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Riding the Political Waves

A year out from elections, survivors remain best bet

British prime minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have said, “A week is a lifetime in politics.”

And if a week can be so momentous, all the more so holds true for a month or a year. The way time operates in politics is unique. Consider where we were a year ago.

Kevin McCarthy was Speaker of the House. Mike Pence and Tim Scott were important players in the presidential race while Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was considered a long shot. A man named Vivek wasn’t known by most voters. But a year from now, both of them may also be out of the race. A week from now we may have once-unheard-of candidate as a front-runner.

President Joe Biden has seen his polling ebb and flow depending on the issue of the month. On foreign policy, for example, it’s been up for issues like Ukraine. On the other hand, a recent Quinnipiac University survey shows that 69% of Democrats under 35 disapprove of how he is handling the war in Israel.

Perhaps more concerning to President Biden are the continuing polls that show voters of all ages concerned about… his age. Voters remain concerned that our oldest president, who just turned 81, is simply not up to the job.

New House Speaker Mike Johnson might want to reflect that his 55 predecessors had even less job security. In fact, 23 of them served less than two years, having lost their majorities or being forced to resign. Perhaps a year from now, there will be a different Speaker. A week from now, the House could again be in open revolt on some economic issue.

And yet, even given all that uncertainty, we can probably count on seeing a general election pitting Joe Biden against Donald Trump in eleven months. Why is that so?


Time Runs Differently in Politics

In the fall of 1948, Harry Truman, our 33rd president, was completely written off. Virtually all the pundits and pollsters were declaring a victory for his challenger, Republican Thomas Dewey, a foregone conclusion. But in the weeks remaining, Truman mounted a spirited cross-country campaign that carried him to reelection.

In July 1976, Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter led President Gerald Ford by 33 points after the Democratic convention. Most declared the race all but over. But within ten short weeks — ten “lifetimes” in politics — Ford closed the gap and made it a neck-and-neck race. In the end, Carter won — but with a razor-thin 50.1% majority.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan, then at 73 the oldest man to hold the office, was facing doubts about his reelection due to his age. Those concerns were exacerbated by a poor performance in his first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. In the second debate, Reagan addressed the age question head-on, answering deftly, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Mondale later remarked, “That was the end of my campaign that night.” Reagan went on to one of the greatest reelection victories in American history. One sentence in one debate completely shifted the dynamics of the campaign and the expectations to that point.

Those new to politics can get seasick riding the hourly, daily, and weekly crests and troughs of political waves. But more seasoned officials have ridden these waves with great skill. They stay in power because they’ve mastered the political winds and know how to stay relevant.


Dems Have Momentum

The last 50 days have taught us a lot. On the Democratic side, new polling seemingly bodes poorly for President Biden. Adding to the mix, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has abandoned his Democratic primary challenge and is now mounting a potential spoiler race for the White House.

But the best predictor may be the actual results from the November 2023 off-year elections that just took place. Democrats won overwhelmingly. They held the Kentucky governor’s seat and remained in power in the Virginia statehouse. Biden’s poor polling were not a factor in most of the races.

Yes, Biden needs young Democrats to vote for him, and with a large majority of them unhappy with his position on Israel, that portends poorly for him. Absent some kind of Reagan-type miracle, concerns about his age could pose a potentially lethal risk to his reelection chances.

Kennedy could prove spoiler on either side of the election. Yes, his family name is synonymous with Democratic politics, but some of his positions have found favor with the far right.

On the Republican side, we’ve had a shuffling of seats. Tim Scott and Mike Pence are out, Mike Johnson replaced Kevin McCarthy. Trump continues to dominate polling while ignoring the debates and most of his rivals. Why should we not expect him to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire?

Speaker Johnson holds more right-wing positions than McCarthy and will be an election-day target for the Democrats, who have a valid chance of reclaiming the House majority.

But this November’s results prove that the Democrats are the more organized and methodical party. Did you know that the Democrats have won in 2020, 2022, and 2023, and achieved a split result in the off-year elections in 2021? That is an impressive recent track record, and one could argue that the party of Trump is struggling to find its footing.

Watching the “mainstay” politicians will give us a good idea of who will win and who will lose. The old stalwarts have done it before and will likely do it again.

It’s no surprise that Trump maintains poll dominance. He has been politically relevant for close to a decade, especially in his party, through ups and downs. It’s no surprise that Biden remains at the top of his party and hasn’t dragged it down at the polls; he’s won almost every race he’s ever been in.

Many of the others in the race don’t have this experience. They’ve never run for president or been Speaker of the House. New candidates will have a hard time riding the political waves; the ones who have been there before will have a decided edge.

Understand that politics changes by the hour, and whatever is happening now does not give the best perspective on what will occur months from now. But know that those who’ve won before are the ones who have a leg up on their challengers.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 989)

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