Emma Willits, a mental health counselor from Des Moines, is looking for a candidate who cares about climate change and universal health care. She voted for President Biden and will probably do so again, though Ms. Willits, 26, says “it feels a little hopeless, honestly.”
Sitting on a bench just across the fair midway, John Hogan described how he believed Mr. Biden was a criminal who should be “hung” — before his wife shushed him for being unkind. He said he voted for Donald J. Trump twice and would probably do so again, if the former president wins his party’s nomination for a third time.
But Mr. Hogan, too, would like more options.
“These two jokers compared to Ronald Reagan?” said Mr. Hogan, a 58-year-old retiree from Pella, a small town an hour southeast of Des Moines. “Come on.”
In an era when American politics are defined by discord, there’s one issue on which voters across the divided political landscape appear to be able to find common ground: Please, not another round of this.
Five months before the first nominating contest in Iowa, the country appears headed for the first presidential-election rematch since 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson II for the second time.
Mr. Biden is running for re-election with no significant Democratic challenger. In Iowa and among Republicans nationally, Mr. Trump remains the dominant front-runner despite facing multiple election-year criminal trials, leading his nearest challenger by a two-to-one margin, with nearly all the others in the pack of a dozen challengers mired in the single digits.
Interviews with over two dozen strategists, voters and candidates indicate that many see the country as slowly marching not toward a new season but into reruns. And even in Iowa, where voters invest deeply in presidential politics, a whole lot of them would really like to change the channel.
“That’s surprisingly one of the few things Americans can agree on right now — they don’t want a rematch,” Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, one of the lesser-known Republicans challenging Mr. Trump, said in an interview while riding the Ferris wheel. “Presidential campaigns should be about a vision of where our country should go. In both cases, there’s a lot of discussion of the past.”
While recent polls show Mr. Burgum deep in the pack of Republicans, surveys indicate he has a point. Only 22 percent of Democrats said they would feel “excited” with Mr. Biden as the nominee, and nearly half of the party would like another choice for president, according to polling last month from The New York Times and Siena College.
A larger portion — 43 percent — of likely Republican voters said they had a “very favorable” opinion of Mr. Trump. Yet 46 percent said they would be open to another option.
If those are the choices, most voters would probably fall in line. Only 10 percent said they would vote for an alternative or stay home.
As he waited for Mr. Trump to arrive at a grill stand sponsored by the state’s pork industry, Dan Pelican, 40, said he felt little anticipation over the prospect of flipping pork chops with the former — and perhaps future — president. He backed Mr. Trump in 2016 but in 2020 wrote in his own name.
Of course, the race is far from set. Mr. Trump’s standing could falter as legal troubles escalate and as his criminal indictments go to trial — a calendar that’s likely to overlap with primary season. Mr. Biden — the oldest president in history at 80 — faces persistent anxiety about his health within his own party. There’s also the prospect that his son Hunter Biden could face his own criminal trial during the campaign.
As she sold funnel cakes from a stand at the fair, Emily Wiebke grimaced when asked whether she was excited for a Biden-Trump rematch. She would vote for Mr. Biden again, she said, but would really like some less seasoned options.
“Last time I kind of felt like, why are you making me choose between these two people?” said Ms. Wiebke, 48, a high school English teacher from Fort Dodge. “Maybe get some younger people with some new ideas and kind of see where that is.”
Instead, the 2024 election is shaping up to be as much about re-litigating the past as about casting the country toward the future. Biden supporters argue that he’s the only candidate who can defeat Mr. Trump, who many see as an existential threat to American democracy. Backers of Mr. Trump believe his falsehoods about the 2020 election being stolen and see the next race as a chance to right what they view as a historic wrong.
“We know who we voted for and we watched all the way through that the results we were hoping for were taken away,” said Ray Hareen, 76, a retiree from Des Moines, who planned to vote for Mr. Trump. “I still can’t get over it in a way.”
Strategists say those motivations reflect tribal forces driving American politics. Voters are driven more by hatred of the other side — what political scientists call negative partisanship — than by a desire to solve national problems. Surveys show that increasingly Republicans and Democrats view people who support the opposing party in extremely negative terms including stupid, immoral and dishonest.
“Who do you hate? Hey, who hates you? Those are the motivating forces right now,” said David Kochel, a longtime Trump-skeptical Republican strategist from Iowa. “It would be better for the country if we had an argument about the future. And it’s hard to do that if you have two really old politicians who already ran against each other.”
A number of voters described their thinking in ways that made clear that their support was far more about which candidate they didn’t like than about any positive qualities.
“I’ll vote for Biden because I’m anti-Trump,” said Lydia Stein, 32, a nurse from Des Moines. “But there’s a question of how long Biden can continue to be effective and bringing forth new things to work on in another four years.”
Much of the angst around the choices relates to the age of both front-runners. Mr. Biden is asking voters to keep him in the White House until age 86, a request that polls show raises concerns for most Americans and is the source of enormous anxiety among party leaders. He has found an unlikely defender: Mr. Trump, 77, who has said that Mr. Biden is “not an old man” and that “life begins at 80.”
Voters are not so convinced. Jesse Lopez, a retired factory worker from Des Moines who was showing off his vintage 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo at the fair, said he would consider a Democrat or a moderate Republican. He planned to vote for Mr. Biden, but thought the president should have cleared the way for a new generation of leaders.
“We need to get some younger blood in the government,” said Mr. Lopez, 71. “The younger generation, they see things different than us older generation, so I can see that the change needs to happen.”
Partisans on both sides blame their opponents for the lack of excitement around the choices. As he walked the fairgrounds promoting Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign and sampling Iowa’s pork chops, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said voters weren’t looking forward to “the fatigue around what we know will be the nonsense” from Mr. Trump.
Asked if he was looking forward to a Trump-Biden rematch, Sam Clovis, a retired college professor from Sioux City, Iowa, who was an early Iowa adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign, replied, “Honestly, no.”
After seven years of chaotic and often unprecedented political events — from impeachments to indictments to a once-in-a-century pandemic — many voters say they are seeking a break.
Standing near the state fair’s soapbox Thursday afternoon awaiting former Vice President Mike Pence, Kim Schmett, a lawyer from Clive, Iowa, who voted twice for Mr. Trump, said he was hoping for anything in 2024 but a rematch of 2020.
“President Trump and President Biden have had their opportunities,” Mr. Schmett said. “I think it’s time we move on to the future and try to unite people instead of reliving the last decade or two.”