Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Although Election Day on Tuesday was good for Democrats, they should not take much comfort in those positive results heading into 2024.
Democrats are feeling hopeful after big wins in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Although President Joe Biden might not be as popular as they’d like, and doubts about Vice President Kamala Harris are likely to persist, the election on Tuesday seemed to suggest that an issues-based campaign might be enough to turn swing states blue in 2024.
The theory is that, by focusing on reproductive rights, as well as other issues that have strong national support, such as fighting climate change, the Biden campaign will be able to overcome the challenge posed by the president’s low approval rating. Some have pointed to President George W. Bush’s reelection victory in 2004 over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry as one notable precedent, a case of Republicans successfully focusing on ballot initiatives to boost turnout and win over voters.
But the election results on Tuesday may not provide as clear a path forward as some Democrats think. While much was made about the Republican push for ballot initiatives banning same sex marriage in 2004, an issue the GOP hoped would increase turnout by its base, some scholars and journalists have found little evidence that it actually gained votes for Bush.
Moreover, Bush had much more wind at his back, given the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the continued perception in large parts of the nation that his counterterrorism programs were effective. While the fallout from the disastrous war in Iraq was already showing up, it did not yet dominate public perceptions of his performance, and some of the biggest disasters of his presidency, including his response to Hurricane Katrina, would not take place until after his reelection.
In November 2003, one year before the election, Bush’s approval ratings were solid, at over 50%. And even though it was a sharp fall from the 70% he enjoyed in April of that year, Bush managed to stabilize his standing. By the time November 2004 rolled around, he maintained a 53% approval rating — well above Biden’s 37% as of early October.
Like it or not, personality, charisma and perceptions of character still matter in presidential elections. Bush and his supporters waged a brutal campaign against Kerry, portraying him as a coastal elite, blue state politician who flip-flopped depending on whichever stance seemed most popular. One famous ad showed Kerry wind surfing to the left and right, “whichever way the wind blows.”
Another ad by an independent group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenged Kerry’s record of service on a Swift boat during the Vietnam War and raised questions about the medals that he was awarded for his military service, giving rise to the phrase “swiftboating” as a way to describe unfair or dishonest political attacks. The campaign managed to turn Bush, who joined the Texas Air National Guard — whose main mission was to defend the Gulf Coast — rather than the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, into a paragon of patriotic, firm decision making while rendering Kerry as someone who could not be counted on to make tough calls in the toughest of times.
The current conservative media ecosystem — from Fox News to Truth Social — makes the kind of disinformation that was novel during the 2004 campaign seem like small potatoes, and it will be all the more challenging to convey accurate information in the 2024 contest.
There are also serious questions being raised about whether abortion rights are as motivating for voters as some Democrats think. The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt points to a number of recent elections where Democrats lost despite focusing on this issue. Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate candidate for Ohio in 2022, for example, lost to J.D. Vance, even though he centered his campaign on abortion. Leonhardt pointed out that Americans broadly support widespread access to abortion — and the issue has been largely successful for Democrats when it is the sole focus of a ballot initiative. But when it comes to a national election featuring two candidates, abortion may just be one of many issues, with differing political impacts, he argued.
Even if Biden can get a bump from voters who are passionate about defending abortion rights, polling also shows that core constituencies, such as Black and Latino voters, are having serious doubts about him. A number of Muslim and Arab voters in key states like Michigan have also voiced their dismay over Biden’s strong backing of Israel in its war with Hamas, though the lasting effect isn’t yet clear.
Finally, a new poll this week should sound the alarm for Democrats. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll, former President Donald Trump is currently ahead of Biden in five out of six battleground states. With key voters saying they trust Trump more on issues including immigration, the economy and national security, Biden could be in serious trouble in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. While White House officials pushed back against the findings, many Democrats have been thrown into a state of panic. Regardless of what happens, the poll hammered home the very real possibility of a second Trump presidency.
And while Americans have a number of concerns about Biden, from his age to his ability to handle the job, none of this is to say that he is doomed. Plenty of other candidates have overcome negative polling with a year go before the election. Trump also comes with his own baggage, including the unprecedented possibility that, as a former president, he might be convicted of federal crimes — something that the recent polls show would hurt him significantly. And Trump is, of course, unpopular in his own right, with a huge dash of unpredictability thrown in — meaning that polls can fluctuate dramatically as the year unfolds.
But the road to victory will not be easy or smooth. This is probably going to be a tight election and the outcome will depend on turnout, mobilization, and shoring up Biden’s image as much as possible. The way that the president handles the challenges of the coming months will have a huge effect on determining who wins the Oval Office in 2024.
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