KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Despite weak overall favorability, Joe Biden and Donald Trump could combine for the strongest presidential nominating performance in modern history.
— Since the advent of the current nominating system in each party, which dates to the early 1970s, at least one of the two eventual major party nominees suffered at least some losses during the primary season.
— It is possible that Biden and Trump could both sweep every contest next year.
— Several nominating seasons came close to producing such a sweep, particularly in the 1996-2004 range.
The possibility of a Biden/Trump sweep
There is no shortage of evidence suggesting the general election weakness of the two frontrunners for the major party presidential nominations, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
They have very similar, and low, favorability. According to the RealClearPolitics averages, Biden’s favorability is 41% favorable and 55% unfavorable. Trump’s is a similar 40%/56% split. That is comparable to the weak favorability of Trump and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, on the eve of the 2016 election: The same average pegged Trump’s split at 38%/59%, with Clinton a bit better at 42%/54%. The 2016 election was widely regarded as featuring the two most unpopular candidates ever — 2024, if it ends up being Biden versus Trump, could rival that election.
But this is not a piece about the combined weakness of these two candidates. Rather, it is about their combined strength.
Namely, it is possible that Biden and Trump will, combined, put up the strongest performance in the nominating season in modern history. There has never been a nominating season where both major party nominees went undefeated in the nominating season. But that is a possibility in this Biden versus Trump matchup.
In national polling (this time, aggregated by FiveThirtyEight), Trump is up roughly 40 points over his nearest rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), 55%-14%, with other candidates lagging behind DeSantis. Biden, meanwhile, has not attracted any mainstream opposition and is currently leading 61%-17% nationally over vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who reports indicate is poised to leave the Democratic race in favor of an independent bid (which presumably would mean he would no longer be competing in the Democratic primary against Biden). Biden’s polling lead is not very impressive for a sitting president, but he also has no strong opposition to capitalize on this soft support.
Trump’s leads in polls of Iowa and New Hampshire are not quite as robust as his national lead, but he’s still been up roughly 30 points on his nearest rival in recent surveys of both leadoff states.
We have to be on guard for the possibility that something changes in either or both races. What if there’s a formidable late entry on either side? What if Donald Trump’s seemingly strong support is a mirage, and the combined weight of his legal and other problems opens the door to one of his opponents? What if Joe Biden’s age and poor approval ratings prompt him to retire?
But another what if, more plausible than any of the mentioned above, is this: What if nothing changes? And that’s where the possibility of a historic, modern sweep comes into play.
When we say “modern,” we mean roughly the last half-century of presidential politics. Prior to the 1970s, voters had much less say in determining major party nominees. While primaries had existed for decades prior to the 1970s, nominating conventions were still insider-dominated affairs. This came to a head in the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination despite essentially ignoring the primaries. Democrats changed their nominating rules to give voters more say, and the Republicans followed suit, setting up the more familiar system where nominations are hashed out in state-by-state nominating contests.
So starting at the beginning of this modern era, in 1972, at least one of the eventual nominees suffered some setbacks along the way. Part of this is simply because there can be at most one sitting incumbent in any given nominating season, and so there is typically at least some competition for at least one presidential nomination. One of the unique aspects of 2024 is that Biden is an actual incumbent, and Trump — who is seeking a third straight Republican presidential nomination — is a quasi-incumbent.
A brief history of modern presidential nominations
Let’s take a quick tour through the history. While a few election cycles came close to producing a clean primary sweep for both nominees at the same time, it has not yet happened:
1972: After helping to design the Democrats’ new nominating system, George McGovern emerged from a race that saw several other Democrats win nominating contests. President Richard Nixon faced challengers from the left (Rep. Pete McCloskey of California) and right (Rep. John Ashbrook of Ohio), but was never remotely in danger of losing the nomination.
1976: Jimmy Carter came out clearly ahead of a large, splintered field that again saw many candidates win state-level contests. It was the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, who had a harder time, as he was challenged by Ronald Reagan, then the former governor of California, throughout the nominating season.
1980: Carter was pushed by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), but Carter did still win a clear majority of both the nominating contests and delegates. Reagan suffered an early stumble in the Iowa caucuses, losing to the man who would become his vice president, George H.W. Bush. But Reagan rallied and won the vast majority of the remaining contests — so for the second straight election, the incumbent president had a more spirited primary race than his eventual challenger, and for the second straight election, the incumbent lost.
1984: Reagan was easily renominated. Walter Mondale won after a difficult and prolonged fight with, primarily, Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) for the nomination.
1988: Eight years after winning the kick-off caucuses in Iowa, George H.W. Bush lost there to Republican Senate leader Bob Dole. But Bush would end up winning the nomination convincingly, only dropping a handful of other contests to Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson. Several Democratic candidates won nominating contests that year, but Michael Dukakis would secure the nomination.
1992: George H.W. Bush won all the nominating contests, but he ceded an alarmingly high share of the vote to populist conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, including just a 53%-37% victory in New Hampshire. This was a sign of Bush’s weakness, and he ended up losing to Bill Clinton in the fall. Clinton, meanwhile, spun a second-place finish in New Hampshire into a rallying cry as the “comeback kid” — the candidates ignored Iowa in deference to home-state Sen. Tom Harkin — and won the lion’s share of the later contests, although several other Democrats would win nominating contests that year.
1996: This starts a three-cycle period where each election came close to producing sweeps for both major-party nominees — but not quite. As Clinton won renomination without real opposition, Dole romped to the nomination, losing only a few states to Buchanan and magazine publisher Steve Forbes.
2000: Despite open-seat races on both sides, neither one was very competitive. Al Gore did not lose a single contest. George W. Bush was a huge polling favorite and, despite stubbing his toe in New Hampshire against Arizona Sen. John McCain, he ended up winning all but a handful of contests.
2004: Bush was easily renominated. John Kerry emerged from a crowded field, losing only a few contests on his way to the Democratic nomination.
2008: Despite losing several contests, McCain would effectively win the nomination relatively early. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton exchanged victories across the nation for the entirety of the primary season, although because of the Democrats’ proportional allocation rules, Obama built a lead much earlier that Clinton would obviously have a very difficult time overcoming.
2012: Obama was easily renominated, although he did finish below 60% in a handful of red-trending states with ancestral Democratic lineage, including West Virginia, where prison inmate Keith Judd infamously won 41% of the vote. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, had to play whack-a-mole against several rivals, but he ultimately won the vast majority of the nominating contests.
2016: Despite losing kick-off Iowa and some other contests, Donald Trump parlayed several strong early performances into a fairly decisive nomination win. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) throughout the entirety of the nominating season, but she was favored the whole time.
2020: Trump, unlike other recent incumbents who would eventually lose in November (Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush), showed absolutely no sign of weakness in his own nominating season, easily winning every contest. Despite losing the first three contests (Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada), Joe Biden unified the party behind him and against Sanders, winning a series of important victories on Super Tuesday and basically wrapping up the nomination soon thereafter.
The road for Biden and Trump
Of the two candidates, Trump faces the more conventional challenge — after all, he does have real opposition from credible opponents within his own party. One could interpret recent polling as indicating some softness in Trump’s support. For instance, a recent CBS News/YouGov poll of Iowa and New Hampshire found that a little less than a quarter of likely GOP caucus/primary voters were only considering Trump, while a higher share — about a third in both polls — were not considering him at all. A plurality in each state — 48% in Iowa and 43% in New Hampshire — said they were considering both Trump and other candidates. This suggests the possibility of a fluid electorate, which we sometimes see in nominating races. On the other hand, the actual named ballot test showed a Trump landslide in both states: He was at about 50% in both states and up 30 points on DeSantis (in second) in Iowa and up 37 points on DeSantis in New Hampshire.
While there’s been a lot of focus on Iowa, which didn’t back Trump in the 2016 caucus, we would also watch New Hampshire, which sometimes puts the brakes on what appear to be runaway nomination trains. The state did so to George W. Bush in 2000, prolonging that race — Bush, like Trump, was in a dominant polling position at this point in that cycle’s nomination fight — and it also gave life to Hillary Clinton in 2008 after she lost Iowa to Barack Obama. The uncompetitive Democratic race in New Hampshire (more on that shortly) could also attract Democratic voters to cross over and vote against Trump in the GOP primary. A Trump loss in an early contest certainly wouldn’t preclude him from being the nominee — he suffered some notable setbacks during the 2016 race in, as we mentioned, Iowa, as well as Ohio and Wisconsin. But that obviously didn’t prevent him from being the nominee.
Speaking of New Hampshire, it likely poses the biggest threat to Biden, who it does not appear will be a named candidate on the ballot there.
Following a 2020 primary battle in which the traditional leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire proved to be way out of step with the broader Democratic electorate, Biden and the Democratic National Committee reconfigured the party’s nomination schedule, pushing New Hampshire behind South Carolina in its preferred order of contests (with South Carolina on Feb. 3, 2024 and New Hampshire voting along with Nevada three days later). But New Hampshire, with a GOP-controlled state government that wants protect its traditional status as the “first-in-the-nation” primary, appears set on maintaining its position (likely Jan. 23), which means that New Hampshire would be holding an unsanctioned Democratic primary, and Biden has indicated that he won’t participate (Time’s Philip Elliott had a helpful breakdown of the stalemate recently). The bottom line is that while the New Hampshire primary, on the Democratic side, might not award any delegates, Biden’s name very well might not be on the ballot at all, putting him at risk of potentially losing what would amount to a beauty contest primary to some other random candidate (although the closest thing to a leading Biden rival, RFK Jr., appears to be gearing up to run third party in the general election instead, as we noted above). If Biden is not on the ballot in New Hampshire, he could still win based on write-in votes, and we suspect there would be a concerted effort by the president’s allies to avoid an embarrassing hiccup there — indeed, a recent CNN poll found that 70% of Biden supporters would write his name in. Still, if someone else won the Democratic primary in New Hampshire because Biden’s name wasn’t on the ballot, it wouldn’t be without somewhat recent precedent: In the 1996 cycle, Bill Clinton did not file for the North Dakota primary because the state was out of compliance with DNC rules, leaving a minor candidate to win there.
Anyway, we are not going to go so far out on a limb to flat-out predict that Biden and Trump will both sweep the nominating season. But it is a possibility, which may seem strange given the two frontrunners’ very real liabilities.
Author: Kyle Kondik