Former President Trump and President Biden appear to be headed toward a rematch, despite polls showing many voters are not satisfied with the current options for president.
Experts said this could create a political environment in which more voters decide to sit out next November than in past recent elections. They said turnout could also be uplifted through building intense opposition to the other party’s candidate.
“These are two well-known individuals, and most people’s views are made up about them,” said William Howell, a professor in American politics at the University of Chicago. “And so the relevant question isn’t for the vast, vast, vast majority of people, ‘Do I vote for Trump or do I vote for Biden?’ It’s, ‘Do I vote at all?'”
Voter turnout has been trending up in the most recent presidential elections, staying near or past 60 percent of the eligible voting population since 2004, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
About two-thirds of eligible voters participated in the 2020 presidential election between Trump and Biden, the highest turnout in more than a century.
But polls have regularly shown throughout the 2024 election cycle that many voters do not want a rematch. A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, just under a year before the election, showed about half of registered voters want other candidates to jump in the race.
Republican strategist Karl Rove, who was key to former President George W. Bush’s election victories, told Fox News in a Tuesday interview that he expects turnout to drop in 2024, breaking a recent trend of increasingly higher turnout, with 2012 as the exception.
“I think that’s likely to go down if these two men are the nominees of their party and they both take this take-no-prisoners, DEFCON 3 approach to American politics,” Rove said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, expressed concern Monday on CNN about voters staying home if they do not feel they are being addressed.
“Our biggest swing voter is our base who won’t swing to Donald Trump or a Republican, but they will swing right out to the couch if they don’t think it’s worth their time, nobody’s paid them attention, or they’re being ignored or taken for granted,” she said, adding that 2024 could be “2016 all over again.”
Republican strategist Charlie Kolean, the chief strategist of R.E.D. PAC, said he believes a lower-turnout election would likely benefit Trump more than Biden. Kolean argued that many in 2020 were voting more so against Trump than for Biden, and less enthusiasm exists for Biden now.
He said excitement is necessary for a base to come to the polls, and the presidential candidate would be the main way to excite voters, but the parties do have alternative methods of getting people to vote, including ballot measures.
“The presidential candidate is obviously going to be the most excitement at the top of the ticket in every state, but we’ve seen ballot measures really affect races that are down ballot and at the top of the ballot as well,” Kolean said.
“So if you’re looking in key swing states, regardless of what camp is trying to win, at the ballot measures that are really favorable towards their party and that can motivate their base to get out there and end up voting for everyone else, that’s going to be extremely crucial,” he added.
Ballot measures have increasingly received attention in the past year and a half, with several states putting an issue to the voters on abortion in the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
In seven states where an abortion-related measure has been on the ballot since then, voters have favored the side protecting abortion rights in what has been seen as consistent victories for Democrats. This happened most recently in the Republican-leaning state of Ohio.
Efforts are underway to get abortion measures on the ballot in 2024 in several states, including swing states such as Arizona and Nevada.
Kolean said R.E.D. PAC saw low turnout in most races in which it participated this year. An exception was the Virginia legislative elections, in which a lot of messaging was about abortion.
“That’s going to be extremely crucial, and I think we’ll see it play out in some pretty big states,” he said, referring to ballot measures.
Democratic strategist Jared Leopold noted that every state that has had abortion on the ballot since the court’s decision has seen high turnout and that the issue will be a “huge turnout motivator” for Democrats and swing voters.
“People aren’t thinking about it right now, but the presidential election is going to be a referendum on the future of abortion in America,” he said.
Leopold said voters will come to realize the “stakes” of the election between Biden and Trump once Election Day gets closer, adding that he is not too concerned by polls showing the Democrats who do not want Biden to run.
“Some of what we’re seeing right now is people on both sides living in a fantasy land that we’re not heading into another Biden-Trump rematch. This is a free primary time window when voters are free to fantasize about who they want to be the nominee or dream about a scenario where it’s something else,” he said. “But fundamentally, this is going to be Biden versus Trump, and I think as the stakes become clear to every voter, you’re gonna see increased engagement in this election.”
Ernest McGowen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond, said voters seeing “perceived differences” between the candidates is key to driving turnout.
He said voters might be likely to take less interest in the race if it were a contest between an incumbent and a lesser-known challenger, but both Trump and Biden have clear, established records to run on that differentiate themselves to voters.
“Yes, they both have negatives, but at the same time, they are both really well-known commodities,” McGowen said.