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Leubsdorf: Five factors determine race

Top items most likely to affect 2024 presidential election

By Carl P. Leubsdorf
Published: February 26, 2024, 6:01am

Almost every week, some headline development occurs that seems as if it could dramatically impact the 2024 presidential race, such as Donald Trump’s virtual invitation for Vladimir Putin to attack some NATO members.

Often, the impact of such events is overstated, either because they only reinforce perceptions or because so much else will happen between now and Nov. 5. But five broad factors — listed here alphabetically — will almost certainly affect the outcome, depending on their prominence in the weeks before the election. All made news last week:

  • Biden’s health. For months, polls have indicated that a major barrier to President Joe Biden’s reelection is the widespread belief that, at 81, he is too old. Polls show the mercurial Trump is seen as more competent.

The president exacerbated those concerns with an angry news conference denouncing special counsel Robert Hur’s assertions about his memory. But Biden later seemed more assertive and in command when he blamed Putin for the death of dissident Alexander Navalny.

That event showed Biden’s capacity to rise to occasions. His next opportunity will be his March 7 State of the Union speech, likely the most watched presidential performance until the conventions and the campaign.

In the end, judgments on Biden’s capacities will be greatly affected by how he performs on such instances, notably his convention acceptance speech in August and any general election debates — and on whether he avoids illness and any politically dangerous campaign incidents, like platform stumbles.

  • Economy. Most elections are about the economy, and Democratic strategists believe its continued strength will yet be a Biden asset, despite polls still showing most voters disapprove of his handling of it.

While some polls show increasing public confidence about the economy, others show lingering concerns over the fact that prices, while no longer rising, are not dropping — especially rent and grocery prices.

  • Immigration. Republican efforts to benefit politically from the continuing flow of illegal immigrants on the southern border — and their influx into northern states and cities — suffered a setback in a New York special congressional election.

Democratic victor Tom Suozzi successfully fought back by noting that the Republicans — and Trump — prevented Senate action on a compromise immigration bill.

That was at least a short-term sign that Trump and the GOP may have helped Biden and the Democrats find a way of defending their record by showing they want a political issue more than a solution.

But a lot will depend on how the issue plays out during the year.

  • Third parties. Polls show a multi-candidate race could help Trump, as it did in 2016, because his base is firmer than Biden’s. But Biden may have gotten a boost when two prominent prospects for the centrist “No Labels” ticket bowed out.

Retiring West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, said he would not run for president. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said he would run for the Senate.

  • Trump’s trials. Recent events provided reminders of the degree to which the threat of criminal conviction hangs over the former president’s prospects.

One New York court set March 25 for his trial on charges of paying “hush money” to a former porn star. Another found him guilty of illegal business practices, fining him nearly $355 million and challenging his already questionable reputation for business probity.

The most important pending case is special counsel Jack Smith’s four-count Washington, D.C., indictment for Trump’s role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that sought to keep Congress from certifying Biden’s election.

That case is on hold, pending the Supreme Court’s decision on Trump’s appeal of a ruling rejecting his claim to absolute immunity from criminal prosecution. A ruling against him, depending on when it comes, could lead to an early trial in the case where a recent poll showed a conviction posed the gravest political threat to Trump.

Other factors, of course, could impact the election. One would certainly be the Middle East, especially if Israel’s war against Hamas is continuing next October.

For the most part, however, these five factors are most likely to determine November’s victor.

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