asked about Kennedy Jr and West, Trump’s average lead widened to 3.3 points, according to RealClearPolitics, 1.1 points, according to RacetotheWH and to 2.6 points in 270towin. And this is not so much because of Kennedy Jr, who despite coming from the Democratic Party seems to sway voters away from Trump with his anti-vaccine positions, but due to West, an African-American leftist philosopher and political activist.

Importantly too, Trump has the lead in key swing states. The U.S. presidential election is indirect. Each state has the same number of electors as it does members of congress, which, with three electoral votes from the capital, the District of Columbia, adds up to 538. A candidate needs 270 votes to win. With minimal exceptions, the candidate who wins in a state, wins all the electoral votes. Three are up for grabs in the least populated states (such as Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont), while New York has 28, Florida 30, Texas 40 and California 54. The system favors less populated, mostly Republican states. Between the safe, probable and relatively decided states (although there is room for surprise), the Democrats typically secure 241 electoral votes and the Republicans, 235.

Swing states

The battle centers on the 19 delegates from Pennsylvania, the 16 from Georgia, the 11 from Arizona, the 10 from Wisconsin and the six from Nevada. Biden won all five states in 2020 and Trump needs to win back at least three to win. With one year to go before the election, the numbers are starting to come out. The 270towin pollster puts Trump ahead in Arizona (+4.5 points), Georgia (+4), Wisconsin (+2) and Pennsylvania (+1) and only gives Biden a lead in Nevada (+2 points). RacetotheWH gives Trump a 3.1-point lead in Georgia; 2.8 points in Arizona, and 1.1 points in Wisconsin, while putting Biden 1.4 points ahead in Nevada and 0.1 points in Pennsylvania. In both scenarios, Trump would be president.

The latest major poll, published by The New York Times on Sunday, gives Trump a lead in Nevada (10 points), Georgia (6 points), Arizona (5 points), Michigan (5 points) and Pennsylvania and only puts Biden ahead in Wisconsin (2 points). It is a nightmare scenario for the current president.

César Martínez teaches at the George Washington University school of political management and has been a Republican Party strategist in four presidential campaigns. He was also part of the so-called Lincoln Project in 2020, which mobilized traditional Republican consultants who wanted to prevent Trump’s re-election. “The possibility of Trump winning is so great that we have to revive that effort,” he tells EL PAÍS.

In 2016, he says, “Trump winning was an accident of democracy and the electoral college; If he wins in 2024 it would be masochism.” Martínez warns that Trump’s second term could cause more damage than the first, as he would not be concerned about re-election. In his opinion, in 2020, “Biden didn’t win, Trump lost” and he believes that any other Republican candidate could beat Biden, arguing he only has a chance of winning if he is up against his predecessor. “No one wants Trump to be the Republican nominee more than Biden,” he says.

Democrats believe that Biden is able to beat Trump again. In her strategy report, Julie Chavez has decided to repeat the same messages that worked in 2020 and 2022: “protecting democracy and the soul of the nation, making the economy work for the middle class, fighting for more rights not fewer.” And she believes that the Democrats will prevail over what she considers extremist ideas of the Republicans: “rigging the economy for the ultra-wealthy and big corporations, cutting Social Security and Medicare, banning abortion, and denying free and fair elections.”

For the Democrats, it’s key that the election not be seen as a referendum on Biden, whose approval ratings have plummeted, but rather as a choice between two opposing visions.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to depict the United States as a country in decline, focusing on immigration, crime and inflation, while closing ranks on what they see as Trump’s political persecution in the courts. They are also attacking Biden’s age, 80, even though Trump is 77.

Chavez argues that the Biden campaign is already off to a good start. It has begun campaigning in key states, while Republicans are still competing in the primaries and Trump is spending much of his donation money on lawyers. The idea is to sell Biden’s legislative achievements, investments in infrastructure, job creation, especially in the industrial sector, and his support for workers, illustrated by his decision to join the picket line during the autoworkers strike.

Democrats, however, face added difficulties when it comes to retaining the support of key sectors such as young people, African Americans, Latinos and Arab Americans. Biden’s unwavering support for Israel has hurt his support among the left wing, especially among young people and Arab Americans.

“This campaign will win by doing the work and ignoring the outside chatter — just like we did in 2020,” concludes Chavez in the memo.

“It’s going to be a hotly contested campaign, but it’s like watching the same movie with the same actors and the same dialogue,” says Martínez. Only the ending is still to be written.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS