US elections are six months away. How does the race stand and what’s next?

As November vote nears, here are the key issues and challenges facing presumptive nominees Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump
US President Joe Biden and his Republican predecessor Donald Trump are set to face off in the 2024 election on November 5 [File: AP Photo]

A crackdown on pro-Palestinian student protests, Donald Trump’s hush-money criminal trial, and political bickering over foreign aid and immigration have dominated headlines in the United States in recent weeks.

The issues have shone a spotlight on deep divisions in the country as it moves closer to what is expected to be a heated battle for the White House between incumbent President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Trump.

But for most people across the US, the presidential election on November 5 — exactly six months from Sunday — is not yet on their radars.

“In the United States, most people still have not tuned in. Despite you, I and the political class, the vast majority of Americans are not paying attention to the election,” said Erik Nisbet, a professor of policy analysis and communications at Northwestern University.

“People don’t tune in until September,” he told Al Jazeera. “At this point though, it’s important to get your narratives out. It’s important to get your base solidified and mobilised.”

Perceptions of an ‘Election 2.0’

Most polls show a tight race between Biden and Trump as the election nears, with experts saying the contest will likely come down to how the candidates fare in critical swing states like Michigan, Georgia and Nevada.

But there is also widespread frustration that the choice this election cycle is the same as in 2020, when Biden defeated Trump to win the White House.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of all registered voters said they would replace both Biden and Trump on the ballot if they could.

About two-thirds of respondents said they had little to no confidence that Biden is physically fit enough to be president, the poll said, while a similar number said they did not believe Trump would act ethically in office.

“It is Election 2.0,” said Jan Leighley, a political science professor at American University in Washington, DC.

“I think that creates a disincentive for voting, which again comes back on the campaigns to convince people that, even though it’s the same choice, there’s still a reason to vote.”

Youth vote

For the Biden camp, the message so far has been that a vote for the Democratic incumbent is a vote for democratic ideals. “Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot,” Biden said in January.

But that message is failing to resonate among key segments of the Democratic base who are angered by the Biden administration’s unequivocal support for Israel amid its war in Gaza.

The recent wave of pro-Palestinian protests on college campuses has highlighted a generational divide over the US’s relationship with Israel, and that, in turn, could pose a serious problem for Biden as he seeks the youth vote in November.

In 2020, Biden won about 60 percent support among voters aged 18 to 29.

But a recent CNN poll showed Biden trailing Trump — 51 percent to 40 percent — among voters under age 35, and experts say a lack of enthusiasm among young voters could spell trouble.

“We know how college students are feeling,” said Hasan Pyarali, the Muslim Caucus chairperson for College Democrats of America, the university arm of the Democratic Party.

“And I can tell you for sure that there are too many who would stay home” on November 5 if Biden does not change his Middle East policy, Pyarali added. “I doubt that people would switch over to Trump, but they would certainly not vote.”

According to Nisbet at Northwestern University, Biden’s campaign needs to focus in the coming months on “getting the Democratic house in order” before it tries to appeal to the relatively small number of undecided voters in the country.

Any protests at the Democratic National Convention, for example, could hurt him. Democrats will gather in Chicago in August to formally confirm Biden as their 2024 nominee.

“The Democratic Party, or at least the Biden campaign, does not want any dissension within the [party] because it’s a bad visual,” said Nisbet.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Trump’s campaign has unfolded against unprecedented legal turmoil.

The former president faces four separate criminal cases, including an ongoing trial in New York over allegations he falsified business records related to a hush-money payment made to an adult film star.

While the indictments have done little so far to dent Trump’s support among Republican voters, some polling suggests that a chunk of the US electorate would not vote for him if he were convicted in any of the cases.

Trump is expected to be confirmed as the Republican Party’s 2024 nominee at the party’s convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July.

“The conventions go on over the summer, but there’s usually not a whole lot of activity campaign-wise,” said Leighley at American University.

But this year might be different, given Trump’s court hearings and the pressure on Biden over the Gaza war. “Those could be unusual bumps, if you will, that provide campaigns opportunities to do more in terms of ads,” she said.

Key issues

Both Leighley and Nisbet said the US economy is always an important election issue, and it will continue to be a focus over the next few months of campaigning.

Despite positive economic indicators, many Americans believe they are worse off now than when Trump was in the White House, recent polls have suggested.

“There is a big gap where people, for whatever reason — it could be because of the economics, it could be a bias of memory — they look more favourably at Trump’s then-presidency than Biden’s current one overall,” said Nisbet.

He added that the economy is hurting Biden among Latino and Black voters, as well as young people, all of whom are key segments of the Democratic base.

“Trump will want to talk about how bad the economy is,” said Nisbet, while Biden’s team instead will “try to change the conversation” and pivot to other issues.

That includes access to abortion. Biden has made defending access to reproductive healthcare a central plank of his re-election campaign, repeatedly condemning Trump and Republican Party lawmakers for supporting abortion restrictions.

In 2022, under Trump, the US Supreme Court formed a conservative “supermajority”, allowing it to overturn Roe v Wade, a landmark 1973 ruling that established abortion access as a constitutional right.

Eliminating Roe had been a conservative priority for decades, and several Republican-led states have since enacted strict limits on abortion.

According to Leighley, “there will be an emphasis on the issue of abortion and Trump’s role in that and the Republican Party and its plans” as the presidential campaigns inch closer to the fall months of September and October.

Trump and Biden debate in 2020
Trump and Biden spar during the final presidential debate of the 2020 race in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020 [Morry Gash/Pool via Reuters]

Debate schedule

That is also when the first debate between Biden and Trump could take place.

The Commission on Presidential Debates reiterated on Wednesday that the first televised face-off between the candidates would take place on September 16, confirming dates announced late last year.

The announcement came after Trump’s team had urged the commission to move the schedule forward.

There has been uncertainty around the 2024 debates, particularly as Trump eschewed participating in any during the Republican primary process. But last week, both Biden and Trump said they were up for it.

“I honestly don’t know if either one wants them, but it is an American tradition — and I think it really would hurt American democracy if we did not have presidential debates,” said Nesbit.

“It’s a major aspect of our tradition in the United States. And having presidential debates, even if they don’t change anyone’s minds — and they rarely do — I think it’s important for Americans to hear their two candidates at least air their perspectives.”

Source: Al Jazeera