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What is the 2024 election all about, anyway?

Former President and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's supporters attend a rally at Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2023.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images
Former President and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's supporters attend a rally at Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2023.

After more than a year of campaigning, door-knocking and a massive amount of ad spending, voters will finally have their say in the 2024 presidential election, starting Monday.

Iowans will brave record-cold temperatures to cast the first ballots of this highly consequential year. And that's a word — consequential — that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to political campaigns.

Presidential elections are always consequential.

Presidents can affect social policy, through the courts and legislation, that can reshape the country. They can start wars or end them, embrace a role of leadership on the world stage – or retreat from it.

Domestically, there is a particular volatility roiling American society. The country is undergoing significant change, from economics and technology to culture and politics.

Undergirding this 2024 presidential election is a fight to own the outcome of the latest realignment in American politics.

What will America become?

At its heart, this election is about what it means to be American, which values will win out for the future of what this country will be.

The country is sharply divided on that. America has always been split on who should lead it. A presidential candidate, for example, hasn't gotten more than 53% in an election since 1984.

Just four times since the popular vote has been tracked, dating back to 1824, has a candidate gotten above 60%, and the last time it happened — 1972 — that president, Richard Nixon, wound up resigning in disgrace.

Today, partisanship and ideological sorting are more acute than arguably at any time since the Civil War.

Americans are fractured by politics and at odds over the issues — from guns and global warming to immigration, abortion rights, education and beyond.

Conservatives see a country changing, not for the better. They see the culture as too liberal, weak and enabling — with too many who talk down the good qualities of the country.

Those left of center see their values, the marginalized and democracy itself in direct threat because of leaders who have given license to intolerance and conspiracy, while not having the majority of the country on their side. They're tired of what they see as minority rule. Democrats have won seven of the last eight popular votes in presidential elections, but only five presidencies in that time.

Elections are increasingly base elections

The percentage of Americans calling themselves "independents" is at or near all-time highs. Gallup has found that 40% said so in December of 2023.

That's understandable because neither party is very well liked – each was viewed unfavorably by about 60% of Americans in a Pew Research Center survey in September.

And the people who identify as Democrats and Republicans have increasingly negative views of each other.

But this increase in those calling themselves independents is something of a mirage. It doesn't really reflect how they vote, merely the decline in the party's brands.

Estimates have shown that truly persuadable voters make up less than 10% of the population and are on the decline.

That's meant that getting those voters to show up and swing in their candidate's direction has gotten more difficult and more expensive for campaigns.

Voters in the "middle" hardly agree on the issues. The Pew Research Center has found that the country is more like eight or nine distinct political ideologies and that self-identified independents "have very little in common politically."

That's why the idea of a third-party candidate magically appearing and unifying the country is, frankly, unlikely.

Americans are unhappy with politics

They're unhappy with the state of the economy despite signs of improvement since the pandemic.

They're unhappy with the overall direction of the country. Just 1 in 5 said they're satisfied with the direction of the country, according to Gallup, though they rate how things are going in their own personal lives much higher.

They are less confident in the institutions that have been pillars of American society and democracy, at near-record lows in their trust in government – and it's only gotten worse.

They're unhappy with the president – giving him low job approvals on everything from the economy to immigration to foreign policy. In fact, Biden had the lowest approval rating of any president since Truman at the same point in his presidency before a potential reelection bid.

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Americans think Biden is too old to be president, but they say they dislike his likely 2024 opponent, former President Donald Trump, even more.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found 53% said they had an unfavorable view of Biden, and 56% said they had an unfavorable one of Trump.

Despite Trump's popularity with his base, majorities of everyone else think the former president, who is facing 91 criminal counts, has done something illegal.

So what does all that mean?

What the effect of all that antipathy will be on this election isn't clear.

Could it mean a decline in participation? Well, despite negative partisanship, voter turnout has only increased since the closely divided 2000 election. Anger, after all, is a key motivator.

Could it mean an increase in protest votes? It certainly could, considering the negative views of both Biden and Trump, if both do become the nominees. There are already several third-party candidates running for office, who are threatening to peel off votes from both men.

It's a major wild card and could introduce some surprises, and it all sets the stage for the presidential election that kicks off Monday with a GOP primary fight that features Republicans Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley hoping to unseat Trump as the head of the party – despite his historic leads in the polls.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.