Our Initial 2024 Presidential Ratings

With the Republican presidential primary field all but set and the election less than 18 months away, Split Ticket now debuts its initial 2024 presidential ratings. Historically, preference volatility has hindered projection-making from this point in time, over a year out from either party convention. However, with increased ideological entrenchment, it appears clear that a 2020 rematch is imminent, with incumbent President Joe Biden a virtual lock for the Democratic presidential nomination and former President Donald Trump a strong favorite to become Biden’s Republican opponent.

While we have shown that Donald Trump and his endorsed candidates have performed below their more “mainstream” Republican counterparts, the fact remains that what the general electorate considers “middle-of-the-road” does not necessarily reflect the sensibilities of the Republican primary electorate. Despite (or perhaps, because of) his controversial political brand, Trump remains a strong frontrunner ahead of a split opposition field.

As of writing, the former president enjoys a 54% share in FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregate, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis lagging behind at a distant 21%. The potential nominees also include former UN Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott, while Trump’s former running mate, Mike Pence, stands poised to join them soon. DeSantis’ earlier, post-midterm polling surge has long since faded, with Republican loyalties returning to the former president as campaigning has begun.

FiveThirtyEight analysis of historical presidential primary polling suggests that figures from this stage of the nomination process have predictive value, especially with a finding that candidates of Trump’s standing are generally overwhelming favorites for nomination. However, factors remain that could upend this status quo: eight months remain until the Iowa caucuses, legal issues are staring down the frontrunner, and the Republican issue set could conceivably swing in DeSantis’ favor. It would be unwise to fully discount any candidate from this far out in the more-fluid primary phase.

Moreover, both Trump (78) and Biden (82) are set to be the oldest-ever nominees for both their parties, and at advanced age, health complications could arise on either end, reshaping the playing field for the primaries and the general election alike. However, for the purposes of deciding our initial ratings, it is difficult to argue for anything other than a Trump vs. Biden rematch as the modal, expected outcome.

The Environment

Democrats must reckon with the fact that Joe Biden is currently an unpopular president. A 41% approval rating would be nothing short of cataclysmic in a less polarized era, but with many of Biden’s detractors coming from within his own party, it should be expected that many of those who disapprove of him would readily vote for him in a 2020 rematch. In fact, polls meant to capture general elections are not very predictive at this stage, and properly gauging the environment from a year and a half out is a fool’s errand. What can be said is that midterm results saw a persuasion environment a few degrees bluer than that of 2020, with many Trump-voting electorates denying extreme Republicans victories in competitive races.

Conversely, Republicans are also on track to nominate a similarly, if not more, unpopular candidate in the former president. Donald Trump has lost the popular vote twice, consistently polls as unfavorable since the start of his political career, and now has untested liabilities in his brand post-January 6 and post-Dobbs. This time around, though, he faces his rival without incumbency benefits. Because of this, it is extremely possible that independents dissatisfied with Biden come to still vote for him — in fact, this would be in line with what focus groups conducted by the New York Times suggest.

Given all of these confounding factors, it would be best to start with an environment similar to 2020, and make further adjustments as November 2024 comes into focus, granting us the flexibility needed to portray a more accurate picture of the contours of this campaign.

The Electoral Map

The competitive states can broadly be categorized in two strains. The first is a set of whiter, less religious states which saw a pro-Democratic swing from 2020 to 2022. The ones to watch are Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Alaska, Minnesota, Ohio, and New Hampshire are less competitive, but exhibit similar behavior. The second has more diverse populations with a more conservative white electorate, which broadly yielded gains for Republicans in 2022. Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina are the most competitive among these; Texas and Florida are tough battlegrounds, but are irreplaceable for any Republican path to the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the Presidency.

The first category is where Democrats have best been able to harness electoral backlash against the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling (which eliminated federal protections for abortion rights). Almost all of these states swung left from 2020 despite a more conservative environment; each state among these trended left.

Michigan has the clearest path to a Democratic win among the most competitive tranche: Biden only needs to hold his margins in the rurals, which are less evangelical, and in the suburbs, which are less conservative, and maintain high turnout in the exceptionally-Democratic core in Detroit, or cut losses just enough to make use of his three-point margin from 2020. Democrats were able to do just that in 2022; even making gains in redrawn congressional and legislative maps, flipping all three to Democratic-majority delegations.

Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are more competitive states, which were both only won by the President by about a percentage point. While Democrats have secured a slew of critical and decisive wins in these states through the victories of candidates such as Janet Protasiewicz, Tony Evers, John Fetterman, and Josh Shapiro, uncertainty regarding the true political environment in a presidential year makes us wary enough to avoid assigning them to either partisan camp from this far out. It should be noted that both states vote for Republican House candidates, on aggregate.

The second group of battlegrounds has presented the opposite trend. Each of these states swung right from 2020 to 2022, partially attributable to cratered nonwhite turnout and a less favorable issue set for Democrats in more religious states less sympathetic to abortion access than their secular northern counterparts.

Although Democrats have struck out repeatedly, North Carolina has consistently been competitive for over a decade, with Democratic gains in affluent suburbs crosscutting Republican gains in the rural parts of the state, and conservative population growth in the exurban counties. Johnston County, for example, gained fifty thousand new residents between 2010 and 2020, and it is quite possible that these new voters were actually more Republican than not.

Despite Republican strengths, however, the state still only went to Trump by a percentage point, and Cheri Beasley’s performance benchmarks suggest that she probably would have won her 2022 Senate race if Democrats had a presidential-year electorate to work with. Given this, we believe that the state is firmly in play; if Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are understood as Democratic-tilting tossups, then North Carolina would be the Republican counterpart.

While North Carolina gives a mixed picture, Georgia is a ripe peach for Democrats looking to secure their foothold in the Deep South. Democratic growth in the diversifying Atlanta Metropolitan area has rapidly accelerated since 2012, culminating in a flip for Biden in 2020 and Democratic Senators Ossoff and Warnock in 2021. Although Republicans remain strong among rural white voters, suburbanites prove to be a decisive bloc less interested in flipping back to Republicans. Despite wins for Republicans up and down the ballot in 2022, Trump-aligned Senate candidate Herschel Walker was defeated by Raphael Warnock by three percentage points in a redder year than Trump’s fractional loss two years prior.

Florida and Texas are two Southern giants which Democrats are unlikely to fell in 2024. Although Republicans continue to lose ground in the suburbs of Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Jacksonville, and especially Austin, they have been able to stem their losses with flips among conservative Hispanic voters in both of these states. Both states also delivered strong margins for incumbent and controversial incumbents in 2022, bucking a national trend of underperformances by Republicans. While we think Texas is significantly likelier to be the more competitive of the two, observers would be wise to hold off on either baking-in or writing-off these possibly-nascent trends in two states on the edge of the playing field.

The two most competitive states in the western Sun Belt are Arizona and Nevada. Democrats start off as slight favorites in Nevada, due to advantages with minority voters and moderate whites in the Las Vegas and Reno metropolitan areas where most of the state’s population lives. Strong relationships between the state Democratic Party and organized labor helped Democrats to punch above their weight in the face of a Republican-leaning environment of 2022. These advantages compound and point to a continued Democratic edge in the Silver State.

Arizona saw Democrats flip the governorship, hold their Senate seat, and draw Republicans to one-seat majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, as controversial Republican candidates Kari Lake and Blake Masters acted as ballasts for their party mates in a state typified by former Senator John McCain, a maverick and moderate popular among the college-educated Maricopa County suburbanites. Trump lost among this demographic in 2020; it could prove to be a tall order for him to reverse these losses in a rematch against Biden, who carried the historically Republican state by less than half a percent in 2020.

Our current forecast now suggests an ahistorically small number of competitive states, with just five tossups; moreover, 37 out of 50 states and 466 out of 538 electoral votes are marked as completely safe for either party. This might still be overselling the size of the battlefield; states like Florida and New Hampshire are closer to being rated as “safe” than they are to being true swing states.

We want to stress that this is extremely unprecedented. Even in 2020, this number was significantly higher; Sabato’s Crystal Ball, for example, had marked 24 states as in-play. There’s plenty of time for this to change, and we expect that some states will move on and off the board as more predictive data becomes available. But the acceleration of polarization, combined with a probable repeat matchup means that the number of swing voters might be lower than ever in 2024.

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