President Biden and former president Donald Trump, a year before the 2024 election, are attacking each other in an increasingly direct and personal fashion, often ignoring the rest of the Republican field and telegraphing their view that the general election has in essence already begun, with themselves as the nominees.
Biden, who for much of his tenure has refrained from criticizing Trump personally, unleashed on the former president Tuesday, seeking to tie him to the issue of abortion rights, which has proved a politically powerful issue for Democrats recently.
“The only reason there is an abortion ban in America is because of Donald Trump,” Biden said at a campaign fundraiser. “The only reason teenagers in Ohio are being forced to travel out of state to get their health care is because of Donald Trump. The only reason a fundamental right has been stripped away from the American people for the first time in American history is because of Donald Trump.”
The Supreme Court last year reversed a 1973 ruling that found a constitutional right to abortion after Trump elevated three justices to the bench. “There’s a lot of reasons to be against Donald Trump,” Biden said. “But damn, he shouldn’t be president. He should not be president.”
Trump, for his part, has taken to mocking a purportedly befuddled Biden, theatrically looking around the stage at his events to mimic someone who cannot find his way out. “Think of it — we have a guy in the White House who can’t put two sentences together,” Trump said at a rally in New Hampshire. “Oh, he couldn’t find his way off this stage. And actually, he would be confused because I think my audience behind me might be bigger than [his] audiences.”
For now, Biden is holding few campaign rallies, so his anti-Trump volleys are largely confined to political fundraisers and statements from his campaign; allies are urging him to attack Trump even more vocally and more often. Trump, for his part, has been going after Biden for some time, but he appears to be devoting less energy to attacking his Republican rivals in favor of hammering the president.
These dueling remarks are a clear sign that, a year before Election Day, each party’s leading candidate has essentially begun waging a general-election campaign against the other, with a waning focus on the Republican candidates who took part in the latest GOP debate. They also pay little attention to the long-shot contenders on the Democratic side or the handful of third-party hopefuls.
Their decision to focus so sharply on each other reflects a belief by both campaigns that there is a diminishing chance that any other candidate will change the trajectory of the race. With three months until the first nominating contest in Iowa, Trump leads the other Republican candidates by more than 40 points in most national polls, while Biden’s primary challengers have little public name recognition and lack the official support of the Democratic Party.
Yet the zoom-in arguably carries risk, since a sudden rise by one of the other Republicans, or an unforeseen development among the Democrats, could abruptly alter the landscape.
Republican strategist Liz Mair cautioned that the nominees are not official until they are selected by the delegates at each party’s convention. In a normal race, she said, campaigns might be wise to focus on attacking the other side’s front-runner, but this is not a standard matchup.
At 77 and 80, respectively, Trump and Biden are old enough that potential health crises pose a threat, Mair said, and their campaigns could be caught flat-footed if either is forced out of the race. She said both campaigns should be compiling opposition research they may need to run against replacement nominees, adding, “I just think this is infinitely more unpredictable than any presidential race I’ve ever seen.”
Neither Trump nor Biden has entirely stopped attacking the other GOP contenders. Trump still slings insults at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who typically occupy the two spots behind him in national polls. His super PAC is also running ads against DeSantis again after focusing for months on anti-Biden messaging.
Haley is gaining ground in the Republican field, but she and the other GOP contenders remain far behind Trump in the polls. A new Washington Post-Monmouth University poll finds that 46 percent of potential New Hampshire GOP primary voters support Trump, while 18 percent support Haley, 11 percent former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, 8 percent entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and 7 percent DeSantis.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates — including former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) — have begun to drop out of the race. Neither front-runner has even publicly acknowledged the campaigns of Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) or spiritual author Marianne Williamson, who have launched long-shot Democratic primary challenges.
Trump campaign officials hope the Iowa caucuses in January will serve as a knockout blow that makes his claim on the nomination nearly inevitable.
“When we deliver President Trump that 50-, 60-point victory, it’s just going to suffocate all the air out of the room,” an instructor told Trump supporters at a recent training session for caucus captains. “When we swamp ’em here, this thing’s over.”
Signs have been accumulating for months that the Biden and Trump campaigns are training their focus on each other. In September, they staged dueling visits to autoworkers in Michigan as Trump spurned his GOP competitors by skipping the second primary debate. Biden warned in a speech that month that Trump, who sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, sees no limits on his power should he regain the White House.
Biden’s campaign has been running ads targeting a general-election audience since August, including during NFL and college football games in swing states and during shows like “The Bachelor” that skew toward politically diverse audiences. The campaign is also organizing general-election-focused pilot programs in Arizona and Wisconsin.
Both candidates also appear to be adopting some positions that could help them in a general election. Trump, unlike many top Republicans, has declined to endorse a federal abortion ban, for example.
Biden, for his part, imposed new restrictions in May on immigrants seeking asylum, and his administration continues to defend the policy in court, though he has sought to relax Trump’s tough-on-migrants approach in other ways.
On social media, Biden’s campaign now frequently mocks Trump and points out his verbal gaffes, while Trump derides Biden and blames him for the decision of federal and state authorities to file numerous criminal charges against him. The Biden campaign has been sending out emails warning about “Trump’s America in 2025,” while Trump’s team blasted out a New York Times poll showing the former president leading Biden in five swing states. At rallies, Trump imitates Biden tripping while walking up stairs.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, noted in an email that Trump also highlights his polling lead over his Republican challengers and that he mocked DeSantis, in addition to Biden, at the New Hampshire rally. Still, Trump spent far more time at that event targeting Biden than his rival Republicans.
The Trump campaign sees a dual purpose in attacking Biden, supporters say. It begins drawing a contrast with the president for the purposes of the general election, while sending the message to GOP primary voters that Trump is best positioned to take on the president.
The Biden campaign declined to comment.
It is highly unusual for two presidential candidates to run against each other in successive elections. The last time it happened was in the 1950s, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower twice defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson II, said Dan Schnur, a political communications professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California.
It is even less common for two figures who have both served in the Oval Office to face off. “There’s no precedent for this type of rematch,” Schnur said. “Nor is there any precedent for two such overwhelmingly strong front-runners this far in advance.”
Strategists in both parties said Trump and Biden gain clear advantages from treating the primaries as irrelevant.
Biden’s team is working hard to frame the election as a choice between him and Trump, who is anathema to large parts of the electorate, rather than as a referendum on Biden’s presidency. “There are a lot of issues that are not binary — but in 2024, in this election, it is binary,” Vice President Harris said at a recent campaign event. “It is binary, and the choice is clear.”
Biden himself often tells audiences, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”
Many voters who are dissatisfied with Biden’s actions on a given issue, like the economy or abortion rights, nonetheless prefer him to Trump on those subjects, said Democratic pollster Nancy Zdunkewicz. Establishing that comparison now is especially important for Biden, she said, because Trump’s court cases may distract from other topics next year. (Trump has denied wrongdoing in each of those cases and has said he is being targeted for political reasons.)
If someone else becomes the Republican nominee, Biden’s campaign can use the same playbook of slamming “MAGA Republicans” as extremist and dangerous for democracy, Zdunkewicz said. In the meantime, focusing on Trump — while taking shots at the other Republicans when opportunities arise — makes sense, she said.
“It’s one thing to just take an easy layup, right? Someone says something inartful, and you can make a piece of content on it,” Zdunkewicz said. “It’s a different thing to make a strategic choice about who it is that you’re going to be mostly talking about.”
For Trump, ignoring his fellow GOP contenders deprives them of oxygen, said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked for President Barack Obama. And Trump has much stronger grounds to think he will be the nominee than previous early-polling leaders, Belcher said.
“Historically, you would say there are a lot of dynamics to unfold here before you really are sure that Trump’s going to be the nominee,” Belcher said. “I think most of those historical variables go out the door because we’re at a new point in time, and Trump is a very different character.”
The mutual attacks, which are only likely to escalate, have taken on a dark, even dystopian tone. Trump, who dubbed Biden “Sleepy Joe” in 2020, has taken to calling him “Crooked Joe Biden” — perhaps an effort to convey a more ominous threat. “No wonder Crooked Joe Biden and the far-left lunatics are desperate to stop us by any means necessary,” Trump said recently.
And Biden went after Trump for recently characterizing some of his opponents as “vermin,” which the president noted “echoes language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s.” He added: “Maybe Donald Trump sees an angry, dark, dismal, divided future for America. But I don’t.”
Hannah Knowles, Marianne LeVine and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.