At presidential election forum, VCU political analysts frame Biden-Trump rematch in familiar terms

March 18, 2024
Three people sit behind microphones
At a March 13 forum, VCU political science professors Alex Keena, Allie Reckendorf and John Aughenbaugh (from left to right) pointed to voter turnout.

n a political environment of unyielding division and unprecedented circumstances, some very traditional measures will still lead the way in this year’s presidential race.

At a March 13 forum, three Virginia Commonwealth University analysts highlighted voter turnout – and mobilizing party bases – as keys to whether Democratic incumbent Joe Biden wins a second consecutive term or Republican Donald Trump returns to the White House. VCU Department of Political Science professors John AughenbaughAlex Keena and Allie Reckendorf discussed the presidential rematch during a “Civil Discourse” event sponsored by VCU Libraries and hosted by public affairs research librarian Nia Rodgers, who produces the “Civil Discourse“ podcast.

Aughenbaugh noted how researchers have documented the declining number of undecided independent voters in just the past two to three decades. If most voters identify strongly enough as a Democrat or Republican, they are prepared to support the party candidate no matter who it is.

“Then the next question becomes, ‘Are we motivated enough to get out to vote for our party’s candidate?’” Aughenbaugh said.

Keena added that political parties in recent decades operated under the theory that to win a national election, presidential candidates were best seen as being moderates. They might espouse more liberal or conservative positions during state primaries, but they would emphasize more centrist views for the general election. The Democratic Party has largely used this approach.

Trump, though, doesn’t hew to this model. And at the national level, he has steered the Republican Party away from emphasizing appeal to centrist voters, instead favoring mobilization of the candidate’s base.

“Trump won in 2016 not by pivoting to the center but by doubling down on … positions that other Republicans felt was political suicide,” Keena said.

He noted that if most voters have already “picked a team” based on political party, the real issue is whether they go to the polls. Keena said a major question for Biden is whether young voters will turn out as they have in some recent elections framed by hot-button topics – but will they be motivated enough by the prospect of a second term for Trump?

Reckendorf said recent polling found that only 10% of 18- to 34-year-olds have cited democracy as their most important issue ahead of the presidential election – and this could be an issue for Biden, who has campaigned heavily on the theme that Trump and the Republican Party have undermined democratic principles and institutions.

Reckendorf added that young voters have instead cited the economy as the leading issue. That puts them in company with many other groups, and Aughenbaugh said inflation and consumer prices could be bellwethers about how middle-class and lower-income voters will lean in November’s election.

He also cited the prospect of retrospective voting – as in, voters looking back at recent years to assess how they are faring now vs. then, and using the answer to judge an incumbent.

A photo of four people standing next to each other.
(Left to right) Nia Rodgers, public affairs research librarian, served as a moderator for a recent town hall on the 2024 election featuring VCU political science professors Alex Keena, John Aughenbaugh and Allie Reckendorf. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Among other points made by the VCU political analysts at the forum:

Middle East conflict

The situation in Gaza is a notable issue for Biden among Muslim Americans and young voters, as evidenced by the large number of ballots marked “uncommitted” in Michigan’s primary. The state has a large Muslim population, and Reckendorf noted that while the roughly 13% of primary voters choosing “uncommitted” wasn’t dramatically more than when Barack Obama ran for re-election, the margin of victory or defeat for Biden could be razor-thin.

“In a state like Michigan, which is a swing state that Joe Biden only won by 154,000 votes [in 2020], It’s one of those things he’s going to have to look out for,” she said.

Trump’s legal challenges

Aughenbaugh noted a rare circumstance framed by Trump’s legal challenges. As of the forum date, Trump was facing more than 80 charges across multiple federal and state cases. He is fighting the federal cases, tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks at the U.S. Capitol, on grounds that include potential immunity from prosecution during his presidency.

“Depending on how and when the Supreme Court rules, we can possibly have a major-party nominee running for president while he is sitting for trial,” Aughenbaugh said.  

He added that Trump could even run for office from a jail cell – and there’s precedent: In 1920, Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs ran for president from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He was serving a 10-year sentence for sedition stemming from a 1918 speech protesting U.S. involvement in World War I.


Keena highlighted how political donations and campaign spending, which American courts consider a form of free speech, have grown at rates that far outpace inflation, income growth, the cost of health care and rising college tuition.

“In 2020, the amount of money being spent was roughly double of what was spent in 2016,” he said.

For Biden and Democrats, using “the specter of Trump to strike fear” has been a successful fundraising theme, Keena said, with the money supporting anti-Trump advertising well ahead of November’s election.

Trump, meanwhile, is fighting costly legal battles – civil and criminal trials – in ways that could intersect with campaign finance laws, even if enforcement is unlikely. “He’s spending gobs of money on lawyers, and he’s getting this money from donations from people around the country,” Keena said.

By Amelia Heymann. This article was first published in VCU News. 

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