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Denial and uncertainty are looming over a Biden-Trump rematch 6 months out from Election Day

By STEVE PEOPLES and ZEKE MILLER, STEVE PEOPLES and ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press
Published: May 6, 2024, 1:31pm

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — This North Carolina voter is nervous.

Will Rikard, a 49-year-old father of two, was among several hundred Democrats who stood and cheered for Joe Biden as the first-term president delivered a fiery speech recently about the billions of dollars he has delivered to protect the state’s drinking water.

But afterward, the Wilmington resident acknowledged he is worried about Biden’s political standing in the looming rematch with former Republican President Donald Trump.

“There’s not enough energy,” Rikard said of Biden’s coalition. “I think people are gonna need to wake up and get going.”

Exactly six months before Election Day, Biden and Trump are locked in the first contest in 112 years with a current and former president competing for the White House. It’s a race that is at once deeply entrenched and highly in flux as many voters are only just beginning to embrace the reality of the 2024 campaign.

Wars, trials, the independent candidacy of Robert Kennedy Jr. and deep divisions across America have injected extraordinary uncertainty into a race for the White House in which either man would be the oldest president ever sworn in on Inauguration Day. At the same time, policy fights over abortion, immigration and the economy are raging on Capitol Hill and in statehouses.

VOTERS IN DENIAL

Hovering over it all is the disbelief of many voters, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Biden and Trump — their respective parties’ presumptive nominees — will ultimately appear on the general election ballot this fall.

“I think we have an electorate that’s going through the stages of grief about this election,” said Sarah Longwell, who conducts regular focus groups with voters across the political spectrum as co-founder of Republican Voters Against Trump. “They’ve done denial — ‘Not these two, can’t possibly be these two.’ And I think they’re in depression now. I’m waiting for people to hit acceptance.”

Trump is in the midst of the first of potentially four criminal trials and facing felony charges. The Constitution does not prevent him from assuming the presidency if convicted — or even if he is in prison.

Biden, who will turn 82 years old just weeks after Election Day, Nov. 5, is already the oldest president in U.S. history; Trump is 77.

Privately, Democratic operatives close to the campaign worry constantly about Biden’s health and voters’ dim perceptions of it. In recent weeks, aides have begun walking at Biden’s side as he strolls to and from Marine One, the presidential helicopter, on the White House South Lawn in an apparent effort to help mask the president’s stiff gait.

Still, neither party is making serious contingency plans. Whether voters want to believe it or not, the general election matchup is all but set.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, said many voters are recovering from what he called “a knock-down, drag-out fight” that was the 2020 presidential election.

“Many of them have not wrapped their heads around the fact that it is, in fact, going to be a rematch,” Cooper said in an interview. “When they do, I don’t think there’s any question that Joe Biden is going to win the day.”

GETTING TO 270 ELECTORIAL VOTES — THE BATTLEGROUND STATES

Even before voters begin paying close attention, the political map in the fight for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency is already taking shape.

Biden’s campaign is increasingly optimistic about North Carolina, a state he lost by just 1 percentage point in 2020. Overall, the Democratic president’s reelection campaign has several hundred staff in more than 133 offices in the seven most critical states: Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Trump’s team has barely begun to roll out swing-state infrastructure, although he campaigned in Wisconsin and Michigan over the past week, sending a clear signal that he wants to block Biden’s path to reelection via the Democrats’ Midwestern “blue wall.”

Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita said Trump is making plans to invest new resources in at least two other Democratic-leaning states.

At a private donor retreat in Florida on Saturday, LaCivita discussed the campaign’s plans to expand its electoral map into Virginia and Minnesota, based on the Trump team’s growing optimism that both states are within reach.

“We have a real opportunity to expand the map here,” LaCivita told The Associated Press. “The Biden campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads and in their ‘vaunted ground game’. And they have nothing to show for it.”

Biden’s campaign welcomed Trump’s team to spend money in Democratic states. “The Biden campaign is going to relentlessly focus on the pathway to 270 electoral votes, and that’s what our efforts represent,” campaign communications director Michael Tyler said.

Biden has been spending far more aggressively on election infrastructure and advertising heading into the six-month stretch toward Election Day.

In the eight weeks since Trump essentially clinched the Republican nomination, his campaign has spent virtually nothing on television advertising, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact. Outside groups aligned with Trump have spent just over $9 million.

Over the same period, AdImpact found, Biden and his allies have spent more than $29 million spread across Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Trump’s team has been unusually conservative, in part, to avoid the perceived mistakes of 2020, when his campaign essentially ran out of money and was forced to cut back on advertising in the election’s critical final days, but also because it has struggled to reignite its appeal with small donors and because of the diversion of some dollars to the former president’s legal defense.

Trump’s team insists it will soon ramp up its advertising and on-the-ground infrastructure, although LaCivita refused to offer any specifics.

VOTERS UNDERWHELMED WITH THEIR OPTIONS

It is clear that Biden and Trump have serious work to do to improve their standing with voters.

While optimistic in public, Biden allies privately acknowledge that his approval ratings may be lower than Democrat Jimmy Carter’s numbers at this point in his presidency. Trump’s ratings are not much better.

Public polling consistently shows that voters don’t like their 2024 options.

Only about 2 in 10 Americans say they would be excited by Biden (21%) or Trump (25%) being elected president, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in March. Only about one-quarter of voters in the survey say they would be satisfied about each.

A CNN poll conducted in April found that 53% of registered voters say they are dissatisfied with the presidential candidates they have to choose from in this year’s election.

Another major wild card is Kennedy, a member of the storied political dynasty and an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist who is running as an independent. Both major campaigns are taking him seriously as a potential spoiler, with Trump’s allies notably ramping up their criticism of Kennedy in recent days.

BIDEN’S PLAN: REMIND VOTERS WHAT TRUMP’S PRESIDENCY WAS LIKE

For now, Biden’s team is most focused on reminding voters of Trump’s divisive leadership. Three years after Trump left office, there is a sense that some voters may have forgotten what it was like with the former reality television star in the Oval Office — or his efforts to overturn the 2020 election that have landed him in legal peril.

“The plan is reminding voters of what life was like with Trump and also demonstrating to voters that the ways in which the world feels uncertain to them now are not, in fact, caused by the president, but can actually be navigated by this president,” Biden pollster Molly Murphy told the AP. “Voters will trust his leadership and stewardship, knowing that things can be a lot worse if it’s Donald Trump.”

Biden’s team is also betting that fierce backlash to new restrictions on abortion, which Trump and Republicans have largely championed, will drive voters to Democrats like it did in the 2022 midterm election and 2023 state races.

But Biden’s success also is dependent on the Democrat’s ability to reassemble his winning coalition from 2020 at a time when enthusiasm is lagging among critical voting blocs, including Blacks, young voters and Arab Americans unhappy over the president’s handling of the war in Gaza.

TRUMP’S PLAN: TURN HIS LEGAL WOES TO HIS ADVANTAGE

Trump has been forced to adapt his campaign to his first criminal trial in New York. Prosecutors allege he committed financial fraud to hide hush money payments to a porn actor, Stormy Daniels, who says she had a sexual encounter with Trump. He denies her claim and has pleaded not guilty.

For now, Trump is forced to attend the trial most weekdays. A verdict is likely still weeks away. And after that, he faces the prospect of more trials related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents. The Supreme Court is weighing whether Trump should be granted immunity, or partial immunity, for the actions he took while in office.

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Trump over the past week wedged in campaign stops around his court schedule, rallying voters in Wisconsin and Michigan, where the abortion debate is raging.

Trump seemed to be searching for a way to lessen the political sting from the upheaval over the Supreme Court’s overturning of national abortion rights. The former president suggested the issue will ultimately bring the country together as states carve out differing laws.

“A lot of bad things will happen beyond the abortion issue if you don’t win elections, with your taxes and everything else,” he told Michigan voters.

Trump’s camp privately maintains that his unprecedented trial in New York will dominate the news — and voters’ attention — for the foreseeable future. His campaign has largely stopped trying to roll out unrelated news during the trial.

Even if Trump were to be convicted by the New York jury, his advisers insist the fundamentals of the election will not change. Trump has worked aggressively to undermine public confidence in the charges against him. Meanwhile, more traditional issues work in his favor, including stubbornly high inflation and the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, in the view of the Trump team.

LaCivita said that such issues constantly reinforce Biden’s weakness as “the news of the day keeps getting worse.”

Both sides seem to agree that the dynamics of the race may yet shift dramatically based on any number of factors, from how the economy fares or the course of the wars in Gaza and Ukraine to crime or migration trends or other foreseen events. Potential candidate debates this fall could be another wild card.

Such uncertainty, said Biden’s battleground states director Dan Kanninen, can play to their favor.

“That dynamic is an opportunity as much as a challenge for us,” he said, “because we will have the resources, the infrastructure and the operation built to be engaging voters throughout all those difficult waters.”

This story was first published on May 5, 2024. It was published again on May 6, 2024, to correct the name of the Biden pollster to Molly Murphy, not Mary Murphy.

Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Linley Sanders in Washington and Michelle L. Price in Freeland, Michigan, contributed to this report.

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