BY this time next year, we will likely know who will be the next US president. I say likely, as that’s working on the assumption of no delay through the contesting of results or outright challenges to the democratic process as happened last time when Joe Biden and Donald Trump went head-to-head.

That it will be a Biden-Trump showdown is also itself uncertain, for a year is a very long time in politics and the fortunes of both men – especially Trump– could change dramatically in the next 12 months, not least given that there are other Republican candidates seeking the nomination.

But even this far in advance – short in campaigning terms – there is already ­considerable speculation, and anxiety, as to how the 2024 presidential contest and its outcome will shape up.

It was Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States who, in his autobiography of 1913, once observed that “a vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends on the character of the user”.

And so once again on November 5, 2024, the character of the American ­people will be put to the test as they cast their vote. But so too will the character of the two rival candidates for the 47th ­presidency, who as things stand right now, look set to be Biden and Trump, setting the scene for a rerun of their last contest during which the ­then-incumbent Trump ­pursued an unprecedented ­effort to ­overturn the ­election. What followed that calamitous move was to leave ­America a fractured and politically divided place which ­remains the case to this day.

Against such a backdrop, political polls are arguably more fickle than ever, but that said, the latest does not bode well for Biden. Two major polls last week showed him trailing Trump, as concerns over the economy and splits within the ­Democratic party over the Israel-Hamas war dragged down the incumbent Biden’s 2024 re-election prospects.

The National: Former President Donald Trump has begun giving evidence (Curtis Means/Pool Photo via AP)

A New York Times/Siena College poll found Biden was behind Trump in five of the six most important battleground states, fuelled by doubts about his handling of the economy, questions about his age – Biden and Trump are 80 and 77 ­respectively – and discontent on other issues such as the Israel-Hamas conflict.

A CBS News poll meanwhile, also showed Trump ahead of Biden a year before the 2024 election. The poll found more voters thought they would be ­better off financially if Trump won in 2024, and that Biden had failed to win over ­Democrats in the way that Trump had convinced Republicans.

Tradition has it that Americans are by and large pocketbook voters, and those polled said they trusted Trump over Biden on the economy by 59% to 37% respectively, the widest gap on any issue according to the New York Times poll.

But despite a slew of data ­showing Biden’s popularity is low, a sense of ­vindication swept through the White House and Biden campaign last ­Wednesday after the Democrats’ strong showing in off-year elections buoyed campaigners.

“Pollsters, pundits, if I had $1 for every time they’ve counted Joe Biden or the Democrats out, I probably wouldn’t have to work anymore,” Sam Cornale, ­executive director of the Democratic ­National Committee, was quoted as ­saying in a predictably upbeat response. Democrats “won time and again, and we will next November”, Cornale predicted.

His optimism stems from the ­victories secured in a series of US state and ­local elections where voter support for ­abortion rights, a crucial issue for ­Democrats, helped the president’s party to succeed in several electoral races in places like ­Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“What’s going on here? Are the polls wrong? Are the Democrats strong but Biden weak?” asked The New York Times columnist David Brooks in the ­ aftermath of the latest contradictory polls and ­results.

In answering his own question Brooks offered four explanations. The first is that “Americans increasingly use polls to vent not to vote”. The second is that the ­“median voter rule still applies”, whereby parties win when they stay close to the centre of the electorate.

As evidence, Brooks says the ­Democrats’ strong showing in last week’s elections proves how powerful the median voter rule is, especially when it comes to the abortion issue – something the Biden camp needs to learn from.

The other two explanations for the Democrat victories, Brooks attests, is that “dull but effective governmental wins and circus politics is failing” and also that “none of us – the American electorate – know what the political climate will be a year from now.”

But while Biden will doubtless be ­bolstered by the latest off-year election results, he may well also have to grapple with a third-party candidacy that could split the 2024 election in unpredictable ways.

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Meanwhile, of course, over in the Trump camp, there are mixed fortunes of a very different kind. Seven years and five months into Trump’s political career, he is deep in the throes of various legal actions against him. In that time, he has faced a post-presidential impeachment trial and four ongoing criminal trials for 91 alleged felonies.

It speaks volumes about Trump’s ­political durability that exactly a year before the next presidential election for which he is the presumptive ­Republican nominee, the was playing rogue ­defendant in the dock in a Manhattan court last week where he stood accused of running a fraudulent business in the state of New York.

It was Susan B Glasser, the New ­Yorker magazine columnist, who nailed the ­extent to which Trump, despite the legal threats he faces, remains almost ­uncontrollable.

“Donald Trump often takes the breath away with his defiance of the basic norms of American public life,” observed Glasser in her column a few days after Trump delivered what she described as one after another “soliloquy” in response to a yes-or-no question from the presiding judge Arthur Engoron.

“It’s the smaller encroachments on ­decency that serve as a reminder of how far outside the bounds he operates,” Glasser noted.

And it’s precisely that capacity to work outside the political bounds that ­continues to worry many Americans faced with the prospect of Trump ­returning to the White House.

Experts too say there is already a ­special dynamic to the coming election in that Trump is acting more like an incumbent than a candidate trying to unseat a sitting president. But concerns over Trump don’t stop there.

A recent expose by The Washington Post has provided evidence of how Trump and his allies plan to consolidate power and install a more authoritarian second term. Last week the Post’s senior political writer, Aaron Blake, detailed what was described as a five-point recap based on the newspaper’s own reporting along with that of other titles as well as the words of both Trump and his allies.

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The first of these points is that the Trump camp plans to wrest control of and politicise the US Justice Department to target his political foes. The second is ­reportedly a scheme to rid the government of those perceived to not be on Trump’s side despite such officials usually being insulated and protected.

To that end, the Post cites another report last year from the American news website Axios. It details how Trump’s allies are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging ­potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his “America First” ideology.

According to Axios’s former national political correspondent Jonathan Swan, the core of such a plan derives from an executive order known as “Schedule F”, developed behind closed doors during the second half of Trump’s term and launched 13 days before the 2020 election.

Such orders were something Biden quickly rescinded when he took office but are once again being touted for all they are worth by Trump as he seeks ­re-election.

What’s especially worrying about such a plan says Axios is that it would ­“effectively upend the modern civil ­service and put future presidents in the position of bringing in their own ­loyalists or reverting to a traditional ­bureaucracy.”

THREE other components of the Trump plan outlined by the Washington Post also include consolidating power in the presidency, pardoning January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol building in 2021 and cracking down even harder on immigrants.

All of these moves sit alongside a wider blueprint pulled together by a number of US conservative institutions led by The Heritage Foundation who have come ­together to produce what they call ­Project 25, a plan to reshape the executive branch of the US federal government in the event of a Trump-Republican victory in the 2024 election.

Outlining their scheme, the ­contributors to Project 25 have released a 1000-page report entitled Mandate For Leadership: The Conservative Promise.

In effect, this involves a number of Trump conservatives drawing up plans to prosecute former Trump acolytes who he now sees as traitors. The cardinal sin of many appears to have been a refusal to ­collude in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Between them, the existence of ­Schedule F and Project 25 have left many Americans both inside and ­outside ­Washington’s corridors of power very nervous at the prospect of a Trump ­return and a steering of their country ­towards a far-right autocracy. In fact, plans, ­blueprints and schedules seem not only to have been long in the gestation phase but currently all the rage in the Trump camp.

Another such plan is more ­openly available on Trump’s election ­campaign website and dubbed Agenda 47, a ­reference to Trump becoming America’s 47th president if he wins.

This outlines some of Trump’s aims on the domestic political front should ­voters send him back to the White House in 12 months and range from the ­fantastical – some argue egotistical – such as the ­building of “freedom cities” on empty ­federal land, where Americans can live and work without “burdensome ­regulations”.

It also controversially includes ­rounding up the homeless to get them off America’s streets and move them to tent camps ­outside US cities until their “­problems can be identified.”

“Here’s a playbook. Here’s how you get it done. And here, most importantly, are the areas and the places and positions where a liberal bureaucracy is going to try to stop you,” was how Trump recently summed up such plans.

With every day that passes, his ­playbook becomes more apparent – extending as it does to dealing with rivals in the ­Republican presidential primary field. Just last week, this was again highlighted as the third Republican debate came and went, in an event The New York Times dismissed as “the undercard that ­underwhelmed”.

What prompted the withering ­criticism was the seeming insignificance of a ­debate without the Republican Party’s heaviest hitter – Trump.

Last Wednesday, while the debate ­unfolded on stage in Miami, Florida, Trump was a mere 20 minutes away in the Cuban-American stronghold of ­Hialeah, holding a rally.

“The last debate was the lowest-rated debate in the history of politics,” Trump said in his speech. “So, therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not ­participating?” The crowd responded with cheers.

It’s always been Trump’s way to do things differently and that, once again, is what Biden will need to contend with. While recent polls might not have been in the president’s favour, he will take ­consolation in knowing that history shows polls a year away from an election are almost always worthless.

In 2011, they forecast Obama losing easily to a Republican. He went on to beat Mitt Romney a year later. In late 1979, Jimmy Carter was also forecast to beat Ronald Reagan but lost badly.

Biden too will now set about using the recent Democrats’ wins to buoy his ­campaign and to try and quell voter anxieties about 2024. But if anything, the recent off-year election success for the Democrats shows that it’s not so much a platform or policy problem they suffer from as a personnel problem in the shape of Biden himself who many Americans believe is simply too old for the job.

Amidst all these prevailing imponderables over next year’s election, ­however, one thing is certain. To put it simply, ­America’s political temperature over the next 12 months will reach heights rarely ever seen before. The outcome of this contest too has the capacity to shape the United States in ways also never seen before.