Will our 2020 presidential nominee run again in 2024?

That’s the question hanging over both of the major political parties right now. The New York Times on Saturday addressed the Democratic side of the equation, reporting that “members of Congress and voters expressed doubts about the president’s ability to rescue his reeling party and take the fight to Republicans.”

On the Republican side, former President Trump has not said or done anything to suggest that he won’t run, but it feels less inevitable than it did a few months ago. Saturday’s Washington Post piece headlined “The shadow race is underway for the Republican presidential nomination” made it clear that Trump might not face a cakewalk if he does seek the GOP nod.

President Biden’s Gallup job-approval ratings are tied with those of Trump at this point of his presidency for the lowest of any post-World War II elected president. The public is ever more pessimistic, with the RealClearPolitics average of polls showing that just 22 percent think the country is headed in the right direction, while 71 percent say it is off on the wrong track. The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment measured the “lowest recorded value” in its history, “comparable to the trough reached in the middle of the 1980 recession.” The stock market recently entered bear-market territory, and as many as 85 percent of Americans are expecting a recession in the next year, at a time when inflation is now at a 40-year high—after the administration had said it would not become a problem.

It’s not hard to imagine a Republican ad against Biden with quotes from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, a veteran of both the Clinton and Obama administrations, who warned in February 2021 that Biden’s coronavirus aid package was too large. Whether Biden’s policies actually triggered inflation or his advisers just missed the onset of inflation, neither is a good place to be.

In any case, it’s a tremendously weak position from which to seek a second term. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama took drubbings in their first midterms only to bounce back and get reelected. But few believe that Biden has the political dexterity that either the 42nd or 44th presidents had. And given the much more elevated level of partisanship, it would be hard for any incumbent to have the resiliency that Clinton and Obama demonstrated in years three and four.

Should Biden run again, he'd better hope he doesn’t draw a serious primary opponent. History is pretty clear that when a sitting president faces anything more than a token opponent for the nomination, that president and/or that party loses the general election. Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s New Hampshire primary showing against President Lyndon Johnson triggered LBJ’s announcement that he would not run again in 1968. Ronald Reagan’s 1976 challenge to President Ford, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to President Carter, and former Nixon White House speechwriter Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to President George H.W. Bush all presaged losses by the incumbent.

Putting aside an unlikely primary challenge, one could draw a Venn diagram of Democratic attitudes on the subject. One circle represents Democrats afraid that Biden can’t win a general election; the second circle represents those with little confidence in Vice President Kamala Harris’s ability to win. The intersecting area is those who are afraid that they just can’t win at all.

Unquestionably Trump would be the favorite for the GOP nod should he run again, but he would have to earn it, and that itself is one reason he might not run. In an intriguing piece in The Hill, Myra Adams, a veteran of the 2004 George W. Bush and 2008 John McCain presidential campaigns but who more recently left the GOP and describes herself as “politically homeless,” points to the words “fear” and “fight.” That is, Trump has a mortal fear of losing, and fighting for his party’s nomination is now beneath his stature and shows weakness.”

A bare majority of Republicans would jump off the Grand Canyon for Trump. About a fifth are now either anti-Trump or are just plain over him. That leaves roughly 3 in 10 Republican voters who maybe approved of much of his presidency but might be in the mood to shop around a bit—not enough to definitely prevent him from winning the nomination but enough that he had better strap on his helmet and put on his cleats. As Adams notes, that is more than Trump might want to take on. Also consider that Trump may be spending a lot of time meeting with lawyers and sitting for depositions, if not in courthouses. None of these things make him more likely to run.

The possibility of a Biden-less, Trump-less election in 2024 should not be discounted.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on June 16, 2022.

More from the Cook Political Report