Roadmap to November: An Election Briefing with Punchbowl News

Heather Caygle, Managing Editor at Punchbowl News, moderates the conversation with fellow Punchbowl News reporters, Max Cohen, Congressional Reporter and Brendan Pedersen, Financial Services Reporter. Meridian House. January 22, 2024. Photo by Jessica Latos.

2024 will be the largest global election year in history, with voters heading to the polls in 76 countries around the world. The United States’ elections feature prominently on that list, with 435 Representatives, 34 Senators, and 1 President being decided by voters in November. With the American political landscape gripped by unprecedented levels of polarization, any shift in the balance of power between the Republican and Democratic parties stands to produce consequences for both domestic and foreign policy.

On January 22, 2024, in partnership with the Scholl Foundation, Meridian welcomed Punchbowl News’ Heather Caygle (Managing Editor), Max Cohen (Congressional Reporter), and Brenden Pedersen (Financial Services Reporter) to discuss the key issues, faces, and races shaping the 2024 election season. Natalie Jones, Executive Vice-President at Meridian, delivered introductory remarks.

Here are some top takeaways from the program:

1. Chamber Changes: Outlook on House and Senate Majorities

All U.S. Senators serve six-year terms. However, only 1/3 of the chamber seats are up for re-election every two years. Punchbowl News Reporter Brendan Pedersen identified three key races for Democratic incumbents to stave off Republican challengers for their Senate seats: Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, John Tester in Montana, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Currently, Democrats have a 51-49 majority in the Senate. With senior Democrats like Joe Manchin (D-WV) not seeking re-election and likely being succeeded by a Republican, the Senate may be poised for a return to a 50-50 split. In a split Senate, the Vice-President serves as the tiebreaker for any 50-50 votes, transforming the Presidential race into the likely determinant of unified or divided government.

Republicans currently hold a five-seat majority in the House of Representatives, but “Democrats currently feel confident that they can flip those seats and win back the House in 2024” according to Punchbowl News’ Max Cohen. Look to New York and California as key states for House Democrats. Even if Democrats flip the House, the winning margin is expected to be slim, with Cohen predicting that “the days of big House majorities are over.”

2. Interpret Polling Results with Caution

Polls have not proven to be accurate predictors of outcomes in American politics. Take 2022, for example, when polls strongly pointed to a “Red Wave” of Republican victories in the 2022 Congressional elections. This landslide victory never materialized, with Republicans only winning by a five-seat margin. Yet polls drive the conversation during every election cycle. According to, which aggregates polls from around the country to average national sentiment, 55.7% of Americans disapprove of President Joe Biden (compared to 38.9% that approve). The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment, which has reached its highest level of confidence in the economy since July 2021, paints a slightly different picture. Consumer confidence has climbed a cumulative 29% over the past two months, representing the largest two-month increase since 1991. Despite skepticism about “Bidenomics,” Punchbowl News’ Brendan Pedersen suggests Democrats will need to capitalize on this economic momentum for Biden to secure a competitive edge against Former President Donald Trump across key battleground states.

3. How People Feel is How They Vote

“How people feel is how they vote,” explained Punchbowl News Editor Heather Caygle. In other words, lawmakers strategically campaign on issues that generate emotional responses in voters and drive them to the polls. For Republicans, these issues have largely been public safety and immigration, which they accuse Democrats of being too soft on. House Republicans have further politicized these issues through an impeachment inquiry into Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas’ handling of the U.S./Mexico border crisis. Democrats, on the other hand, have chosen to campaign on protecting abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022, a decision that became a top issue for voters in the 2022 midterm elections and propelled Democrats to success in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. This week, Vice-President Kamala Harris launched a national “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour to connect with women voters—a key demographic for Biden’s win in 2020.

4. Do American Voters Care About Foreign Policy Issues?

Yes and no. For the most part, politicians care far more about foreign policy issues than voters do. For example, curtailing China’s influence is a huge priority for policymakers. Meanwhile, the average American voter knows very little about how China fits into their daily life. On the other hand, some young Democratic voters have threatened to withdraw their support from Biden in November over concerns that his administration has neglected the rights of Palestinians throughout the course of the ongoing war in Gaza. The abstention of young, liberal voters could stand to benefit Trump, whose administration recognized the holy city of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. In other instances, where a foreign policy matter becomes highly politicized in Congress (such as House Republicans tying their demands for immigration reform to releasing foreign aid to Ukraine) public opinion can split along partisan lines and shift over time.

5. New (and Old) Faces Entering the Race: Third Party and VP Candidates

A third-party candidate on the presidential election ballot can be expected. However, in the United States’ static two-party system, it is highly unlikely that he or she would mount a competitive challenge. Potential centrist candidates like Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) would likely pull votes from the Biden-Harris ticket, bolstering the odds of a Trump win. The impact of other independent candidates, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is more ambiguous, with political pundits unsure of whether he would act as a spoiler for Biden, or Trump, or both.

With former Vice-President Mike Pence out of the picture, Trump’s running-mate selection presents a strategic opportunity to appeal to key voter demographics. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) is an early contender for the job. Opting to endorse Trump instead of Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador and governor of South Carolina who first appointed Scott to the Senate in 2017, Scott may help sway Black centrist voters away from Biden. Haley is another possible pick for VP, despite her current claims that joining the Trump ticket is off the table.

6. Democracy on the Ballot: Elections in Post-January 6th America

Biden is framing the 2024 election as a battle for democracy. With him and Trump continuing to rehash the events of January 6th along the campaign trail, to what extent can we expect election denialism to destabilize American democracy in 2024? The answer is: not likely. In the midterms, every 2020 election-denying candidate who ran for Secretary of State—the chief election official at the state level—lost. Additionally, Congress reformed the Electoral Count Act in 2022 to clarify that the Vice President’s role in election certification is purely ceremonial. The reforms also prevent individual members of Congress from objecting to state election results; the new legislation requires 20% of each chamber (87 Representatives and 20 Senators) to challenge a state’s electors. Thus, although election denialism may continue to prevail in certain parts of the electorate, the likelihood that such denialism manifests in a challenge to American democracy as it did in 2020 has been significantly curtailed.

This program was made possible through the support of:

Dr. Scholl Foundation | Chicago Public Library Foundation

Project summary

Roadmap to November: An Election Briefing with Punchbowl News | January 2024
Impact Areas: Foreign Policy, Media and Journalism, Governance and Transparency
Program Areas: Diplomatic Engagement