The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tune out those 2024 presidential race predictions

President Biden in the White House on Dec. 3. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

“Go Ahead, Sucker, Bet on Reagan’s Reelection.”

That was the headline that ran on the front of this newspaper’s Outlook section on May 22, 1983. Just about a year and a half later, Ronald Reagan would romp to a second term by winning 49 states, in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history.

This is something I often recall as I read the frenzied handicapping of the 2024 presidential race, which appears to be congealing into conventional wisdom at an earlier point than any in memory.

One recent poll conducted for NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist College, for instance, finds that a plurality of Democrats — 44 percent — believe their party has a better chance of winning if President Biden is replaced as their candidate.

My question is: How would anyone know? And here’s another one: Why are pollsters even asking, when there is a huge midterm election looming in between, the trajectory of the economy is uncertain and no one knows when or even if we are going to put the covid-19 crisis behind us? All of these are likely to be determinants of both parties’ prospects in 2024, regardless of who is at the top of their tickets.

Given today’s deeply polarized electorate, it is hard to imagine that any candidate could pull off the kind of lopsided victory that Reagan did in 1984. But if anything, that makes early 2024 predictions all the more ridiculous. Anyone old enough to remember election night 2016 should know that.

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That 1983 Post article actually made a reasonable case, given that Reagan’s approval rating at the beginning of the year stood at a dismal 35 percent in the Gallup Poll. Biden’s numbers, hovering in the low 40s in the RealClearPolitics polling average, look practically robust by comparison. One preseason trial heat, conducted by pollster Lou Harris in January 1983, projected former vice president Walter F. Mondale beating Reagan by nine points.

Reagan, at 72, was also looking … old. His occasional stumbling performances in public were sowing doubts that he was really up to the job. Sound familiar?

As I discovered in researching my recently published biography of Nancy Reagan, even his wife had misgivings about whether he could win, which was one reason she tried to talk him out of running again. “I think it is going to be a tough, personal, close campaign,” she wrote in her diary.

But by the 1984 election, with what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression in the rearview mirror, nearly 60 percent of voters agreed with the famous Reagan campaign ad that it was “morning again” in America. On top of that, Mondale turned out to be an uninspiring candidate, though he did manage to eke out a narrow victory in his home state of Minnesota.

Consider how many other expectations have been upended in the election cycles since. In 1991, with President George H.W. Bush’s approval ticking up close to 90 percent in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, the Democrats’ biggest names — most notably, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — decided to take a pass on a challenge that pretty much everyone agreed was a fool’s errand.

That left an opening for a little-known Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, who was himself written off for dead when his primary campaign was beset by scandals, revolving around whether he had dodged the Vietnam War draft and had a long extramarital affair with a cabaret singer, who inconveniently enough had tapes of some of their phone conversations.

Everyone’s calculations were also upset that year by the third-party candidacy of eccentric billionaire H. Ross Perot, who tapped into simmering voter frustrations that foreshadowed both the tea party movement and the populist movement ignited by Donald Trump. Perot got nearly 20 million votes, and ran again in 1996; it is often overlooked that, thanks to Perot, Clinton managed to be elected twice without ever cracking 50 percent of the popular vote.

And of course, who might have imagined in advance that the 2000 election would come down to a relative handful of disputed ballots in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court? Or that a Black freshman senator from Illinois could prevail over the candidates that pretty much everyone presumed would be the two parties’ standard-bearers in 2008?

I myself, I am embarrassed to admit, wrote an August 2005 piece for Time magazine in which I waxed confidently: “Should McCain and Clinton each decide to make a bid — and most people around them expect it — both would become their party’s instant front runner. … Clinton would be declared unstoppable in her party’s primary but doomed in the general election. For McCain, that bet would be made in reverse.”

I’m older now, and hopefully a little humbler. Now, all I can say is this: Go ahead, sucker. Bet that you can predict what is going to happen in presidential politics 34 months from now.