America faces a confusing and politically volatile presidential election campaign with multiple variables in play. Key questions are whether the two leading candidates (President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump) will remain in the race and should they drop out, who will emerge to gain each party’s nomination and the presidency.
Numerous factors are in play, including the impact of the Trump indictments, the timing and pace of any trials, whether other Republican candidates choose to oppose Trump’s candidacy more aggressively, whether Biden faces a credible primary challenge or drops out, the impact of events overseas, and the potential that either lead candidate could fall ill or die.
Political news broadcasters and commentators are actively covering current events but appear less focused on fundamental drivers that will determine the final outcome. In 2016, most pundits called the election wrong, failing to factor in the popularity of the Trump message and the impact of globalization, social disruption, and technological change.
In this Analytic Insider, I propose that three fundamental drivers will determine who is selected as America’s next president: oxygen, constructivism, and existential threats. Using Strategic Foresight Analysis, the identification of these key drivers is one of the most powerful tools in an analyst’s toolkit.
He who commands the stage is likely to remain on the stage. In 2016, Trump emerged as a credible candidate in large part because the media gave him a disproportionate amount of coverage, sucking up all the oxygen in the system. Ironically, MSNBC was one of the first networks to give him substantial air time which bolstered its ratings. Trump was adept at dominating the air waves with his provocative statements and willingness to ignore norms and standards. The campaign soon evolved into asking what Trump would do next. In 2022, when Trump was not running for office, he had a lower public profile; this may explain in part why the Republican Party did less well than expected.
Looking to the current race, Trump has the “advantage” of being the subject of as many as five indictments, of which two or three could go to trial prior to the election. The key question is whether the media will continue to focus its attention on these legal processes or find that their viewers have tired of the drama. Polls in mid-June show that 59 percent of Republicans believe Trump should end his campaign. The challenge for Trump is that most of his strategies for obtaining free press coverage are not applicable to a court process; it is getting harder for him to control the narrative. So as the months play out, pay attention to whether Biden and the other Republican candidates start gaining air time, squeezing out the oxygen given to Trump.
Recent polls and much anecdotal evidence suggest that a large proportion of the population has simply stopped watching the news. I attribute this phenomenon largely to cognitive dissonance. Citizens do not see the country moving forward as they would prefer and resent the continual bombardment of negative news, ad hominem attacks, and destructionist rhetoric. Too many politicians are obsessed with tearing things down instead of working in a bipartisan way to make things better.
The Biden administration and some Republicans such as New Hampshire Governor Sununu have adopted a more positive, Constructionist strategy, focusing on what has been—and needs to be—done to improve the quality of life for Americans. This small but growing group of politicians believes the people will be more receptive to a positive message focusing on what can be accomplished—shifting the rhetoric from bemoaning American Carnage to promoting Hope and Opportunity. If this approach has legs, it is likely to become more apparent as election campaigns get into full swing and politicians focus on what their constituents are demanding. As the months play out, keep track of how much press attention is given to examples of Constructionist problem solving versus Destructionist political blaming.
Will the focus of the 2024 campaign season shift from personalities to policy issues? If so, five issues that many view as existential threats could play a major role in determining who shows up to vote: abortion, way of life, gun safety, voting rights, and the environment.
- In the past year since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the abortion debate has emerged as a powerful stimulant for both the right and the left. The desire to tamp down or reverse the impact of restrictions placed on abortion by state legislatures has produced several signal and surprising electoral wins for the pro-choice community and may prove an even more powerful stimulant in the upcoming elections.
- Many see societal change as posing a fundamental challenge to our national heritage, Christian values, long-established social norms and traditions, and even the “look” of the town where we were born and raised. They believe next year may be the last chance to save America.
- The debate over gun safety could evolve into a campaign to keep our children safe in school. The number of mass killings and school shootings is unlikely to abate, and young people (supported by their parents) will be mounting major campaigns to elect legislators committed to taking concrete action to make our schools and streets safer.
- Many people of color are deeply disappointed that the Biden administration failed to pass two foundational voting rights laws: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. According to the Brennan Center, as of January 2023, state lawmakers in at least 32 states pre-filed or introduced 150 bills restricting voting. For them, the 2024 election is likely to prove the last chance to reverse this trend at the ballot box.
- Climate change is having an increasingly dramatic impact across the country with record flooding, drought, forest fires, hurricanes, and tornados. Our young people are concerned that the degradation of the climate (and number of severe weather events) is increasing at a much higher rate than predicted, significantly compressing the window of opportunity to take action to prevent irreversible change.
Many more than in the past on both sides of the political aisle see the 2024 elections as a “make it or break it” year for dramatic political change. The question is whether public sentiment to engage in a more Constructive dialogue will grow or, alternatively, America will become consumed with Destructionist rhetoric, plunging it inevitably into a civil war.
Learn more about key drivers and the use of Strategic Foresight Analysis to anticipate the potential for dramatic political change in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd edition.