Opinion: After Super Tuesday, the dreaded rematch is real

Published March 5, 2024

CNN Opinion

Super Tuesday marks the end of whatever competitiveness was left in the primaries on either side of the aisle and unofficially kicks off the general election campaign. America is faced with the rematch no one is particularly excited about: President Joe Biden, who voters repeatedly tell pollsters is too old, versus his predecessor Donald Trump, with his various legal troubles, scandals and track record of election denialism.

Both parties will be stuck facing a certain lack of enthusiasm. Democrats may end up turning out to vote less for Biden than against his opponent. For Republicans, whose views toward Trump run the gamut from adoration to grudging acceptance to outright opposition, the next nine months will be an exercise in hand-holding reluctant suburbanites to take one more ride on the Trump train.

There is a sizable chunk of the GOP fired up about the chance to pull the lever for the former president a third time. Forty-one percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina, for example, consider themselves “part of the MAGA movement” – and nearly 9 in 10 voted to nominate the former president. Trump’s electric connection to the base of his party – the visceral tie that shows up in oversized yard signs and viral social media posts – is without question.

But there’s also the loud minority of “Never Trump” Republicans, represented by figures like former Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger or former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Fed up with Trump’s perceived offenses against the liberal world order, casual relationship with the truth and history of racially charged rhetoric, they’ve led an exodus of moderate, college-educated voters out of the Republican camp. In North Carolina, exit polls suggest Trump won a slim majority of Republican voters with a college degree. Among Republicans without a degree, Trump racked up 80% of the vote.

But there’s a third camp: the reluctant Republican stalwarts who are neither Always Trump nor Never Trump. Take South Carolina, where former Gov. Nikki Haley brought in 39.5% of the vote on the strength of her performance in relatively better-educated enclaves around Charleston, Hilton Head and my home city of Columbia.

In general, these Republicans tend to seek traditionally defined conservative policy victories – from school choice to tax cuts to a strong national defense. These suburban Republicans had no problem pushing the button for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp but aren’t turned on by Trump’s red-meat rhetoric and find his “mean tweets” distasteful.

They made a transactional deal with him in 2016 and 2020 – appoint originalist justices to the Supreme Court and support conservative causes and, in return, they’d support him against the slings and arrows launched by the left.

In 2024, the same deal is on the table, complicated by the fact that no one knows for certain what policy priorities a Trump administration might champion. Many Republicans (myself included) may have wished for a Republican nominee who would bring less chaos to the Oval Office. But they can also see the potential for conservative policy victories in a second Trump administration. They see the possibility of another opening on the Supreme Court and the scores of executive branch appointees who dictate how law is implemented.

As a conservative think tanker who works on family policy, I’d love to see Trump push the “baby bonus” idea he alluded to in a 2023 speech. Others, such as Inez Feltscher Stepman of the Independent Women’s Forum, are hoping for an agenda that goes after institutions of higher education that they see as excessively “woke,” or promote the investments in domestic industrial production championed by upstart think tank American Compass.

There is, of course, no guarantee a second Trump administration will prioritize many, or any, of these. But despite the uncertainly – and regardless the personal baggage Trump brings to the White House – many conservatives will still object to the direction in which Democrats like Biden want to steer the country. That dynamic wasn’t necessarily set in stone from the get-go. A different Biden administration – one that spent its initial years working with Republicans rather than pushing for large expansions of the welfare state or stimulus spending that increased the deficit – may have had a chance at peeling off some of those voters. Successful, bipartisan bills on infrastructure and semiconductor chips showed a version of that promise.

Yet faced with a thin congressional majority, Biden sought to be the next FDR, passing trillions in spending that was used to advance progressive priorities like electric vehiclessocial spending and an ill-fated attempt at universal pre-K and child care.

The administration’s progressive cultural stances, like replacing the word “mother” with “birthing person” in federal budget documents, a national tour to support abortion rights and seeking to defund anti-abortion centers that provide direct services to pregnant moms, limited its ability to appeal to Trump-skeptical cultural conservatives.

Perceived chaos on the border, the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan and tumult in Ukraine and Gaza all make it less, rather than more, likely any wavering Republican voters will be drawn to the Biden-Harris ticket.

Since then, the pandemic has been put in the rearview mirror, the economy has improved, and the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – all factors that would suggest favorable terrain for a Democratic incumbent. But the lingering aftertaste of high inflation, turmoil abroad and the unavoidable concerns about Biden’s age mean that many Democrats will be hoping for 50/50 odds come November.

It is extremely unlikely we’ll learn anything new about either candidate over the next nine months. The most-committed MAGA supporters will be counting down the days to November 5. Some Democrats, worried about threats to democracy or eager to express their opposition to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, may also be excited about their chance to stand against Trump. But for many Americans – including a fair chunk of Republicans – the time between Super Tuesday and Election Day will be a period though which they grit their teeth.

The results from Super Tuesday, and the unwillingness of either party to change tactics midstream, means the drawn-out slog to Election Day will likely seem unappetizing to all but the most committed partisans.

This means that 2024 will be a repeat of a film we’ve already seen before. Biden and Trump threw haymakers of opposition research at each other during the pandemic-affected 2020 election, and the closer-than-expected result took days to officially confirm.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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