Biden 2024: I Guess We’re Doing This?

Tuesday’s State of the Union address made clear what many of us had suspected for months: Joe Biden, who entered high school when the U.S. had only 48 states, is about to run for re-election. On his first day in office, the 78-year-old Biden was already the oldest president in history. If he completes his second term, he’ll leave the Oval Office at the age of 86. It seems crazy, but here we are.

With the President’s intentions clearer than ever, I have some initial thoughts that will be broken into three parts:

Let’s do it.

1) Why is he running again?

It speaks to his advanced age that we even ask this question. Of course first-term presidents run for another term. If they still have a pulse, every first-termer this side of the 1800s has attempted to secure their party’s nomination. Biden, meanwhile, never indicated he wouldn’t run again.

And yet, as he began his presidency, many people deemed it an open question, myself included. I mean… eighty-six? Isn’t that really stretching it?

Many Democrats thought so. Poll after poll suggested the prospect of a renomination worried his own party. A recent AP poll found that only 37% of Democrats want him to give it another go. Another survey from the Washington Post and ABC News found that nearly 60% of Democrats hope he doesn’t. These are not numbers we’re accustomed to seeing for incumbent presidents.

Yet, the President is counting on two truths to see him through to an easy nomination. The first is that there is no heir apparent. Over on the Republican side, Ron DeSantis is just sitting there; he’s as next in line to the Republican throne as Prince William is to Britain’s. But for the Democrats? Vice President Kamala Harris has become a Veepish punchline. Two-time primary runner up Bernie Sanders was born before the Pearl Harbor attack. Iowa caucus winner Pete Buttigieg has been Secretary of Transportation at the absolute worst time to be Secretary of Transportation. Elizabeth Warren is Elizabeth Warren. Biden might well feel he must run again, for the good of his party.

Second, Biden figures that his soft support from Democrats stems from their fear of what a younger Republican nominee, chiefly DeSantis, could do to Biden in a general election — i.e. make him look like he could be old enough to have a lifespan that overlaps with that of FDR and Hitler (which he is). It’s a reasonable concern, and as of now I think DeSantis has all the makings of a tremendously energetic and potent candidate, and if nominated he would beat Biden.

However, once Biden declares that he’s officially running, he expects that Democratic voters will have no choice but to put aside their worries and fall in line behind him against DeSantis, Trump, or anyone else the GOP nominates. This calculation is probably correct. Remember that heading into the midterms, Biden’s approval rating was outpaced by not only Democrats on the generic ballot but also by Democrats in the actual election results. Just because someone isn’t thrilled with Biden doesn’t mean they won’t vote Democratic in the booth. There’s also plenty of Democrats who think he’s doing a great job, calling him the most accomplished president in generations. (There are shades, here, of Republicans thinking Trump was a better president than Lincoln. Recency bias for the win!)

Thanks to the intense attention now given to social and cultural issues, few liberals will even entertain abandoning the presumptive Democratic nominee, no matter that nominee’s age, articulation, or acuity. He’ll clear the field of viable challengers. The left in his pocket, it’ll just be a matter of winning the center.

For a preview of that fight for the center, one need only watch the State of the Union and identify its theme: “Finish the Job.” This is the natural mantra of every president’s re-election, including that of Biden’s former boss, who in 2012 ultimately won four more years. Like President Obama, Biden is counting on steady economic improvement — for Obama that primarily meant slowly declining unemployment, for Biden it’ll mean slowly declining inflation — being a compelling enough argument to independents. (Biden would prefer to talk about jobs, but his record “12 million new jobs added” is a misleading, uncontextualized claim, as he came into office just as many pre-pandemic jobs were coming back. In truth, only about 2.7 million new jobs have been added since before the pandemic, some of them during the latter part of President Trump’s administration.)

If unemployment stays low and inflation keeps falling, we can expect a repeat of Obama’s win in 2012, particularly if the GOP nominates Trump. Neither statistic, however, is guaranteed to be favorable, nor is the opponent.

So how will he do? I’d estimate Biden is about 45% likely to be re-elected president, as he’s 90% likely to be the nominee and then is a coin flip away from winning re-election. With both Trump and DeSantis sometimes leading him in general election polling, I wouldn’t go any higher than that.

2) Will this be the least competitive primary cycle this century?

Biden’s 45% chance is comfortably tops among all candidates, thanks to him being a much larger favorite to make the general election ballot than anyone else. The Republicans will have a larger and more competitive field, but truth be told it’s essentially a two-person race. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Liz Cheney, and others might make valiant but ultimately failed efforts. The twin towers of Republican polling are quite clearly Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

That’s just three realistic candidates to win the next election. When was the last time we had so few possibilities? We’d have to go back quite a bit.

  • In 2020, President Trump faced no real challenges (cue a Bill Weld wince), but on the Democratic side it was chaos. Although the universally loathed Presidential Politics For America knew, in November 2018, that Joe Biden would be the nominee, there were plenty of strong contenders. Oddsmakers actually installed Kamala Harris as the initial favorite, a decision that in retrospect can only be described as knee-slappingly hilarious, and other viable contenders included Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and somehow Beto O’Rourke. It was totally up in the air.
  • In 2016, Hillary Clinton was seen as a heavy favorite, although Bernie Sanders ultimately pushed her for the nomination. Even without Sanders’s shocking challenge, the Republican side was crowded. Early co-favorites included Jeb(!) Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, while Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz were seen as realistic as well. Ben Carson eventually had a surge, but ultimately WWF Hall of Famer Donald Trump became the nominee.
  • In 2012, President Obama’s nomination went uncontested. For the GOP, I never wavered from my Mitt Romney prediction (the evidence was scrubbed along with the rest of Construction Literary Magazine), but many considered him such a flawed candidate that they constantly sought alternatives. In a primary full of surges, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all led national and/or early state polls at some point.
  • The 2008 contest gave us two totally open fields. (President Bush was term-limited and his Vice President Dick Cheney decline to run.) The Democrats’ favorite was Hillary Clinton, but Senator Barack Obama and 2004 VP nominee John Edwards were seen as highly viable alternatives. (Dennis Kucinich was added for comic relief.) Republicans had a handful of viable names, including Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and the eventual nominee, John McCain.
  • In 2004, President Bush was uncontested, but in the Democratic race a few names leapt to the front. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton led too-early polling, but neither ended up running. Of the declared candidates, Howard Dean, Dick Gephart, John Edwards, and eventual nominee John Kerry were all seen as realistic nominees.

We have to go all the way back to 2000 to see three or fewer realistic nominees across the two parties. In that election, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush were heavy, heavy favorites and ultimately, despite spirited challenges from Bill Bradley and John McCain, won quite comfortably.

All considered, this might be our least competitive presidential primary season of this century. (I’ll let nerds fight over whether that qualifies as the 21st century, although count me in the “No” camp.)

3) What Democrat could realistically challenge him?

To be clear, now that it looks like Joe Biden is running, I’d estimate the odds of any other Democrat winning the nomination drops to about 10%, with no single Democrat better than a 40/1 longshot. But let’s say someone came back in time from the 2024 Democratic National Convention and said, “President Biden is alive and tried to win the nomination, but lost. Who do you think won?” What is the most likely answer?

Let’s first cross some names out. His own VP is a non-starter, so Harris is out. So are his own cabinet members, so Buttigieg is out too. It’s tempting to say a leftist insurrection will aim to topple Biden, and its biggest names are senators Sanders and Warren, but the left has been generally happy with Biden, and I think it’s safe to assume that if Democrats are making age an issue they won’t turn to the 82-year-old Sanders or the 74-year-old Warren. And although we can expect a minor lefty gadfly or two, they’ll be so small that they’ll easily be swatted away like Trump did to Republican challengers Bill Weld and Joe Walsh in 2020.

Instead, a realistic challenger has to walk across two narrow tightropes. The first is that it can’t be someone so associated with Biden that a challenge makes no sense (Harris, Buttigieg, and Congressional leadership) but also isn’t so distant from him that they would be distrusted by mainstream Democrats (someone from the far left). That treacherous tightrope clears out much of the potential field.

A similar but second tightrope involves the actual execution of the primary challenge. This candidate must be respectful enough to not alienate Democrats who personally like Biden, including his crucially important African American support, while also finding a way to distinguish themselves from Biden.

One potential candidate, more than any other, fits the bill.

I can absolutely see Cory Booker traversing both those tightropes. He’s both a loyal, established Democrat but also not too close to the administration. He can certainly win loyalty from Biden’s base of black voters, which will be crucial now that South Carolina may kick off the Democratic Primary. Meanwhile, he’s such a relentlessly positive guy, he could probably genuinely praise Biden in one sentence while tactfully and charmingly making the case for change in the next.

There is a bit of precedent here. Back in 2013, 89-year-old Democrat Frank Lautenberg was New Jersey’s very senior Senator, one whose seat was up in 2014. He showed no signs he wasn’t running again. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, literally less than half Lautenberg’s age, announced his candidacy for Lautenberg’s seat in the next Democratic Primary. In the process, Booker never spoke badly of Lautenberg. He praised Lautenberg’s service and even said he should make his own decisions on what to do in the upcoming election, only he should know Booker would challenge him for the nomination. I imagine Booker could dust off that effective playbook and, with confidence, call the same play now.

Is it likely? No. But if you’re a Democrat terrified of nominating an 81-year-old Biden, you might want to give a call to the offices of Senator Cory Booker.

All right, that’s it for today. Republicans are about to get another candidate next week, so I’ll probably feel compelled to write about it. I hope to see you then.


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