World·Analysis

Has the U.S. general election campaign just started months early?

Did the U.S. general election campaign just start months early? With a Biden versus Trump matchup appearing increasingly inevitable, this week offered scenes from what could be an abnormally long election to be fought on three fronts: the campaign trail, Congress and the courts.

First scenes from a long slog slated to last one year, one month and one week

Medium shots of two white elderly male politicians standing in front of podiums.
Primaries? What primaries? Donald Trump acts like they don't exist, Joe Biden is already running anti-Trump ads, and they're competing on the campaign trail. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images, Mike Mulholland/The Associated Press)

We may have just witnessed the unofficial start of the 2024 U.S. general election, its main dynamics set in motion months earlier than usual.

Even for a country notorious for its lengthy elections, this could become an abnormally long affair, a 13-month campaign ending on Nov. 5, 2024.

It will be fought on at least three main battlegrounds, and this week signalled what to expect on the campaign trail, Congress and the courts. 

At competing events, Donald Trump and Joe Biden highlighted the clashing visions they'll offer voters if they become their parties' respective presidential nominees. 

In court, Trump suffered a stinging rebuke from a judge who accused him of fraud and ordered his companies disbanded. And with 91 charges in four cases across four jurisdictions, he has many more court dates ahead.

In Congress, the searing pre-election partisanship is reaching a boil: An impeachment probe into Biden began Thursday while a government shutdown appears imminent.

Meanwhile, next year's likely antagonists are skipping past the primaries, which haven't even begun yet and last until next June, and talking at each other instead.

Biden has released a first re-election ad focused entirely on Trump. For his part, Trump has essentially declared himself the de facto Republican nominee, skipping one debate with his primary rivals and urging his party to cancel future debates.

WATCH | Why Trump didn't attend the Republican debate:

Why Trump is skipping the Fox News Republican presidential debate

8 months ago
Duration 7:16
Even though Donald Trump is opting out of the first GOP debate, his presence will still loom large. Andrew Chang explains why Trump would have little to gain and lots to lose by taking the debate stage.

At the starting line: 'A statistical tie'  

So, how does the race look? A pollster sums it up in two words: Close and unprecedented.

"They're head to head," said Tim Malloy, an analyst at the Quinnipiac University Poll, noting it would be "a statistical tie if the election were held today."

Malloy says he can't think of a past election where both candidates started off looking so vulnerable: They're unpopular, they're old, one's in danger of being impeached and the other's in danger of going to jail.

"There's never been anything like this," he said.

When asked which candidate he'd rather be at this point, Malloy laughed and replied: "Neither." 

He said Biden may be in a better position, given the severe legal jeopardy Trump faces. Then again, Trump is currently polling better than he did at any point during the 2020 election, which he nearly won, coming within a hair in three swing states.

So, here we go again.

People hold signs like 'Union Members For Trump' behind Trump.
Biden spoke to striking auto workers, then Trump did (sort of). Trump spoke in a non-union shop, invited by management, while non-union and non-auto-workers reportedly held up some of those signs. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Scenes from a strike in a swing state

In one swing state, Michigan, the candidates held back-to-back events amid an auto strike. They touted opposing visions: for the economy, the environment and the role of government.

Biden was squarely pro-union. In fact, he briefly joined a picket line Tuesday for what historians and union officials called an unprecedented act for a sitting U.S. president, siding with strikers.

He fist-bumped workers seeking a major pay increase, endorsing their push to reverse past wage concessions now that car companies are turning record profits.

Biden picked up a megaphone and said: "You deserve what you've earned, and you've earned a hell of a lot more than you're getting paid now."

WATCH | Biden talks union with striking autoworkers in Detroit:

Biden says striking autoworkers deserve a 'significant' raise

7 months ago
Duration 1:13
U.S. President Joe Biden visited the United Auto Workers picket line in Detroit on Tuesday, saying the workers deserve a significant raise after sacrifices made during the 2008 financial crisis. Auto companies are doing 'incredibly well,' Biden said, 'and you should be doing incredibly well, too.'

The next day, Trump offered a contrasting message: That the government should back off from pushing electric vehicles (EVs) through mandates and tax credits. His argument is that companies are losing money on them, it takes fewer workers to make EVs, and more of the parts come from China.

"You're all on picket lines … But it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what you get, because in two years, you're all going to be out of business," Trump told an audience at a non-union parts plant.

"That's what you have to be talking about."

As with many Trump claims, it's worth checking the fine print. While the event was incorrectly billed in some news reports as an event for striking workers, it later turned out Trump was speaking at a non-union parts plant at the invitation of management.

Then, a reporter for the Detroit News talked to spectators at Trump's rally. One, who wasn't a union member, held up a sign that said, "Union Members For Trump." Another, who wasn't an auto worker, held up a sign that said "Auto Workers for Trump."

People hold protest signs behind Peter Navarro, with messages like 'Defend Democracy'
People hold signs around former Trump aide Peter Navarro, convicted of contempt of Congress, outside a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Is this election about the economy, democracy or a bit of both? Some polls offer clues. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Issues: the economy and democracy

Other Trump-related stories got little attention. The former president has in recent days appeared to suggest his former top military officer would deserve execution for treason and threatened to investigate NBC News for treason.

Before Trump, such comments would have made headlines for days. Now, they don't dominate a single news cycle.

Biden struggled to break through that noise by delivering a speech on what he sees as a top campaign issue: his opponent's anti-democratic extremism.

Voters do actually care about the state of democracy and see it as a serious concern, according to the Quinnipiac poll.

But not as much as they care about the economy. 

That's the albatross swooping above Biden's re-election journey. A recent NBC News poll on which political party better handles the economy found Republicans with a 21-point advantage, the party's largest lead on that question since 1991.

Trump served up a theme of economic woes during his speech at the auto plant and added a dollop of make-believe: He insisted that many U.S. factories are closing under Biden. 

The opposite is true. Manufacturing is booming and there's historic growth in plant construction. 

Joe Biden stands at a podium set up on a small stage in an auditorium, flanked by American flags and yellow posters with the words 'Bidenomics' and 'Largo, Maryland.'
Biden delivers a speech on 'Bidenomics,' his plan to create jobs, reduce inflation and increase wages, at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md., earlier this month. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The real problem, for Biden and the country, is inflation: You can actually trace how Biden's approval rating drops in inverse proportion to the surge in inflation in the summer of 2021, and the smaller recent spike.

But barring a Himalayan-scaling climb by another Republican candidate, Trump has the presidential nomination locked up.

While speaking in Michigan, Trump skipped a primary debate featuring a collection of candidates with so little presence that if you combined all of their support, he would still out-poll them by about 20 points.

"They're all job candidates," Trump said, likening his opponents to applicants for positions in his next administration, noting they want to be "secretary of something."

Donald Trump mug shot.
Trump faces 91 criminal charges in four jurisdictions, including Georgia, where this mug shot was taken. It hasn't hurt him with Republican primary voters. The question now: Would it affect him in a general election? (Fulton County Sheriff's Office)

The courtroom campaign

It was impossible to discern from Trump's buoyant performance that he'd just been declared a longtime fraudster and his companies ordered dissolved in a non-criminal case.

A New York judge concluded Tuesday that Trump and his sons systematically overvalued assets to get bank loans at cheaper interest rates. For instance, he declared his personal apartment at Trump Tower to contain 30,000 square feet — triple its actual size.

Trump's family challenged at least one of the judge's findings; they cried persecution and called him biased. Based on the reaction to Trump's past legal travails, Republican primary voters will overwhelmingly side with him.

WATCH | Explaing the indictments Donald Trump is facing: 

Trump's indictments explained: Why Georgia is charging him like a 'Mob boss' | About That

8 months ago
Duration 15:05
Former U.S. president Donald Trump is facing criminal charges for the fourth time, after a Georgia grand jury issued a sweeping indictment accusing him of trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden and of running a ‘criminal enterprise.’ Andrew Chang explains all of the charges, and why the latest are so significant.

But since we're talking about the general election, will swing voters feel the same way about Trump's troubles next fall? Malloy, the pollster, notes that many independents are still undecided.

"All hell is coming down on [Trump] legally, and none of us know what that really is gonna mean," he said.

Biden impeachment probe begins

Republicans, meanwhile, are working to put another corruption story in the window for voters to consider, this one involving Biden and his family. 

In a nutshell, they claim Biden's relatives, especially his son Hunter, have engaged in influence-peddling for years, drawing millions from foreign companies seeking U.S. political connections; that they never registered as foreign lobbyists as required by law; that Biden himself has repeatedly talked to some of these foreign clients; and that Biden has made misleading statements to the U.S. public when asked about all this.

Republicans launched hearings Thursday that could eventually lead to an impeachment vote.

Three boxes behind members of Congress, seated. In foreground, a clock saying a government shutdown starts in two days.
On the right, James Comer, the Republican leading impeachment hearings into Biden. On the left, Democrat Jamie Raskin points to boxes containing bank records which, he said, show no evidence of wrongdoing by the president. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At this first hearing, Republican James Comer said his investigation has so far found the president's relatives connected to over 20 shell companies that made over $20 million US from 2014 to 2019.

"What were the Bidens selling to make all this money? Joe Biden himself," said the Kentucky Republican. "Joe Biden was sold around the world."

Democrats called this a shameless effort to confuse swing voters by making them look at both candidates and conclude they're equally corrupt.

Instead, they say the Republicans have no smoking gun, with Democrat Jamie Raskin calling it "a counterfeit moral equivalence."

WATCH | What to know about the impeachment hearing against Biden: 

Why Republicans ordered Biden’s impeachment inquiry

7 months ago
Duration 8:08
Republicans have opened an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Joe Biden over his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings. With the likelihood of impeachment low, CBC’s Alexander Panetta and Vice’s Todd Zwillich break down what Republicans are really after.

Meanwhile, Congress is paralyzed; the Republican House is failing to pass routine budget bills, so government agencies will shut down this weekend. In the Senate, U.S. military promotions and diplomatic appointments are stalled (the reason: fights involving abortion and the origins of COVID).

All this is only a preview. 

Barring a surprise plot twist, the last few days were the start of an election that will drag on for one year, one month, and one week.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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