Joe Biden is, officially, running for re-election. (Disclosure: I supported Biden for the Democratic nomination when he announced four years ago; I plan to vote for the president next year.)
In his announcement video, President Biden touches on several themes: freedom, democracy, defending entitlement programs such as Social Security and protecting a woman’s right to choose. He draws a clear contrast between himself and the two frontrunners for the Republican nomination — Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis ’01 — by arguing that he is the candidate who will defend the status quo against MAGA extremism. It’s smart politics — here’s why.
If you’ve taken ECON 115, you’re familiar with the concept of diminishing marginal utility. If I offered you a bet on a coin toss — heads I give you $110, tails you give me $100 — you probably wouldn’t take it. Even though the expected value of the bet is an extra $5 for you, losing $100 will feel worse than gaining $110, because the value of money (or anything else, really) diminishes on the margin. That’s fundamentally why people tend to be risk averse, including in politics.
There is a large body of political science research demonstrating “status quo bias” — basically, the idea that voters mostly like things the way they are and don’t really want big change in either direction. For example, Chris Warshaw of George Washington University has found that from 1958 to 2020, both liberal and conservative ballot measures consistently underran their polling. Why? Status quo bias! Matt Grossmann of Michigan State University has found a negative correlation between the number of big, ideological bills a party passes when it controls Congress and the number of seats it wins in the following midterm election. Perhaps the best encapsulation of this phenomenon is Gallup’s polling: in 2022, only 17 percent of Americans said they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the US” — but 85 percent were satisfied with the way things were going in their personal lives.
I guess the GOP hasn’t kept up with the literature, because they’re proposing some genuinely radical changes to American public policy. Ron DeSantis has signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida; polls suggest that 75 percent of Floridians and 62 percent of Americans overall oppose the measure. Donald Trump is aware that Dobbs was “bad for Republicans,” so his position is that abortion is a question for the states; however, he is also the man who appointed three of the five justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. Not to mention the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election: last year, every single election-denier running for the top elections-oversight office in a swing state lost, many by wide margins. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy is re-running the Romney 2012 campaign’s economic policy playbook — that is to say, tax breaks for the rich paid for by cuts to healthcare programs such as Medicaid — which was so unpopular that focus groups in 2012 literally did not believe that it was actually Romney’s position.
That said, it’s not all sunshine and roses for Biden. For one, the president is unpopular; FiveThirtyEight’s polling average pegs his net approval rating at -10.6 percent. The silver lining is that a lot of Biden’s low approval ratings are because of his relatively weak numbers among Democrats, possibly due to concerns about his age (he’s 80). But even if those voters might prefer another Democrat in the abstract, they’re likely to back Biden when presented with a binary choice between him and Trump (or DeSantis).
A bigger hurdle is the economy: while unemployment is at a 50-year low (3.5 percent), inflation is still high (5 percent); per Gallup, 43 percent of voters rate current economic conditions as “poor”, compared to 16 percent who rate it as either “excellent” or “good.” The Federal Reserve is expecting a “mild recession” later this year; if it continues into 2024 it might cost Biden the White House.
But! In November of last year inflation was also high, and voters also gave Biden low marks on the economy. Yet Democrats won statewide in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Georgia. Why? In large part, because of backlash to Republican extremism, especially on January 6 and abortion. No matter who the GOP nominee is, those issues aren’t likely to go away; according to some analyses, Dobbs may have triggered a political realignment along religious and ideological lines that substantially diminished — or even wiped out — the Republican advantage in the electoral college.
That’s why, as things stand right now, I think Joe Biden is the favorite in 2024 (and the betting markets agree). Let’s go Brandon!
MILAN SINGH is a first-year in Pierson College. His fortnightly column, “All politics is national” discusses national politics: how it affects the reader’s life, and why they should care about it. He can be reached at email@example.com.