Unable to see a 2020 rematch, many Americans are clinging to fading hopes and wild speculation, like the possibility that Michelle Obama may succeed President Biden.
President Biden is racing toward the Democratic nomination. Former President Donald J. Trump might begin to finalize his party’s nomination within days.
America’s response: This cannot be true.
Even as both men prepare for certain summer coronations and an autumn rematch, an undercurrent of skepticism runs through the country. Many Republicans believe Mr. Biden is so politically and physically weak that his party will replace him. Many Democrats cannot believe Mr. Trump could win another nomination while facing 91 felony counts and four criminal trials.
This skepticism, which ranges from casual doubtfulness to conspiratorial denial, has surfaced in scores of interviews over the last two weeks, as well as recent statements by politicians and political observers. “They’ll pull a switcheroo at the last minute,” David Lage, a Republican missionary from Spring Hill, Iowa, said of Democrats. “They’ve tried about every other dirty trick.”
Paige Leary of Exeter, New Hampshire, an independent who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020 and Democrats in prior presidential elections, questioned if Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee. “The jury’s out,” she said. “We don’t know what will happen legally with Trump.” Such opposing viewpoints reflect the fact that misgivings about Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump stem from different sources in each party.
The major theme among Republicans is declining trust in the political system. The party is nearly a decade into the Trump era, and misinformation and conspiracy theories about Mr. Biden’s health and Democratic plots to replace him abound in conservative news media and the broader political world. A popular, and completely unfounded, notion is that Michelle Obama will take her place in a Democratic coup.
Democrats, for their part, are gripped by a desperate hope that Mr. Trump will not be nominated. They are hoping that his legal cases or efforts to disqualify him from office under the 14th Amendment will keep him off the ballot. Most people have little optimism that his nomination will be derailed; they simply believe that a man they despise will go away.
In the muddy middle are more casual voters who aren’t paying attention to an election that’s almost a year away but feel the country will eventually pick someone fresh.
“People in both parties really dislike the likely nominee of the other,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll. He stated that he had heard enough people imply that Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden might be replaced, so he included a question about it in the polls he is conducting this month.
“Voters who think, ‘Goodness, please, let’s not have a rerun of 2020,’ will realize that we are tuning into another episode,” Franklin said in a statement. “Same people, similar storyline. “Get used to it.”
According to the Biden campaign’s own analytics, over three-quarters of its so-called targeted voter universe believes Mr. Trump will not be the Republican nominee. These voters are a diverse group of Americans who aren’t following the news and don’t now support the president’s re-election, but the campaign believes they can be persuaded to do so.
But Mr. Biden and his team are facing a bombardment of crazy speculation from Republicans. “I personally don’t think he makes it,” Mr. Trump said about Mr. Biden on Fox News last month. Mr. DeSantis said at a Fox News town hall last week that Democrats “may sub him out for someone else.”
Megyn Kelly, a broadcaster, advanced the hypothesis about Ms. Obama on her podcast last week, and right-wing presenter Tomi Lahren said on her internet show on Wednesday that Democrats would substitute California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I continue to predict—as I have for well over two years—that Michelle Obama will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2024,” Roger J. Stone Jr., Mr. Trump’s longtime adviser, wrote on social media a week before the Iowa caucuses.
Despite Ms. Obama’s repeated denials of any presidential ambition, OddsChecker, an online bookmaker, gave her roughly the same odds of winning the presidential race as Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who finished third in Iowa on Monday. Both supported Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. The website ranked Mr. Newsom fifth, far ahead of Mr. DeSantis.
Many of these views derive from the Trump-inspired right, which has made numerous bogus assertions regarding the 2020 election and is prepared to think the fix will be in place again in 2024. The overriding, odd assumption is that the Democratic Party is acting on the whims of the “deep state” and has already devised a strategy to replace Mr. Biden.
There are conspiracy theories within conspiracy theories. Several Republicans interviewed at recent presidential campaign rallies rehashed a decade-old anti-transgender myth about Ms. Obama spread by the notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
“I think Michelle Obama—or Michael Obama—will be it for the Democrats,” said Sue Grove, a secretary from Van Meter, Iowa, who works for Republican legislators at the Iowa State Capitol and previously supported entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for president. “I’ve also heard rumors about Oprah. I’m not sure how Biden could get in again.
Far-right internet circles are also filled with unfounded claims that Democrats will cause the 81-year-old president to die prematurely. Ms. Grove made a grim allusion to this idea: “You know, there’s a lot of suspicious deaths, sudden deaths,” she remarked. “There’s a lot of suicide, right?” Other hypotheses are less violent.
Some Republicans believe Mr. Biden will be replaced at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. They point out that in 2020, key Democrats rapidly rallied behind Mr. Biden to defeat Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and argue that it is not unreasonable to expect the party to turn against its politically vulnerable president.
“I don’t think Biden will hold up,” said Amy Meyer, a Republican data analyst who previously served as Mr. DeSantis’ Iowa caucus captain. “The Democrats have superdelegates, so they do not have a democratic primary process. So I guess they’ll do whatever they want.”
At least one former US senator agrees. “I don’t think Biden’s going to run,” said Judd Gregg, a moderate Republican who represented New Hampshire in the Senate for nearly two decades and previously served as governor of the state. “He’ll stay in till April; when he has the delegates, then he’ll pick a successor.”
When asked who that successor may be, Mr. Gregg said it couldn’t be Vice President Kamala Harris because he considered her “unelectable.” He proposed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan instead.
No prominent Democrats have suggested that Mr. Trump will not be the Republican nominee. Indeed, Mr. Biden’s immediate polling difficulty, according to his advisors, is that people who loathe Mr. Trump are unaware of how probable it is that he will win the nomination.
The left, horrified by the prospect of a second Trump administration, is seeking relief from the legal system, hoping that prosecutors will halt his electoral juggernaut. If not a criminal jury, then possibly the Supreme Court, which Democrats believe will uphold two states’ moves to exclude Mr. Trump from the ballot under the 14th Amendment.
“It seems like there’s a mass delusion about Trump,” said Bill Schafer, a renewable energy executive from Boulder, Colo., who identified as a former Republican but voted for Mr. Biden in 2020. He claimed he couldn’t accept that Republicans would nominate Mr. Trump.
“I turned on Fox News to see, How does it feel to live in this world?” he blurted out. “This combines The National Enquirer and professional wrestling. If you believe in those two ideas, MAGA is a piece of cake.”
Mr. Biden’s election approach revolves around convincing Americans that Mr. Trump will appear on the ballot in November. Campaign officials predict his political standing will improve once voters who aren’t paying close attention to the contest realize Mr. Trump is likely to be renominated.
“This isn’t a hypothetical,” Biden campaign spokeswoman Ammar Moussa said. “The president looks forward to spending the next 10 months reminding the American people how dangerous Donald Trump and his MAGA agenda are.”
Then there are the voters who continue to desire another 2024 matchup.
Yoram Ariely, a rich Democrat who retired from importing and exporting fruit juice concentrates, commissioned an October poll from SurveyUSA asking voters if they would like Mr. Biden to drop his presidential candidacy and run for vice president instead.
Using that skewed and unrealistic question, the survey concluded that 69 percent of 1,024 Democrats thought Mr. Biden would be better suited to attempting to retake the position he held for eight years while Barack Obama was president.
Mr. Ariely stated that he sponsored the poll to persuade Mr. Biden and other Democrats that the president should do something other than seek re-election. So far, that concept has not gained any traction.
“If he stepped down clearly and cleanly, it would be for the best,” said Mr. Ariely, who lives in upstate New York and Florida. “My suggestion is for him to do the right thing and find an exit ramp.”