Does the 2024 US presidential primary really matter?

This time next year we’ll be inaugurating a new US President, or will we? Familiar faces are in pole position. US politics lecturer Dr Christine Harlen looks at the forthcoming primary elections.

The United States flag flying against the backdrop of a city next to a lake, and a blue sky.

The primary election season has started, marking the beginning of the US presidential election year. Primaries matter because they determine which candidate each party will nominate at their summer conventions.  

State parties send delegates to the convention who are generally bound through the primary results to support a particular candidate. At the July Democratic Party convention, only 19% of delegates will be unpledged. At the August Republican Party convention just 4% of delegates will be ‘unpledged’. The selected candidates then campaign until the general election on 5 December. 

Unusually, both parties have candidates who seem to be destined to win their party’s nomination: current president Democrat Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump.  

The Democratic Primary understandably lacks notable US senators and state governors: savvy politicians avoid running against incumbent presidents due to poor odds of success. In contrast, one-term ex-presidents like Trump do not have an automatic advantage: four have previously attempted to regain the presidency but only one succeeded, in 1892. Trump’s Republican primary rivals include prominent state governors but his main challenges are legal rather than political.  

Trump dominates the Republican primaries because Republican voters do not view him as being a typical one-term ex-president. He has convinced most of them that the 2020 election was rigged and that he actually won but has thereby created legal problems.  

Two states are attempting to exclude Trump from their Republican primaries because the US constitution bars those involved in insurrection from becoming ‘an officer of the United States’. They argue that Trump encouraged an insurrection when supporters disrupted Congress’s verification of the 2020 election result. It is not clear how the Supreme Court will rule when it considers this matter starting in February.  

Although the primary voters like the recent presidents, clear and relatively equal majorities of the US public oppose having either Biden or Trump as presidential candidates. They would prefer younger candidates than the 80 year-old Biden and 76 year-old Trump.  

However, as usual in peacetime, the main election issue is the economy and Trump leads on this issue. Currently housing is expensive and voters also seem to be punishing Biden for problems like inflation that have recently subsided. In contrast, Trump inherited and sustained a booming economy prior to 2020. During the pandemic both Trump (and later Biden) distributed stimulus spending to less well-off taxpayers so disposable income has fallen sharply under Biden.  

Nonetheless, Trump and Biden are evenly matched because voters question Trump’s integrity and a narrow majority see him as a threat to democracy. Trump faces three federal trials during the spring, including most importantly one charging that he sought to alter the outcome of the 2020 election. 

Any conviction could reasonably influence the general election: both the 2016 and 2020 elections were determined by small numbers of votes in a handful of states. Convictions would not necessarily bar him from the presidency and he might even be able to pardon himself of any convictions associated with the 2020 election except for any arising from a Georgia state court case concerning election tampering.      

The drama surrounding Trump is likely to capture the British public’s attention but there are also important issues at stake for the UK if Trump wins. Since the 1980s, Trump has consistently stated that the US’s allies were exploiting it. Recently he has said that the US will not defend any other NATO member country that comes under attack, in stark contrast to UK support for NATO.  

Starmer or Sunak will find it difficult to develop a rapport with Trump because he prefers other macho, populist leaders. On the other hand, Trump may be more favourable to the UK on issues involving Northern Ireland because he dislikes Ireland for attracting US companies with its tax policies.  

A US-UK trade deal remains unlikely. US trade deals require the approval of the President, the House and the Senate before implementation, which makes passage difficult and enables the US to drive hard bargains. The US always wants controversial concessions related to agriculture, such as allowing hormone-fed beef and chemical washes on meat, which the UK opposes.   

When Trump was president, his trade negotiators attacked restrictions on patent pharmaceutical pricing, so the UK should expect similar tactics from him. Trump can also be capricious: in 2018 he used his national security powers to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium from numerous countries, including the UK. Biden lifted the tariffs in 2022 but only for a set amount of imports from the UK. It was Senate opposition; however, that recently pushed him to shelve proposed trade arrangements with the UK because Democrats wanted more provisions enforcing labour and environmental standards in the UK. 

Author’s profile 

Professor Christine Harlen

Dr Christine Margerum Harlen is a lecturer in US Politics and International Political Economy in the University’s School of Politics and International Studies. 

Her areas of expertise are international political economy; comparative political economy; United States politics. 

Christine has carried out research on how US political thought, particularly its nationalist and populist strands, affects US relations with the outside world.  


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