If 2024 is Biden-Trump rematch, will policy matter or will it be 'all vibes'? Voters, experts sound off

Both candidates have long track records and well established public personas.

December 13, 2023, 3:44 PM

In the 2020 presidential race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had "a plan for that" and now-President Joe Biden explained how he would "build back better."

Four years earlier, then-candidate Donald Trump made a slew of headlines for his "Make America Great Again" proposals, including pledging to renegotiate major trade deals and, controversially, ban travelers from majority-Muslim countries.

Next year's election is likely to feature a similar amount of plans -- in speeches, on campaign websites, during debates -- although strategists and voters were divided in conversations with ABC News about whether that would make much of a difference for voters in a likely rematch between Biden and Trump.

Both men have been in the White House, have virtually universal name recognition and have long track records in the public eye, experts noted.

Polls have also consistently shown that voters would prefer other choices but haven't rallied around any of Biden and Trump's challengers.

Some operatives who spoke with ABC News predicted that voters likely already have the two front-runners' policies -- including on key issues like abortion access, the economy and immigration -- pre-baked into their perceptions or will base their decisions around their well-known characters.

"I think it's all vibes," said David Kochel, a veteran GOP strategist who worked on former Florida Gov Jeb Bush's 2016 presidential campaign.

"I think it's all personality, celebrity, it's all negative partisanship," Kochel added, "and it has very little to do with a policy."

Biden is an incumbent with decades in public office, including eight years as vice president, as well as the accompanying track record of successes and failures. He also faces widespread voter concerns about his age and acuity, which he's tried to play down

And Trump is a former president with a national media persona that dates back to the '70s as well as a devoted following -- and numerous legal troubles, including 91 felony charges, and a term in the White House that was capped by a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Trump denies all wrongdoing.)

"I believe that the fundamentals of a Biden-Trump race are locked in," said one GOP strategist who is supportive of Trump and asked not to be quoted by name to discuss the race.

"No amount of positive messaging, no amount of policy rollouts and no amount of attack ads will change that at this point," said this strategist.

Democrats "were hoping the legal stuff would take Trump out," the person argued, "but that's clearly not happening [yet]."

Conversations with voters so far also suggest at least some of them have their minds made up about a year out from the race.

PHOTO: President Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Bowie State University on Nov. 7, 2022 in Bowie, Md., and Republican presidential candidate former President Trump at the Washington Hilton on June 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore at Bowie State University on Nov. 7, 2022 in Bowie, Md., and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Nathan Howard and Drew Angerer/Getty Images

"Donald Trump did a lot of good things up until Jan. 6. ... And [now] I just wish he'd go spend time with his grandkids," Steve Megerle, an attorney and lifelong Republican from Fort Thomas, Kentucky, said last month.

John Bielecki, a center-right voter, backed Biden in 2020 but says now that "his problem is his age, right?"

"If you look at his resume, he's [got] a lot of bipartisan support, but he's not my guy," Bielecki told ABC News at a campaign rally for Republican Nikki Haley in West Des Moines, Iowa, in September.

Still, other strategists insisted that candidates' policies and platforms will matter, particularly for voters who are either just starting to pay attention to the race, which officially begins with the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, or who are genuinely undecided.

Their preferences could be decisive in the kinds of close elections that the country has seen in 2000, 2016 and 2020.

"Swing voters don't follow the ins and outs of policy debates and presidential campaigns like we do, and that is especially true of voters who are undecided in the presidential race. They tend to follow politics even less closely," said Matt Hogan, a Democratic pollster who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 bid. "I absolutely don't think that a lot of these positions are baked in and that they could be effective in moving the needle once voters become aware or are reminded of them."

Issues that these strategists speculated could move the needle include abortion access and health care, particularly after the Supreme Court scrapped federal abortion protections by reversing Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Trump has also revived the idea of trying to replace the now-popular Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which he contends is a failure.

"While reproductive rights isn't a new issue, obviously its resonance is very different because Roe v. Wade was overturned. We're in a different issue environment. So in that instance, it absolutely matters," said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist and another Clinton campaign alum.

GOP strategist Rob Stutzman warned against a renewed focus on scrapping Obamacare, which had been a major goal of the Republican base but repeatedly failed when proposed in Congress.

"Voters will typically punish you for changing something in the health care system. And I think I'd be really careful with it," Stutzman said.

Some voters told ABC News that policy, particularly around the economy, is influencing them.

"I really like to see a booming economy. Inflation, the cost of education," 18-year-old Camdyn Meier said at a town hall for Republican entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswawmy in Iowa in October.

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Claremont, N. H., Nov. 11, 2023.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

For their part, the Biden campaign insisted that the president boasts what spokesperson Seth Schuster called a "popular agenda." Schuster said that "we'll be spending the next year making sure voters know that's the choice that will be before them next November."

Stutzman said he sees it another way: "The driving factor is gonna be Biden's capacity versus Trump's recklessness, and I'm sure people are gonna feel like it's a choice between lesser evils."

A Trump campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but he has repeatedly said he is far more qualified than the president.

Beyond policy, strategists wondered if only a criminal conviction for Trump could dramatically alter the race -- with operatives not even reaching unanimity on that conclusion. He has pleaded not guilty to his charges.

Stutzman argued there will be voters who "won't be able to bring themselves to vote for someone who has been convicted by a jury of peers." But not all voters, and even some Democrats, weren't so sure.

"I think based on everything that we've seen about Trump is that the difference between his ceiling and floor [of his public support] is not that big, and his numbers are fairly inelastic," said one Democratic pollster who asked to be quoted anonymously in order to speak candidly.

"If Trump gets convicted, every American -- I don't care if you are liberal, conservative, white, black, red, green or purple -- we should be deeply concerned with the way they are using the justice system to attack their political enemies," Eric Voyer, a Trump supporter, told ABC News in Columbia, South Carolina.

Others recognize the importance of policy but said they're making their decisions for the primary and general election based on other factors.

"I feel like charisma is a very important part of this game," David Moritz of West Des Moines, Iowa, told ABC News in October. "I know that we're all supposed to vote like robots and just vote our values and vote on paper, but that's not always the way it is."

ABC News' Gabriella Abdul-Hakim and Kendall Ross contributed to this report.