Opinion: The presidential election isn’t playing out how I thought it would

Editor’s Note: Fareed Zakaria is the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS, airing at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET Sundays on CNN. Follow Fareed on X, and read news, analysis, and insights from Fareed and his team in the daily CNN newsletter Fareed’s Global Briefing.The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion here.

When President Joe Biden made clear that he was going to run for reelection, I had a sense of what his election strategy was and thought it was an intelligent path to victory. After the chaos of Covid-19 and the administration of former President Donald Trump, Biden would stand for normalcy and a rising tide of good economic news. Trump would divide Republicans, with significant chunks of the party wishing that someone like former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis would be their nominee. Meanwhile, Trump would unite and motivate Democrats, allowing Biden to focus on independent voters in the swing states that threw the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 and to Biden in 2020.

I have to admit, none of this is playing out as I had thought. Trump is now leading in almost all the swing states, and behind those numbers lie even more troubling details. As someone worried about the prospects of a second Trump term, I think it is best to be honest about reality. I understand that polls are not always accurate, but in general they have tended to underestimate Trump’s support, not overestimate it. I doubt that there are many shy Biden voters in the country.

The economy has been in a robust recovery for more than two years now — with unemployment hitting a 54-year low in 2023 and increasing only slightly since then — but Biden is getting little credit for it. The shift here is stark. On the question of whom voters trust more to deal with the economy, Trump has a 22-point lead over Biden, according to an NBC poll from January. This marks a 15-point bump for Trump compared to the same poll in 2020. Perhaps this is because inflation is a far more pervasive problem than unemployment, affecting all Americans every day. Perhaps it is that people’s views on the economy are largely derived from their broader attitudes towards the candidates. But whatever the reasons, this is a stunning reversal in the midst of a relentless stream of good economic news.

On cultural issues, Biden and the Democrats benefit from opposition to the Republican Party’s position on abortion. But on the other great cultural issue of immigration, Biden is 35 points behind Trump as to who would handle it better. And I do wonder whether abortion will be as large an issue in a presidential race, given that reversing Roe v. Wade threw the issue to state governments and not the federal government.

Perhaps the most worrying new trend for Democrats is that far from being the more unified party, they are now bitterly divided over the war in Gaza. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has said the eruption of pro-Palestinian protests could be “Biden’s Vietnam” and even invoked the specter of President Lyndon Johnson choosing not to run for reelection in 1968 because of the public opposition to that war. The analogy is farfetched — America was itself sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam, with more being recruited from college campuses every week. But there is no denying that the party seems more openly divided than it has been in decades. Only 33% of Americans say they approved of Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, which is criticized both by people who think he is too soft and people who think he is too hard on Israel.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem to be uniting behind Trump. Whatever opposition he faced in the primaries has largely melted away. And the trials against him keep him in the spotlight, infuriating members of his base who see him as a martyr. They may even serve to make him the object of some sympathy among other people who believe that many of these trials are politically motivated. (That happens to be true in my opinion. I doubt the first two indictments would have been brought against a defendant whose name was not Donald Trump.) A majority of Americans are skeptical that Trump will be able to get a fair trial, according to a CNN poll. (Trump denies wrongdoing in all the cases.)

And I haven’t even mentioned third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (or Cornel West or Jill Stein), all of whom could take votes away from Biden.

Things could change. Polls do suggest that were Trump to be convicted of a felony, it could shift voters in Biden’s favor. The administration may be able to pull off a ceasefire in Gaza and then a broader political settlement that gives Palestinians political rights and Israel diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Trump could always embroil himself in some new kind of scandal. But trendlines are not working in Biden’s favor. He needs to do something bold and dramatic to seize the initiative — on asylum policy for example — and reverse these numbers.

The one that troubles me most concerns the question of who is more competent. Biden led Trump by nine points in 2020, but Trump now leads by 16 points in 2024. That 25-point shift could be a reflection of people’s sense that the president’s age is affecting his capacity to govern. If so, there is very little that Biden can do to change that perception.

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