I was surprised, when I logged into a virtual foreign-policy discussion hosted in Brussels on Tuesday, to find Europeans on the chat page talking not about Gaza or Kyiv or Beijing, but about the voters of Loudoun County, Va.
The perverse micro-psychology of the American voter has been a subject of panicky obsession in Paris and Berlin, not to mention Seoul, Canberra and Ottawa. The prospect of another Trump era is, for the democratic world, absolutely blood-chilling – worse than the time-stopping disaster that was 2016 through 2021. Imagine if his particular form of vengeful chaos had dominated the world stage following the second Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Or during the postlockdown economic recovery. Or during the current Israel-Gaza war.
That sense of panic was magnified last weekend, when a large-scale New York Times poll showed that if a two-way election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump were held today, Mr. Trump would likely prevail – especially in five of the six most significant swing states.
That shocked Americans on the Democratic side, who have assumed Mr. Trump’s multiple criminal prosecutions, combined with a buoyant economy and demographic change, have all but ruled him out in 2024.
Not so much abroad. Overseas governments, I’ve found, have been more pessimistic about the prospects of a Biden re-election than Americans themselves – and many are hedging their bets, putting off major policy commitments and avoiding multilateral decisions, until a year from this week. Vladimir Putin is certainly doing so – as Russia analysts put it, the Russian president is “trying to hold out” until next November’s vote potentially ends U.S. support to Ukraine.
Canada is in a particularly vulnerable position. The post-2016 Trump era, by turning the United States into an opponent rather than a partner, destroyed the foreign-policy ambitions of the Trudeau Liberals, creating enormous rifts involving China, Russia and North American trade. The next time would likely be far worse, and Ottawa does not seem fully prepared.
So Monday’s midterms became a topic of fascination to people whose interests, and physical locations, are far removed from the handful of states facing significant election battles. Would those battles portend a far worse result in a year?
As it turned out, they didn’t. It was a sweep for Mr. Biden’s Democrats, including in Loudoun County. That suggested some other, less pessimistic things are going on in the United States.
For one, the scary poll was asking Americans how they’d vote in a one-on-one Biden-Trump race. But 2024 is unlikely to be one-on-one. Last month, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced he’d run as an independent, on a platform that combines Mr. Trump’s insane conspiracy-theory views on vaccines, foreign relations and trade with a famous presidential surname. Recent polls show Mr. Kennedy, in a three-way race, attracting as much as 22 per cent of votes – mostly from Trump Republicans, delivering Mr. Biden a solid plurality. History shows such candidates’ margins usually drop to the single digits, suggesting that he could do for Mr. Biden what Ross Perot did for Bill Clinton in 1992 or Ralph Nader did for George W. Bush in 2000.
Mr. Biden also probably no longer has to worry about a third-party challenger to his left. The Democratic Socialists of America, many of whom have become disillusioned with the party’s own left under Senator Bernie Sanders, had appeared poised to back an outside candidate – but vicious infighting over responses to Israel’s invasion of Gaza has made it unlikely they’ll coalesce behind a single figure.
And then there’s the crucial factor of age demographics. Since 2016, 41 million young Americans have reached voting age – and ballot and poll results show they are far more Democratic-leaning than previous cohorts of the same age, and are turning out to vote at much higher rates than previous generations. Meanwhile, voters over 65 in Trump-supporting areas are dying off at disproportionate rates, in good part as a result of their resistance to vaccination.
This brings us back to the micro-psychology of the American voter. In an analysis of that poll, Seth Masket of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver noted that people tend to vote on the economy – but that “since the COVID pandemic, there’s been a large and growing disconnect between how the economy is behaving and how Americans perceive it. Economic performance has been very strong recently, but Americans continue to say times are bad.”
Mr. Masket predicts that in the next year, as the big wage gains, full employment and end of serious inflation become a more established pattern, that disconnect will subside and polls will become more rational.
In essence, the entire world is watching the ever-shifting temperature of the swing-state American voter, desperately hoping the fever will break. And in case it doesn’t, we’d better be prepared.