‘Like choosing between a hedgehog and a porcupine’: US braces for presidential election no one wants

In past years, the first phase of the general election has involved at least one of the presidential nominees introducing themselves to the broader public and presenting their case for taking the country in a new direction. But that has been rendered unnecessary this year: former president Donald Trump and president Joe Biden are very familiar to the American electorate – and they are broadly unpopular.

“I think this is the worst election in my lifetime,” said George Argodale, a Nikki Haley supporter from Gainesville, Virginia. “It’s just terrible that we don’t have better candidates.”

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“That’s a sad state of affairs for our country that those are the two best candidates that we can come up with,” agreed Peggy Hudson, a primary voter in Charleston, South Carolina.

Judith Smith, from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, said of Biden and Trump: “That’s like choosing between a hedgehog and a porcupine.”

As the primary season sputters to an expected ending, following Haley’s withdrawal from the Republican primary on Wednesday, voters’ frustration with their general election options is palpable.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Biden’s approval rating now stands at 38.1%, and Trump’s rating rests at a nominally stronger 42.6%, meaning both men are disliked by a majority of Americans.

Those low opinions have carried into voters’ views on the general election. A YouGov-University of Massachusetts Amherst poll conducted in January found that 45% of Americans believe a Biden-Trump rematch is bad for the country. Another 26% say the rematch is neither good nor bad, while just 29% view it as good for the nation.

It’s not all for the same reason; the many voters lamenting their general election options represent a diverse array of ideological perspectives, ranging from anti-Trump Republicans to progressives outraged over Biden’s response to the war in Gaza.

“On the whole, there’s a lot of ambivalence and disappointment about the prospects of a rematch,” said Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “There’s a widespread perception among those individuals that the candidates are too old and that they tend to focus on issues that are issues of yesterday.”

Conversations on the campaign trail reflect those commonly held beliefs, as a number of primary voters across multiple states said that they wished they had another option for November. Among anti-Trump Republicans, many of whom voted for Haley in their primaries, the potential re-election of the former president represents a return to the chaos that defined his first term. Echoing concerns shared by most Democrats, they predict that Trump would undermine the foundation of the US government if elected.

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Vincent DiMaro, an 80-year-old voter in Charleston who voted for Haley in the primary last month, cited Trump’s temperament and Biden’s age of 81 as significant liabilities for the nation’s future (Trump is 77).

“I want to see the country survive, and I don’t think it will under Trump,” he said. But, he added: “I don’t think Biden is a particularly good president right now. I can’t be president. I know what my limitations are, and I’m in better shape than Biden.”

Argodale voted early in the Virginia primary to cast a ballot for Haley, but he said he would have to support Biden in the general election if Trump won the Republican nomination.

“I am on the conservative side of things, and [Haley] is the only viable candidate in my opinion,” he said. “[Trump] is just a terrible human being and doesn’t deserve any votes.”

Although Democrats broadly agree with that assessment, some carry concerns about Biden, particularly regarding his age. Hudson acknowledged her politics lean to the left, as she previously worked for the late Democratic senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, but she cast a primary ballot for Haley in Charleston because she is “disgusted” by Trump. Hudson indicated she would support Biden in November, but she lamented the options available to voters in the general election.

“Not that Joe Biden has not done a good job. He has done some very good things for this country,” Hudson said. “But I do think it is time for a new generation of leaders.”

An enthusiasm problem

The war in Gaza has presented a significant electoral vulnerability for Biden, as the president has faced intense criticism from progressives within his own party over his response to Israel’s airstrike campaign that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

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Progressive leaders in multiple states have organized campaigns to urge supporters to vote “uncommitted” or “leave it blank” instead of casting a ballot for Biden as a means of protesting his handling of the war. In Michigan, uncommitted won 13% of the vote in last month’s primary, and uncommitted captured 19% of votes in the Minnesota Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Hassan Jama, an imam in Minneapolis, Minnesota, campaigned for Biden in 2020 but has joined the uncommitted campaign. When asked about his options for November, he suggested he may vote for a candidate other than Biden or Trump. Voters can cast ballots for the independent presidential candidate, Cornel West, or the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, both of whom have condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide”, or they could leave the top of the ticket blank.

“We’re not voting for Trump, definitely no,” Jama said. “We have more than two choices.”

Ruth Schultz, a Minnesota primary voter who has organized with MN Families for Palestine, similarly ruled out voting for Trump, but she would not yet commit to supporting Biden in the general election.

“I know that I will never vote for Trump. That is a given,” Schultz said. “I want to see President Biden take a stronger stance for peace and how to get a ceasefire and to use all the tools at his disposal in order to do that. I am watching that as a voter in the general election.”

The uproar among many left-leaning voters has created an enthusiasm gap between the two political parties that could pose a problem for Biden. Although many people who backed Biden in 2020 express concern about his re-election, Trump’s most loyal supporters remain as fervent as ever. According to the YouGov-UMass poll, 45% of Republicans believe the Biden-Trump rematch is good for the country, but only 21% of Democrats say the same.

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When speaking to Trump voters on the campaign trail, many are quick to praise him as the best president of their lifetimes, and they display no hesitation about supporting him again this fall.

“I’ve been supporting him since he ran [in 2016], came down the escalator [at Trump Tower], ever since that,” said Chris Pennington, a voter from Johns Island, South Carolina. “I think he’s the best one to take on all the problems that we have.”

Argodale does not support Trump, but he has seen firsthand how much devotion he can inspire. “In my social circle, there are Trumpers, so they’re diehard,” he said. “If he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, they’d still vote for him.”

If Biden wants to win in November, he will have to work to narrow that enthusiasm gap or bring enough reluctant independents into his camp – or, most likely, do both.

Dire predictions

The widespread disappointment among voters regarding the Biden-Trump rematch will have sweeping political consequences this fall, but their opinions on the election also offer startling revelations about Americans’ fears for the country’s future.

The YouGov-UMass survey included open-ended questions that asked respondents what they believed would happen if the opposing party won the White House. The answers were both dire and specific, Rhodes said, with respondents predicting the end of democracy and a sharp rise in political persecution if their party were to lose.

“The perception that victory by the other candidate would be dangerous and threatening has been rising pretty consistently for some time,” Rhodes said. “I think what’s distinctive in this election cycle is just how intense those feelings are and how personal they are.”

Biden and Trump have both spoken in severe terms about what would happen if their opponent were to win, and those arguments appear to be sinking in for many voters.

Nathan Richter, who voted for Biden in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday, was concise when asked about the possibility of Trump’s return to the White House. “Please, God, no,” he said. “I question our country’s ability to withstand another four years of Trump.”

John Schuster said he plans to vote for Biden in November, but he cast a primary ballot for Haley because of his overwhelming concern about a Trump victory.

“There’s no greater imperative in the world than stopping Donald Trump,” Schuster said. “It’ll be the end of democracy and the world order if he becomes president.”

Biden supporters tend to frame the stakes of the election in terms of democracy and political violence, Rhodes noted, while Trump supporters’ concerns are more often shaped around a perceived threat that Democrats pose to American values. Douglas Benton, a Trump supporter from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, warned that the US would become a “third-world country” if Biden were to win reelection.

“Our business is broken,” Benton said. “That’s how we became the most profitable country on the planet, is through capitalism and democracy and laws. Right now all three of those are gone.”

Past elections have proven just how motivating negative emotions can be in turning out voters, which is why Rhodes believes that participation will still be high in November despite the nominees’ unpopularity.

“It’s not an election that is going to inspire people on the basis of positive sentiments,” Rhodes said. “But it is an election that I strongly suspect is going to ultimately mobilize a lot of people because they believe that their vote is important for protecting themselves.”

The Guardian’s Lauren Gambino contributed reporting from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, and the Guardian’s Rachel Leingang contributed reporting from Minneapolis, Minnesota

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