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Republican and Democratic strategists weigh in on 2024 presidential race

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We're two election days into 2024, and President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are already looking ahead to the general election. Still, even after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is not backing down. Here's what she had to say last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: We are not going to sit there and just give up. We're going to sit there, and we're going to fight because Americans deserve better than what they have in these two options, and we're going to give it to them.

SUMMERS: We're going to take stock now of where this 2024 race is and where it's headed. I'm joined now by Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. And we're also joined by Republican strategist Ron Bonjean in Washington, D.C. Hello to both of you.

ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Hello.

RON BONJEAN: Thanks very much.

SUMMERS: Antjuan, I want to start this off with you because Democrats will kick off their primary process next weekend in your state of South Carolina. And as you and many recall, this is the state that breathed life into former Vice President Biden's 2020 campaign. And this race this time around - it's virtually uncontested. Biden is all but certain to win. But given all of that, just how energized are South Carolina Democrats, and how much does a strong showing there matter for President Biden?

SEAWRIGHT: Well, in politics, a win is a win. And - but I think, in particular, a win in South Carolina, among the most loyal and dedicated voting bloc in a generation - Black voters - should send a message to the rest of the country. Sixty percent of the people who will cast their vote in the South Carolina primary are African American. I think that is very reflective of the terrain to come after South Carolina. And Black voters have shown consistently they are the deciding factor in whether or not Democrats lose or win in any given election. So I think a strong showing with - for President Biden, with African American voters in particular, will send a strong message to the pollsters and those in the chattering class who seem to think there's some disconnect between Joe Biden and Black voters.

SUMMERS: Well, Antjuan, I want to push you on that because there have been, as you've alluded to, some recent national polls that have cast doubt on Biden's standing among Black voters compared to what we saw in your state of South Carolina and elsewhere in 2020. From what you have seen and heard, is his campaign's message breaking through with Black voters there, or do you think there's more they could or should be doing?

SEAWRIGHT: Well, I think the biggest room in any house is the room for improvement. We have more work to do. We have to meet folks where they are. We have to push back against misinformation and disinformation. We have to remind folks not only what the president has done and the vice president, but also what they will do if they are allowed a second opportunity to serve again. But also, we have to remind folks what we're up against and the Trumpism and the extremism that have now hijacked the Republican Party. And there's one thing about Black voters I think the chattering class has to understand - is we've always shown up historically to reject something, or we've always shown up for a cause.

SUMMERS: Right.

SEAWRIGHT: I think Joe Biden is a cause and something that we're worth fighting for. And the work he's done for us, I think, speaks for itself.

SUMMERS: Ron, over to you. There's still some time - a matter of weeks - before the Republican primary in South Carolina. It's at the end of next month. But Nikki Haley, former governor, is relying heavily on her home state. Do you see any opportunity for her to land a similar surprise and win there?

BONJEAN: There can always be a surprise, of course, but the trend has been going in President Trump - former President Trump's direction, locking down Iowa and New Hampshire. And he has created this momentum because he's winning. And because he's winning, a number of high-profile endorsements have started to happen from elected officials both in South Carolina and nationally. So Nikki Haley has an uphill climb to go, even in her home state, and it's likely that Trump is going to win there as well and secure the nomination. That is - we're seeing that in the wins, and we're seeing that in the polling.

SUMMERS: And Ron, as I've been listening to Nikki Haley, who's been campaigning aggressively, she's definitely making the case to voters that she is the better candidate in terms of helping out down-ballot with House and Senate races, state legislative races. And I'm wondering what you make of that. Is that too little, too late, or is Trump the better bet down the ballot?

BONJEAN: Well, Nikki Haley is making a smart argument. However, it's an argument that falls largely on deaf ears of Republican voters, especially the MAGA voters, who are solidly in Trump's camp, and Republicans that are looking for people - elected officials to solve their problems at home. They're not thinking about that type of dynamic. That's a very high-intellectual campaign argument to make. What I do think is smart is that she's - I think it's - this is smart for her to be campaigning right now because she's setting herself up in four years. If she doesn't win, it's going to be natural for all of us to look to - who is the next Republican who could succeed Donald Trump? And she'll be on that list.

SUMMERS: Antjuan, President Biden had a big rally on Tuesday focused on the issue of abortion rights, which is an issue that his campaign believes will drive Democrats to the polls. But that event was overshadowed by a series of interruptions from protesters about his support for Israel and its war in Gaza. There is a clear divide among Democratic voters on this. How big of an issue do you think it is for the president and his campaign?

SEAWRIGHT: Look, I think the one thing this president does is he welcomes free speech, and he welcomes the diversity of thought. And he welcomes those who disagree with him to the table. And I think Joe Biden, more than any president in my party's history, catches more hell for that than anyone else. However, I would say to those protesters - and I think the president would probably say to them, too - is that - think about the disagreements we may have, and I assure you, they do not compare to the disagreements we have with the other side.

And so we respect diversity. We pride ourselves on that as Democrats, the big tent party. And I think those folks have the right to protest. But just know that if the other side gets their way, with all due respect, they will not have any seat or any ability to be able to have their voices heard on this issue. And guess what? It's OK to disagree. But just know that our disagreements we have amongst each other do not compare to the disagreements with the other side.

SUMMERS: Ron, I want to turn now to former President Trump, who is facing four criminal cases, one of them involving election interference. He may be on trial throughout this election year. While it is historic - he is the first president to be indicted on criminal charges - it does not seem to be dampening enthusiasm from voters. You'd hoped and said that you hope he'd have a tougher run for the nomination, but what do you think now?

BONJEAN: Well, it sure looks like he's using it as a campaign slogan. He's turned this to his benefit - that he's being persecuted by the legal system, and the legal system is rigged by politicians. And there are lots of people out there that it's resonating with. And so, normally, it would hurt anyone else. It would devastate anyone else. In this case, because Donald Trump is the Teflon Don, so to speak, as we've said, it's not really having much of an effect. Now, what really matters is, when it comes down to November, what are those independent voters in those swing states thinking? What are those slivers - those slices of the population that really decide these elections - do they still want to be with Joe Biden, or have they had enough and want to give Donald Trump a chance? Because while they don't like - maybe like his tweets and like his rhetoric, they like the way the country was before COVID.

SUMMERS: And Ron, I want to stay with you here and just ask you, in a sentence or two, what do you think Republicans need to focus on to beat President Biden? - quick answer.

BONJEAN: Well, I think they need to still talk about the economy, crime, immigration - the issues that are on the forefronts of Americans right now.

SUMMERS: OK.

BONJEAN: They should not be getting involved...

SUMMERS: All right.

BONJEAN: ...In a lot of other things.

SUMMERS: We're going to have to leave it there. Republican strategist Ron Bonjean and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright - thanks to both of you.

BONJEAN: Thank you.

SEAWRIGHT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.