Eighteen months is an eternity in politics.
But rapid-fire and high-profile events over the past week have set the tone and clarified the stakes of a still nascent presidential race featuring an incumbent president and a Republican front-runner whom many Americans, according to polling, do not want as their choices — but may feel resigned to accept.
The week began with a surprising poll — probably an outlier — that showed President Biden losing to both former President Donald J. Trump and his closest presumptive primary competitor, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
Then in quick succession came a jury’s verdict holding Mr. Trump liable for sexual abuse, a raucous New Hampshire town hall that brought the former president’s falsehoods and bluster back into the spotlight, the lifting of pandemic-era controls at the U.S.-Mexico border, and a raft of endorsements for Mr. DeSantis in Iowa that showed many Republican leaders are open to a Trump alternative.
All of that left leaders, strategists and voters in both parties exceptionally anxious.
“We’re in the midst of a primary that has yet to even really form, and meanwhile the opportunity to pound Biden into dirt with his incompetence is slipping,” said Dave Carney, a longtime Republican consultant in New Hampshire, where the first Republican primary votes will be cast in February. “It’s scattershot right now.”
Democrats, who would be expected to rally around their standard-bearer, have spent the week expressing a divide on border security and questioning the president on key policy issues.
Strategists have begged Democratic voters to get over their discontent and accept the president as the best they’re going to get.
“Live in the real world,” Stuart Stevens, the longtime Republican political consultant who bolted from the party as Mr. Trump rose to power, exhorted after the New Hampshire town hall. “If you saw Donald Trump tonight and aren’t supporting Biden, you are helping elect Trump. It’s not complicated.”
Representative Ro Khanna of California, a liberal Democrat often willing to say openly what other rank-and-file Democrats won’t, laid out a vision for economic renewal in a Friday speech in New Hampshire that contrasted the president’s more modest ambitions with his failure to secure the allegiance of white working-class voters whom Mr. Biden has said he is uniquely qualified to win back.
“People are so desperate for some healing, for leadership that can unify,” Mr. Khanna told Democrats at a dinner in Nashua. “We do not need to compromise who we are to find common cause.”
In an interview on Saturday, he said it was not meant to be a criticism. But it was “an appeal for a bolder platform that captures the imagination of working-class Americans and inspires them.”
There’s no question that political predictions this far from an election are unreliable. Mr. DeSantis has yet to declare his candidacy for the White House, though he and Mr. Trump have been circling each other and competing in a shadow contest in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first contests for the Republican presidential nomination. Even Iowa voters tend not to tune in to the race until later in the year, noted David Kochel, a longtime Iowa Republican consultant.
Still, the question of the moment remains: Where are we?
Simon Rosenberg, who correctly predicted that a surge of Democratic activism would blunt the promised “red wave” of the 2022 midterms, said the “fear of MAGA” that powered Democratic victories in 2018, 2020 and 2022 had not diminished ahead of 2024. If anything, abortion bans rolling from state to state across the country, a disheartening surge in mass shootings and a Republican assault on educational freedom will only sharpen those fears, he said.
Mr. Trump’s performance at a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening — in which the former president repeatedly lied about the 2020 election; mocked E. Jean Carroll, whose accusations of sexual abuse and defamation ended in a $5 million judgment against him; and promised a return to some of his least popular policies — only reiterated why Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans have turned away from the G.O.P. in the key states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The Biden re-election campaign, now in full gear after his formal announcement last month, was making the case to reporters after the town hall, pointing to Mr. Trump’s pride in the overturning of Roe v. Wade; his dismissive take on the economic catastrophe that could ensue if the federal government defaults on its outstanding debt; his referring to Jan. 6, 2021, as “a beautiful day”; and his refusal to commit to accepting the 2024 election results.
One Biden campaign adviser suggested that Mr. Trump had supplied a trove of material for attack ads. The campaign began posting videos almost immediately. Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, called the 70-minute performance “over an hour of nonsense.”
The crucial question for both parties in 2024 is how to retain the voters they have and regain those they have lost.
“It’s hard to understand how someone could vote for Joe Biden in 2020 and Trump in 2024, given that Trump is just going to get more Trumpy,” Mr. Rosenberg said, adding, “I’d still much rather be us than them.”
Mr. Rosenberg’s assessment may be why 37 Republican officials in Iowa, including the State Senate president, Amy Sinclair, and the House majority leader, Matt Windschitl, endorsed Mr. DeSantis last week, as did the New Hampshire House majority leader, Jason Osborne.
Republican consultants in both states said Mr. Trump’s universal name recognition and political persona might give him the highest floor for Republican support, but the same factors lower the ceiling of that support, giving Mr. DeSantis and other challengers a real chance to take him down, if they are willing to take it.
The Trump campaign seemed aware of that dynamic last week as it attacked would-be rivals, not only those clearly preparing to enter the race but also some far from it. On Saturday, Mr. Trump laid into Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, for being disloyal, just days after an article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested the governor was keeping his options open.
Mr. DeSantis has had his own stumbles out of the gate. His war with Disney has provided fodder for rivals who have questioned a Republican’s intrusion into the free market. His signing of a six-week abortion ban and his state’s aggressive censorship of school textbooks have raised questions among would-be Republican donors and swing voters alike. But the Florida governor also has plenty of time to make his case.
“There’s a lot of game left to play, and I don’t see anything gelling yet,” Mr. Kochel said. “There’s still a lot of room for candidates not named Trump.”
What Republicans seem most amazed by is the docility of Democrats in the face of Mr. Biden’s obvious weaknesses. Age and infirmity are real issues, not Republican talking points, consultants say.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll published on Monday showed Mr. Biden losing head-to-head races against Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis by between five and six percentage points. Democratic pollsters have dismissed those results, pointing to anomalies like the poll’s showing Mr. Trump winning young voters outright while dramatically closing the gap with Mr. Biden for Black and Hispanic votes.
Even so, there was much in the poll to undermine Mr. Biden’s claim that he, more than any other Democrat, can vanquish a Republican comeback just as he defeated Mr. Trump in 2020.
Republicans say that’s just not possible.
Mr. Carney said the dynamic would get worse, not better, as the 2024 campaign took shape. Chaotic scenes from the southwestern border in the coming weeks will inflame Republican voters’ fears of an “invasion” of illegal immigrants; the Republican National Committee on Friday held the president responsible for 1.4 million “gotaway” migrants that it said had crossed the border and disappeared into the interior since he took office.
More important, the situation at the border could crystallize a sense among swing voters that Mr. Biden is simply not in control. With erstwhile allies like New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, and Chicago’s outgoing mayor, Lori Lightfoot, pleading for assistance with a flood of migrants, that conclusion will not be contained to Republican voters.
The brewing showdown over how to raise the federal government’s borrowing limit threatens to provoke a catastrophic financial crisis as soon as next month. And while voters might blame Republicans in Congress at first, economic turmoil eventually ends up in the president’s lap.
Perhaps Mr. Biden’s voters will not defect back to Mr. Trump, Republicans agree, but they could simply stay home on Election Day.
“Democrats keep saying, ‘Oh, Trump’s so bad it doesn’t matter,’” Mr. Kochel said. “I don’t know. I think it matters.”