Four years ago, when I first began writing about the potential Democratic field for 2020, I separated a bunch of candidates into tiers. In the top tier, I listed four candidates:
- One was Congressman Beto O’Rourke, whose gallant but failed run at Ted Cruz in Texas’s 2018 Senate election earned him media adoration. PPFA liked his chances, but that was before seeing him actually run for president. I came away unimpressed with his campaign, and six months after declaring he dropped out. Losing the Texas governor’s race earlier this month makes that three Ls in a row for the perpetual “future of the Democratic Party.”
- Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was listed around 7/1. About one year and a handful of impressive debate performances later she was considered the favorite by oddsmakers and punditry, but that was before Presidential Politics for America derailed her presidential ambitions with a single post.
- The initial favorite from the oddsmakers was California Senator Kamala Harris, usually with odds around 5/1. She was seen as a promising talent in the party, which in retrospect is objectively hilarious. PPFA was critical of her, and she didn’t even make it to Iowa.
The fourth co-favorite was former Vice President Joe Biden. Here’s what I had to say:
Though he has generally the longest odds in the top tier — usually 8/1 to 10/1 — I’d install him as the favorite. He’s popular across the Democratic spectrum, and he’s one of the few names on here that won’t be dwarfed by TRUMP — and we know he won’t be bullied by him. Of all these candidates, I’d give him the best chance to win if nominated, and I think general election viability — in other words, the ability to evict Trump from the White House — will be Democratic voters’ top priority.–Presidential Politics For America, November 13, 2018.
Was I right or wasn’t I? By the time of my first Power Rankings in March of 2019, Joe Biden, before he even declared his candidacy, was installed as the favorite. On the morning of the Iowa caucuses 11 months later, despite considerable shuffling underneath him, he was again ranked at #1.
So now, four years after that prediction and one week after my opening thoughts on Republicans’ 2024 primary, what’s in store for the Democrats this time around?
We have to start with the old donkey in the room: Joe Biden just turned 80 yesterday. If Biden runs for a second term, he’d be 81 on Election Day, 82 on inauguration day, and 86 when (if!) he finishes that second term.
These numbers are too big to ignore. Although it’s been nearly 150 years since a first-term president didn’t run for a second term (Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 is the last president to not attempt re-election), there is also no precedent where an incumbent president doubles as an octogenarian. Therefore, Biden’s advanced age forces us to tackle today’s post in two parts:
- What if Biden runs?
- And what if he doesn’t?
1. What if Biden runs?
If you listen to the guy, it sounds like someone who’s running. His wording usually sounds something like, “As of now, I intend to run,” and that he’ll decide in early 2023. As late as this weekend, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate Donald Trump’s role in organizing a violent rebellion aimed at overturning election results and then absconding with classified documents to his Mara-a-Lago home, rather than prosecuting the case himself, was justified by anticipating that Biden would potentially be a candidate for president against Trump, and so it would be inappropriate for Biden’s own AG to investigate a political opponent.
If Biden does run, he should be considered the heavy favorite for the nomination — but not a lock.
That’s not what I was saying coming out of 2018, when I declared that Trump’s nomination would be a no contest. The same could be said for the five incumbents before him: Barack Obama in 2012, George W. Bush in 2004, Bill Clinton in 1996, George H.W. Bush in 1992 (despite a spirited challenge from Pat Buchanan that won 23% of the vote, if zero states), and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were slam dunk nominations ahead of their re-election bids.
But Biden? I’m not so sure. That age is something else. If he runs, he could power through with an “age is just a number” approach, but it’s not just that he’s old. It’s that he looks old and sounds old. I can only assume he smells old, too, but we can’t really know because all the evidence suggests the sniffing only goes in the other direction. If a younger Democrat or two make a run at him, they’d have a puncher’s chance of offering a clear enough contrast that voters basically say, “We just can’t have this guy be our nominee. Let’s try the younger one.”
For what they’re worth, polls say that people want him to step aside. A September poll from Marquette found that nearly three-quarters of respondents hoped he wouldn’t run again, including nearly 80% of independents and even 52% of Democrats. A July New York Times poll had the Democratic number hoping he’d stick to one term at 64% — nearly two-thirds!
Of course, these numbers were from before the Democrats’ surprising success at the midterms, so future polls might show a bit more faith in Biden. That reaction, however, would suffer from recency bias. The party and its voters should expect that as the midterms grow more distant in our rearview mirror, the high of the election will wear off, and they’ll still be stuck with an uninspiring Biden, he of an approval in the low-40s, staring down re-election at 81 years old.
If Biden gets nominated, Democrats better hope Trump does too. And vice versa, frankly. If either of the old guys gets nominated, if the other party goes young I think that other party is a pretty solid favorite. Americans, independents in particular, want to move on from these two men. I think Ron DeSantis, for example, could obliterate Biden in a campaign and on a debate stage. He’d leave the President looking over the hill, almost totally outwitted. I’d say the same about Trump against any number of prime-aged Democrats. Biden’s best hope is Trump, and Trump’s best hope is Biden. (Actually, no, Trump’s best hope might be Kamala Harris, but we’ll save that for our next question.)
Still, whether someone serious would challenge candidate Biden is another question. To find the most recent historical precedents of such a major challenge, we’d have to go back past the last six incumbents. The two presidents before Reagan — Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford before him — faced pretty serious challenges. Can we learn anything from those scenarios? Perhaps a pattern that induced those intraparty divisions?
The earlier of the two, Gerald Ford, had been appointed by Richard Nixon as VP in 1973 after his first vice president had to resign on account of being Spiro Agnew. The following year, Ford ascended to the presidency upon Nixon’s own resignation amidst the Watergate scandal, leaving the new POTUS dealing with the fallout from a shady executive branch. He quickly made things worse with the dubious decision to pardon Nixon, which ended the nation’s long nightmare but began Ford’s. These developments were seen by Americans as the definition of corruption, sending Ford’s approval rating spiraling almost immediately after he took office. Meanwhile, Ford struggled with the Great Inflation of the 1970s. All of the above contributed to a slaughter in the 1974 midterms as Republicans looked for someone to blame. Of particular frustration to much of Ford’s party was his moderation, including appointing the moderate Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president. Having to work with a heavily Democratic Congress made it impossible to score wins, angering the rising conservative base of the party. When it came time for the 1976 Republican Primary, he faced a challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan, who ultimately took 46% of the primary vote and 24 contests to Ford’s 54% and 27, leaving Ford with a narrow victory heading into the general election, where he was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
The new President developed his own problems. Carter struggled to get the decade’s high inflation under control. An energy crisis sent gas prices soaring. His malaise speech, a nationally televised address in which he blamed the 1970s for creating a “crisis of confidence” in America, inspired no one. All of this badly damaged Carter’s approval rating, which induced a challenge from the third Kennedy brother, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, in 1980. Carter won only 36 states and barely a majority of the vote, with runner up Kennedy taking 12 states and over 37% of the vote. Like Ford, Carter also lost the general election after surviving his primary battle.
So what did these two scenarios have in common? While the causes and details naturally vary, two factors are common in both elections:
- Inflation drained Americans’ wallets.
- The incumbent presidents had approval ratings under water.
Both of these are true with Biden now. Throw in his age, and we can’t rule out a challenge to the nomination if he presses forward.
But from whom? One popular thought is that the Democratic base might have its own rebellious Reagan. If so, the charge would target Biden’s left flank. That’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on anyone too prominent doing it. The left has generally been happy with Biden’s initiatives, from considerable government pandemic spending to drawing down US forces in Afghanistan to aggressive moves on climate change to forgiving some federal student loans and pardoning federal marijuana sentences. Congressman Ro Khanna, a co-chair of the Bernie Sanders campaign, was gushing about Biden on Bill Maher’s show last Friday after the election. Put another way: a common complaint from Republicans is that Biden ran as a moderate but has governed as a leftist. Guess who likes that? Leftists!
So might there be a challenge from the base? Sure. But don’t expect it to come from progressive titans like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. I can’t speak for every ambitious Congressperson out there, however. We’ll probably see at least one of whatever 2024’s version of Bill Weld is: a gadfly that lacks bite.
All considered, it’s hard to imagine any big Democrat taking on a sitting president and dividing the party. Another theme of Carter and Ford’s re-election struggles were that after managing to escape a challenge from within the party, they ultimately were defeated in November. Democrats mindful of history will be hesitant to divide their party, which is why the party’s best hope is that Biden announces he will not run for re-election. He could leave behind a legacy of taking down Trump, defending democracy, and turning over the party to the next generation of Democratic leaders.
2. What if Biden doesn’t run?
If Biden announces that he’s one and done, it’s an understandable instinct to look to his Vice President, Kamala Harris, as the most likely nominee. Vice Presidents’ record of becoming presidential nominees are quite good — just ask Joe Biden, Al Gore, George HW Bush, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon, to say nothing of Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson, who first ascended to the presidency before later getting nominated for it. That’s eight vice presidents, from the Eisenhower through Obama administrations, who became nominees. In fact the only VP of the last 70 years who tried to become a presidential nominee and failed was Dan Quayle (and soon Mike Pence). Their records are excellent.
But do you know whose record is not good? Kamala Harris’s. In fact, a Bidenless 2024 field wouldn’t be the first time Harris was the favorite for the nomination. She was favored early in 2019 as the last presidential battle began to heat up. She squandered this frontrunner status, however. After an initial strong showing in the first debate, the highlight of which was the pointed takedown of her future boss, she never again regained her momentum. Each subsequent debate seemed worse than the last. Gradually, I perceived she didn’t really know what she was talking about, although she did excel at saying it with gusto.
Nonetheless, when it came time for Biden to pick his VP, it made sense that the white man paired himself with a minority woman so the Democrats’ demographic coalition could charge into the election whole, and it worked. Unfortunately, Harris’s vice presidency has been much like those debates. It seems like every week is another moment where she couldn’t quite find the right words, not unlike Vice President Selina Meyer in the Veep television series, as demonstrated by The Daily Show.
It’s been said of her the same thing I’ve said about Trump: they’re the kids in class who did not do the reading and struggles to pretend they did when the teacher calls on them. I really wish we held our leaders to higher standards than I do my students.
If Republicans nominate Trump, one would hope the Democrats would nominate someone who knew what they were talking about, a marked contrast to the former President. If Republicans nominate DeSantis, Democrats will want someone who can fight fire with fire. In neither case is Kamala Harris the best person for the job.
With her approval rating even lower than Biden’s, it won’t take much for voters to look elsewhere for their nominee. We’ll have to assume that a Bidenless primary is Bidenless because he isn’t in a super strong position. If that’s the case, his own Vice President will have a hard time distancing herself from the White House. By sheer name ID and prominence of the office, Harris is an understandable default favorite to be the nominee — I don’t disagree that much with odds that have her around 4 or 5/1, which would likely climb to 2/1 if Biden were to announce he weren’t running — but my hunch is Democrats would have to search outside the executive branch.
So if not Biden or Harris, who else could it be?
With my next post, I’ll break down the field.
Today’s featured image is courtesy of Steven Braeger via Wikimedia Commons, although I did apply my Microsoft Paint skills with those question marks. (No donkeys were harmed or questioned in the making of this post.)
6 thoughts on “Democrats 2024: Biden? Harris? (None of the Above?)”
Well Biden isn’t going to run. I can tell you that right now. And Kamala isn’t going to score well in the primary race unless they put her on a launch pad where she looks like a leader who’s getting things done. So I’m looking forward to the answer in the next post, and the answer better be Elizabeth Warren, but if Klobachar is mentioned, I’ll at least read it.
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