Thursday, January 18, 2024

Previewing 2024's Election Year? Buckle-Up

By Michael Bitzer

Well, it's the start of the new year and new semester, and with the 2024 Election year now officially upon us, I (along with my fellow contributors) will share some thoughts as to what we'll be watching for over the coming months. 

For me, it's a single phrase: buckle-up, cause it's gonna be a bumpy year.

What Happens When the Court of Public Opinion & Voters Clash with the Courts of Law?

I don't think this bears repeating enough, but for this year's presidential election, we are truly facing historic and unprecedented times: never has one of the two major political parties had a nominee, let alone a front-runner candidate, under the cloud of legal indictment and charges like what we are seeing at the beginning of this primary season. 

For those of us who study both American politics and the American legal system, this year has the chance to completely overwhelm us with the intersection between the campaigns on the primary trail and the campaigns within the courtroom. 

Not to mention beyond the indictments and accusations against the former president, but also the constitutional novelties of what exact does this section of the amended U.S. Constitution means (especially the bold parts):

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. 

Again, we've never had to 'interpret' the 14th Amendment's Section 3 because...well, we've never had an event like January 6, 2021 to prompt such a discussion. 

My recommendation for folks: let the process play out. Yes, the legal process will be made political. Politics is in the law, and the law shapes our politics. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court will render some kind of decision as to various questions--even giving a "it's a political question and best left up to others" is a decision (one that many may not like, but it is a judicial decision). 

And what will happen if the former Republican president is convicted in one of these trials? Again, there is no precedent for one of the two major parties' presidential candidate running with a potential conviction (though we have had candidates for third-party presidential bids run while they were in prison), but like many things this year, my counsel: let the process unfold (it will) and ultimately let the voters decide (they will as well). Speaking of the voters...

Yes, People (i.e., Voters) are Mad--But Will They Show Up When It Comes to Voting?

If you watch the polls, you'll often see a question asked for respondents along the lines of "do you think the country is on the right track or the wrong track?" And by most accounts, barely a quarter of Americans recently have said the nation is on the 'right track,' while nearly two-thirds are all aboard the wrong track train. 

For some time, I think most political observers and analysts have felt that responses to this question now tap something more than what was previously thought of: meaning, that before the deepening polarization of today's political environment, potentially both sides of the political aisle would give a thumbs-up or down to the overall state of the country. 

But in today's deep partisan divide, it may be more a reflection of both sides feeling the other side is doing damage to the country, and thus they (the opposition) are the ones making the country go off the rails. 

In general, when people are in 'a mood,' it's usually a guarantee that they will take their frustrations out at the ballot box (and let's hope only at the ballot box). According to the University of Florida's Election Lab, the overall US voter turnout rate for 2020 was 66 percent, a record in the modern era (the highest in the 20th Century was 1900's 73 percent, while the overall highest for the country was 82.6 percent in 1876).

In North Carolina in 2020, three-quarters of registered voters cast a ballot, again a record in modern times. Will we see a similar turnout rate for 2024 with the same two presidential candidates having a potential rematch? Very likely, along with the fact that we will likely have one of the most contentious (and expensive) gubernatorial and state attorney general races in the nation this year. 

As is the standard mantra with all elections, the key question to always ask is: who shows up? And in the Old North State, we have a treasure-trove of data that helps us to better understand the electorate and the dynamics of voter turnout. I'll be focusing future blog posts on both the primary and, once fall rolls around with the general campaign, the November elections with some analysis on voter turnout. 

But one aspect of 'who shows up' that I'm most interested in is the last dynamic that I'll be paying close attention to, and that is...

Do The Generational Tectonic Plates Finally Rub Against Each Other In #ncpol And In Our National and Regional Politics? 

As many readers know, I've been keenly interested in the politics of America's generational cohorts, namely those voters over the age of 60 (Boomers) and those under the age of 44 (Millennials & now Gen Z). And yes, before my fellow Gen Xers say "there ya go again, forgetting us..."--have no fear, I'll put you in the mix of things too, unlike some media outlets. (Here's the Pew Research Center's delineation of the different generational cohorts).

But the battle of the "bulges" of Boomer and Millennials/Gen Zers is the political dynamic that could bring about a potential tipping point in American politics. 

In North Carolina, the voter registration pool for the electorate is now tilting Millennial/Gen Z, with those two generations making up 41 percent of the voter pool. Another key factor about these voters who are under 44 years old is that significant pluralities are registered unaffiliated.

Data from the NC State Board of Elections; compiled by Michael Bitzer

Nevertheless, it's not about who is registered to vote but who actually votes come election-time. And in North Carolina, it's a history of over & under-performing based on age: older voters tend to over-perform against the state turnout rate, while younger voters are under-performers when it comes to casting ballots.

Data from the NC State Board of Elections Voter Registration & Voter History Data Files; compiled by Michael Bitzer

In 2016, Millennials were fifteen points behind in their turnout rate compared to the state, while in 2020, they and Generation Z were thirteen points behind the state turnout rate of 75 percent. Compared especially to Boomers, who were eleven points above the state turnout rates in 2016 and 2020, voters now under 44 in 2024 have some considerable ground to make up if they want to flex their political weight compared to older voters. 

And speaking of elections...

What Can We Glean, if Anything, from Iowa's Blizzard Caucuses?

With the initial 2024 presidential nominating contest concluded in Iowa, we have a better sense of how the Republican Party views their former president seeking a third nomination for the United States’ highest executive office. 

But within these results and the entrance poll, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ news exist. 

It was no surprise that Donald Trump won with 51 percent, due to nearly half (46 percent) of the Iowa caucus identifying as a MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republican. If future primary contests are like Iowa’s results, Trump will reclaim the Republican presidential nomination.

But two cautions are also apparent: only fifteen percent of the state’s total registered Republicans participated in the blizzard caucuses, and winning half of Iowa Republicans shows that the other half did not want the former president as their party’s standard bearer. 

While Iowa as a state has moved more Republican in general elections, there are warning signs that could be significant for November’s election.

Two Iowa caucus entrance poll questions stand out. First, when asked “do you think that Joe Biden legitimately won the presidency in 2020,” two-thirds of Republicans said no, with nearly seventy percent of those voting for Trump. 

Among those who believe Biden did legitimately win, only eleven percent voted for Trump. If Trump decides to focus on the 2020 election, what will those who believed Biden did win do in November?

The second question asked, “If Donald Trump were to be convicted of a crime, would you consider him fit to be president?” Almost two-thirds—65 percent—said if criminally convicted, Trump could still serve. And seven out of ten of those respondents voted for him.

But a third of Iowa Republicans said Trump was not fit to be president if convicted. Again, what do they do in November?

In the United States, the political parties have become more tribalistic and loyal to a fault. The Iowa caucus signals that the Republican Party is a majority Trumpist party. 

Future primaries will confirm or refute these findings, and I hope similar questions on exit polls are used in those primaries. But if Trumpism can generate intense loyalty, can it also generate intense abhorrence that culminates in November? 

Only time, and U.S. voters, will tell. Until then:


Dr. Michael Bitzer holds the Leonard Chair of Political Science and is a professor of politics and history. He is on social media in a variety of venues, including formerly Twitter and Bluesky