The moment Biden hints he will not run, he becomes a lame duck and Vice President Harris becomes a 2024 candidate (and target for potential rivals). Trump’s insatiable hunger for attention demands he maintain the status of 2024 frontrunner. In addition, his fundraising racket and status as a kingmaker in the 2022 midterms would shrivel as soon as he backs out. Moreover, so long as he is a 2024 contender he can frame any criminal indictment that might come his way as a political stunt to keep him off the ballot. Therefore, in all likelihood, he will keep the prospect of a presidential campaign alive right up until he decides he would rather not face rivals and a daily barrage of questions about his 2020 loss.
Democrats’ misgivings about a Biden run are twofold. Fear that Biden’s age would be a liability centers not only on public perceptions of his fitness but also recognition that the 2024 race will be a traditional, travel-heavy affair unlike the covid-constrained 2020 campaign. Democrats also fret that low poll numbers now will make reelection an uphill climb. And frankly, they do not believe any promise Biden may make now is airtight. If his health or political standing is weak in 2024, he can always change his mind.
The prospect of Biden running in 2024 effectively freezes the Democratic field. Harris certainly will stand by her boss. Few if any other viable contenders want to rekindle memories of 1980, when Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) primaried President Jimmy Carter, dividing the party and weakening an already-flagging presidency.
On the GOP side, Republicans acknowledge in their more sober moments that Trump could be devastating to their chances in 2024 — and perhaps take the rest of the party down with him. Trump is the only Republican candidate who could take Biden’s age off the table, and the flood of stories that have come out since he left office heighten the perception he is irrational, prone to fits of rage and intellectually unfit. Republican donors, insiders and most elected leaders know that Trump’s own physical and mental fitness will be a constant issue. Even worse, they know he will never be quiet about the 2020 election or condemn the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. An election revolving around a frothing, bitter loser defending violent marauders is a Republican nightmare.
The prospect of a Trump run, however problematic, strongly discourages his MAGA acolytes, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), from showing real interest. These Republicans must be the successor, not the rival, to the MAGA cult leader to have any chance of success. The last thing they need is a devastating Trump assault that would hobble their future prospects. Former Cabinet members such as Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley are even less likely to cross their old boss.
Even if Trump appears prepared to run, other candidates outside the MAGA orbit seem likely to make preparations. They range from inconsistent critics, such as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (who won’t say if he’ll support Trump if he winds up as the nominee), to virulent Trump antagonists, such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Ironically, if Trump eventually decides not to run, the best-positioned contenders may be the anti-Trump crowd who did not wait to mount their campaigns.
In sum, unless Biden’s health becomes a serious issue, it is hard to imagine he will not run. Even if his poll numbers are down, the potential to run against a hyper-flawed candidate like Trump may well keep him in the race. (Carter ran in 1980 despite approval numbers that had dropped to 28 percent in 1979 and remained below 40 percent in the months leading up to Election Day.) By contrast, many more factors could keep Trump out — ranging from failing health to criminal indictment to fear of losing once again. In other words, it is much more likely that Biden will run than Trump will.