Q & A: How to Cure a Case of Political Déjà Vu

Voting early is a good idea, according to a George Washington University political expert.

March 27, 2024

GW Today election 2024

Now that this fall’s presidential election is set to be a rematch between President Joe Biden and his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, some of us are feeling as if time has taken on a sticky, glue-like quality. A little clear thinking may be just what we need to dissolve the glue and come unstuck. Todd Belt, professor in the Graduate School of Political Management and director of its political management program, talked with GW Today about how this year’s race will be different even if it looks the same as it did in 2020. And if you’re despairing about a possible third-party spoiler, Belt may be able to talk you off the ledge.

Q: Many voters are feeling “déjà vu” in connection to this year’s presidential race between Biden and Trump, while others say this matchup may look the same but is really quite different. Where do you fall on the spectrum between the two groups?

A: We haven’t had a former president run against an incumbent president since 1912, so that part is new. But because both candidates have served one term, voters are well familiar with who they are and how they will govern. Elections are about the future, but for these two candidates, most voters will judge them based on their time in office, which limits the type of future they can promise. What is different this time is that Donald Trump has made a large part of his campaign about his own personal grievances, and the changes/retribution that would come with his administration.

Q: Is this seemingly bizarre repeat match simply historical happenstance, or does it say something about the current political moment?

A: What it reflects mostly is the incredible advantages of incumbency. Once a candidate has run for president successfully, they have a tremendous advantage in regards to the three key resources necessary to secure the nomination again: fundraising, endorsements and volunteers.

Todd Belt

Q: Do you expect things to go smoothly on election day? 

A: I’m cautiously optimistic. Things went well for the most part in 2022, but Trump is on the ballot this time, so I think we can expect more of a presence from his supporters around polling places and vote counting stations.

Q: Do you have any advice for voters?

A: Voting early, whether by absentee or early drop-in/drop-off, is safe and convenient. 

Q: What are your expectations from the next months of campaigning? 

A: Campaigns are either a referendum on the incumbent or a choice between competing views of where to lead the country. Trump would like to make this a referendum solely on Biden’s term, but of course, voters have the memory of Trump’s presidency, so that’s difficult to do in this unique situation. The Biden campaign is trying to make this a choice election between the relatively stable and normal presidency of Biden as compared to the chaos of the Trump years. Biden had initially tried to run on his record and the concept of “Bidenomics,” but he wasn’t gaining any traction so he reverted to the comparison with Trump.

Q: Do you think third-party candidates such as RFK Jr., Cornel West or a candidate chosen by No Labels will have much presence or impact?

A: No Labels is having trouble finding a candidate, so they will probably not be a factor. As for the RFK and Cornel West voters, I think that the overwhelming majority of them will eventually vote for Biden. Early in the campaign, voters like to flirt with third-party candidates, but as we get closer to election day, most of them return to the party closest to them because they don’t want to throw away their vote.

Some will note that the last two presidential elections were decided by very slim margins in three states each, and that the vote for various third-party candidates in 2016 exceeded the difference between Trump and Clinton. However, it’s incredibly difficult to say whether third parties actually “spoil” elections. First, you have to know if these third-party voters would have voted at all if the third-party candidate were not in the race—most would not. Then, you have to be able to accurately predict who these remaining voters would have chosen between the remaining major-party candidates. This is not as easy as it seems. For instance, 12 percent of Bernie Sanders supporters actually voted for Donald Trump in 2016!