Chuck Todd: Biden, Trump and voters’ stages of grief

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It’s the rematch nobody is looking forward to, the matchup voters say they don’t want. And yet, with nearly 300 days left until Election Day, Joe Biden versus Donald Trump appears to be what the public is going to get this year, whether they like it or not.

Whether you are ready to accept this reality depends on which stage of grief you currently find yourself in. Are you still in denial that these are our choices? Does this potential matchup anger you? Are you, like some major centrist donors in this country, dead set on bargaining your way out of this situation by searching for a third option? Have you vowed to walk away from politics thanks to a bout of depression over this choice?

Or are you at acceptance?

There are two camps that are desperate to get to acceptance: the campaigns of Trump and Biden. But outside of those two entities, there is plenty of trepidation in both parties about going to political war one more time with these two aging and unpopular leaders.

And that brings me to the point of just why I’m using the stages of grief to describe this likely showdown in the fall. Because while it’s hard to imagine any other fate at this point than Biden-Trump II, there are still plenty of major donors and elite opinion leaders who are not quite ready to concede to what appears to be inevitable.

Most importantly, there are plenty of voters, especially those who live ideologically somewhere between the two bases of the two major parties, who are also hoping for another option — either within the political party they belong to or from the outside.

This is a long way of setting up the following: The nation is still very much in the bargaining stage — and why shouldn’t we be? It’s still only January. At this point in time during the 1992 campaign cycle, Ross Perot had yet to collect a single petition signature to get on any ballot as a third-party candidate.

But before we get to the inevitable third-party trial balloons which will soon begin in earnest, we do have to get to the official acceptance portion of the two nomination fights. Three distinct groups of opinion leaders are all still living in the “bargaining” stage: the third-party dreamers (I will get to them in a moment); the Democrats wish-casting for a younger nominee; and the non-MAGA Republicans still hoping for someone far more electable to help the party win up and down the ballot.

Democrats stick with Biden in New Hampshire

On the Democratic side, the impressive showing by the “write-in Joe Biden” New Hampshire campaign should do a lot to end whatever public handwringing remained inside the Democratic Party. The lack of traction for Rep. Dean Phillips — who had the state to himself, essentially — was a reminder that two things can be true at the same time for many Democratic voters: They wish Biden was younger, but they don’t think he should be fired.

In many ways, Biden got lucky that he got a challenger from his wing of the party and not from the progressive wing. Had Phillips been a true-blue progressive and closed his campaign by saying a vote for him was a vote to encourage Biden to push for a cease-fire in Gaza, Biden could have been dealing with a much more complicated pressure point and overall picture in his party. But the real victory for Biden in this primary process has been his ability to keep the left from directly challenging him.

Phillips does seem determined to run in a few more primary states where he’ll share a ballot with Biden, but given how successful the president was in New Hampshire, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to receive anything less than 70% anywhere else — with the possible exception of Michigan.

If there is one more tiny intra-party hurdle for Biden, it is Michigan, since the state’s large Arab American population has been highly critical of the president’s full embrace of Israel in its war with Hamas. But I’m not sure Phillips is the candidate these voters will rally around to send Biden a message, since Phillips essentially shares Biden’s stance on Israel.

Still, for the purposes of understanding how in play Michigan will be in November, the Democratic primary vote will have some meaning. After that, the only other major hurdle I foresee for Biden is if he still can’t improve his poll numbers by, say, April 1. If the rise of Trump and the improving economy don’t lift Biden’s poll numbers by April, it will be fair to wonder, when will they ever rise?

The ‘I told you so’ maneuver

And that brings me to the GOP and Nikki Haley. Mathematically, she doesn’t really have a chance at the nomination. Trump’s base is rock-solid and slightly too big to stop him from winning the nomination. But the question Haley has to answer — as do the donors who support her — is this: What future does she want in American politics?

Watching Sen. Tim Scott and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum go from polite Trump critics when they were running against him to borderline sycophants now that they’ve endorsed him, one gets the sense that the two gentlemen decided they wanted a future in the GOP as it currently stands, a GOP that is powered by Trump and Trumpism. Neither Republican decided they wanted to be on the side of pushing for a different direction in the party.

They’ve both rationalized their ambition in some form. I wonder how they will feel about their decision if they don’t get the desired positions they both seem to be angling for (that’s vice president for Scott and secretary of energy for Burgum).

So what does Haley want? And by extension, what do the donors who still support her want from her? In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz seemed to make a bet that Trump was not going to win the general election. It’s why he never endorsed Trump at the convention. He clearly dreamed — ever so briefly — of playing hero to the conservative movement. As the 2016 GOP runner-up, Cruz had set himself up as the “I told you so” front-runner for 2020.

Obviously, Cruz made a bad bet, and he’s been trying to fix his standing with the Trump movement ever since.

Does Haley have the stomach to do what Cruz attempted himself in 2016? Can she be a credible crusader for a different Republican Party? I don’t know. One of the reasons she may have come up short in New Hampshire is that she hasn’t been as clear-eyed in her criticism about Trump and Trumpism as many of her supporters and donors. Her decision to praise his four years (“right person at the right time”), rather than full-bore criticize his term for being chaotic, divisive and decidedly not “small c” conservative, have made it harder for her to convince more voters to leave Trump.

But that’s the opportunity she has in front of her. She can start running to be leader of a post-Trump GOP that rejects Trumpism, not just Trump. It’s going to be a lonely campaign for her. Just about every single elected Republican is going to pressure her to drop out — even if some secretly hope lightning strikes and she becomes the nominee.

If she does want to pursue this type of campaign — more of a crusade, less about the 2024 delegate chase — she will find donors who will back her to do this. But the strategy does come with risk: Trump could win the presidency.

That said, it’s unclear what future Haley would have (or even want) in a Trump-led GOP. As Kris Kristofferson wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

If Haley does stay in and make this a crusade to change the party, she’ll also likely be contributing to the campaign to prevent Trump from winning the presidency. With robust funding, Haley will likely receive 25% to 45% in just about every remaining primary — and she could even win one or two. And as we saw on Tuesday night, Trump won’t be able to help himself: Instead of ignoring Haley’s candidacy, he’d likely obsess over it, giving her more energy and oxygen to compete.

A large share of the voters who would gravitate to that would likely still vote Trump in the general, but the act of voting against Trump in the primaries will make them targets of a robust persuasion campaign to either vote Biden or stay home.

Still, Trump’s attacks (and the attacks from his MAGA base) will be brutal on Haley — even harsher than we’ve already seen. We’re about to find out how strong Haley’s mettle is.

The third-party dream

Now, there’s the final group of bargainers in our stages-of-grief exercise: the third-party dreamers.

I’ve written extensively in the last few months about the potential of a third party and the seemingly fertile ground for one. In theory, the water’s never been warmer for a third-party hopeful. The country clearly doesn’t have much use for either party, with both of their images underwater for years.

But who’s the candidate? I continue to be skeptical that a former GOP governor or retiring Democratic senator is the third-party shakeup that frustrated voters are looking for. To truly catch fire and become a viable option, the third-party candidate has to come from a different arena than electoral politics.

The ideal candidate to run is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has just enough political experience to be qualified in the eyes of the political elite, but he’s got enough celebrity and force of personality to be seen as someone who couldn’t be bought. While Schwarzenegger spent most of his adult life as a Republican, he’s no Trump Republican. As governor of California, he governed more like a Bill Clinton in Arkansas or a Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. And given his own family history in Austria, Schwarzenegger can speak to the importance of democracy and the threat of autocracy in a way many Americans can’t.

Now, some of you might be saying — wait a minute, doesn’t the Constitution say only a natural-born citizen can be president? Wasn’t Schwarzenegger born in Austria? The answer is yes on both counts.

It’s also possible that nobody would have standing to challenge his eligibility until after he’s elected. It would make his running-mate pick a tad more important, that’s for sure, but perhaps that could be a feature, rather than a bug.

The other reason Schwarzenegger might be the ideal No Labels front person is that he understands the Trump threat enough to not play spoiler. And the credibility he could have to turn his supporters into Biden voters, if that’s the binary choice to stop Trump, might be greater if he’s been running himself.

Personally, I’ve basically accepted the idea that Biden versus Trump is the most likely general election scenario, and the likelihood only grows with every new primary result. That said, we’ve never had two presumptive nominees this unpopular this quick in our modern era of presidential politics.

And I’ve been around too long to see strange things upend the conventional wisdom. As I reminded readers at the top of this column, this time in 1992, Perot was simply a guest Larry King liked to book occasionally to talk politics. He hadn’t hired one staffer yet to start getting him on ballots. His campaign didn’t really take off until the spring of 1992.

All of the various scenarios that could upend a Biden-Trump matchup are now in the single-digit-percentage category of happening. Perhaps the chance of a matchup that is not Biden versus Trump is one in a million. But as the movie “Dumb and Dumber” taught us, I’m saying there’s a chance.

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