Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Choices in a Chaotic Campaign:  Looking Forward to the 2024 U.S. Presidential Election

Patrick J. Kenney, Kim L. Fridkin

We write this blog knowing the 2024 presidential election will be a rematch of the 2020 contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  We are not fully aware, though, how changes in the political landscape from 2020 to 2024 will alter how citizens make decisions at the ballot box.  In our book, Choices in a Chaotic Campaign: Understanding Citizens’ Decisions in the 2020 Election, we explain fundamental forces, like the partisan distribution of the electorate, the popularity of the president and the state of the economy set the broad parameters for presidential election campaigns.  However, within these established parameters, scholars have struggled to explain adequately how campaigns matter. 

We offer an original theory examining the dynamic nature of citizens’ beliefs and behaviors in response to campaign events and campaign issues. We argue in today’s media environment, citizens can actively and effortlessly gather information via traditional news sources, social media sources and social networking sites.  People purposely and intentionally select the types of information they desire deploying a number of standard political lens, like partisanship, but they also view the political world through existing psychological predispositions.  The theory of citizen-centered campaigns suggests people’s psychological predispositions, along with their political predilections, drive their search for information, shaping their interpretations of campaign events and issues, influencing how they evaluate the competing candidates. We hypothesize certain psychological predispositions were particularly relevant during the 2020 campaign: authoritarianism, conspiratorial thinking, conflict avoidance, hostile sexism, racial resentment. Finally, we contend the relevant set of psychological predispositions will vary across time and political campaigns, depending on the characteristics of the competing candidates and the political issues facing the nation. 

The 2020 presidential election was unique in several ways.  First, the entire presidential campaign was conducted during the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. Second, the incumbent president not only contracted COVID but was hospitalized at the height of the fall campaign. Third, the summer of 2020 saw the largest and most intense racial unrest since 1968 following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police. Fourth, the first presidential debate was strikingly negative, drawing harsh commentary from observers and producing unprecedented changes in debate rules.  Fifth, the incumbent president openly questioned the integrity of the electoral process as the campaign moved toward Election Day.

We demonstrate the importance of including psychological predispositions when examining how people understand major campaign issues and events. We show people’s psychological predispositions, along with partisanship, attention to the news, and partisan news diet, influence impressions of the candidates’ performance in the first debate. For example, people who are more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking, who score higher on the racial resentment scale and are more tolerant of conflict are significantly more likely to view Trump as the winner of the September debate. In addition, we find assessments of who won the debate are linked to significant changes in people’s overall evaluations of the candidates from September to October. More Americans believed Biden won the debate and Trump’s performance was poorly reviewed.  These evaluations were persistent across the campaign influencing changes in views of the candidates until Election Day.

Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in early October had significant political implications for Trump’s candidacy.   We demonstrate people’s concerns about the COVID-19 crisis are driven by their political and psychological characteristics. For example,  people high in authoritarianism are more concerned about the pandemic, supporting an established finding that individuals engaging in authoritarian thinking express more worries about getting sick and dying. Further, we find people’s concern about COVID-19 increases significantly after Trump contracted the virus and citizens weighed COVID-19 assessments more heavily when evaluating Trump’s performance as president. Finally, Americans’ concern about the pandemic produces positive changes in overall views of Biden, while simultaneously leading to significantly more negative impressions of Trump over the length of the campaign.

We also look at people’s views about race and policing over the campaign season and find psychological predispositions, in addition to political characteristics, continue to shape views of the competing candidates; for example, levels of authoritarianism and racial resentment produce more support for police. In contrast, people high in conspiracy thinking become more supportive of social justice protests over the months of the campaign while people intolerant of conflict become less supportive. Finally, attitudes toward the social justice movement alter evaluations of Biden and Trump in November and produce significant changes in vote preferences from September to November. 

People’s confidence in the integrity of the election are affected by candidate preference, partisan media usage, and level of conspiracy thinking. Furthermore, voters’ confidence in the integrity of the election drives changes in overall evaluations of the candidates from September to November, with people confident in the security of the election becoming significantly more favorable toward Biden and more negative toward Trump. We also show these four elements of the 2020 campaign – assessments of the first presidential debate, anxiety about COVID-19, views about race and policing, and concerns about the integrity of the election — influence views of Trump and Biden in November. 

Finally, we demonstrate psychological predispositions, along with political characteristics, shape who voted in 2020 and whether people relied on convenience voting rather than voting on Election Day during the first year of the pandemic.  For example, respondents who engage in conspiracy thinking and people who score higher on the racism and sexism scales are significantly less likely to vote by mail compared to going to the polls on Election Day. In contrast, mail voting was significantly higher for people with low tolerance of conflict, concerned about COVID-19, and more confident about the integrity of the election.

Do we believe the psychological predispositions for understanding the 2020 election will be relevant and important for predicting what is likely to happen in 2024?   The competing candidates are the same undoubtedly activating similar attitudes as in 2020.  This is the first time the nation has seen a rematch since 1952 and 1956.  But, the political context in 2024 is different than in 2020. Joe Biden is running as the incumbent president and like all incumbents is likely to be assessed against some of the key issues plaguing his presidency, such as high inflation and high interest rates.  Donald Trump is now the challenger but with a political record defined only four years earlier that contributed to his loss.  In addition, he is enmeshed in legal battles including 91 criminal indictments along with at least one ongoing criminal trial.  This is uncharted territory in American politics and is almost certain to trigger attitudes beyond partisanship.  Donald Trump’s continued use of divisive rhetoric (e.g., migrants “are animals”) is likely to heighten racial and gender attitudes influencing how people perceive the campaign and candidates.  Further, we expect conspiratorial thinking to be activated given Trump’s consistent and vocal views the “2020 election was stolen” from him.    

Currently, the issues in 2024 are quite different than in 2020.   There is no issue dominating the electoral landscape like the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.  The list of issues at play in 2024 are highly complex, especially divisive, have been on the political agenda for decades and defy solutions where majorities of Americans agree on pathways forward.  This set of issues embedded in a highly partisan and polarized electorate will generate a loud, contentious and well-funded campaign likely to activate psychological predispositions held deeply by many Americans.  Current polling suggests the issue agenda includes the role of immigrants in U.S. society, the right of women to control their reproductive health, America’s financial support for wars far from America’s shores, violence in cities, the rate of taxation on wealthy Americans and U.S. corporations, availability and cost of  health care, especially the cost of medicine, the sustainability of the planet’s natural systems and an active debate about the health of the U.S. economy. 

We add to this complex mix of time-honored policy issues an emerging and contentious debate about the veracity of the electoral process regarding the counting of ballots.  This issue is raising overarching themes regarding the health of America’s democracy as the nation approaches its 250 anniversary on July 4, 2026.   The candidates will struggle in 2024, unlike 2020, to set the agenda on issues that will benefit their candidacy and disadvantage their opponent.  The specific configuration of psychological predispositions triggered by the campaign will be affected by the dominant issues of the campaign and we will know far more in a few months following the Republican and Democratic party conventions.     

Choices in a Chaotic Campaign by Kim L. Fridkin and Patrick J. Kenney

About The Authors

Patrick J. Kenney

Patrick J. Kenney is Foundation Professor of Political Science and an Executive Vice Provost at Arizona State University. With Kim L. Fridkin, he is the author of Taking Aim at Att...

View profile >

Kim L. Fridkin

Kim L. Fridkin is a Foundation Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University. With Patrick J. Kenney, she is the author of Taking Aim at Attack Advertising (2019) and ...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!