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The Real Reason No Dem is Challenging Biden
A primary challenge to Biden has a low-likelihood of success and a high risk of damaging him in the general election.
As Democratic anxiety over Joe Biden’s poll numbers has reached a fever pitch, the commentariat has begun revisiting the question of a primary challenge to President Biden. In typical fashion, this conversation is coming well after the horse has left the barn. Joe Biden is almost certain to be the Democratic nominee and faces no serious challenger, but the conversation persists nonetheless.
Murmurs over Biden’s viability as the nominee have continued for nine months. These concerns where outlined in a recent column from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait asked, “Why are no mainstream Democrats challenging Biden for the Democratic nomination?”
The strangest thing about this harrowing circumstance is that no mainstream Democrat is challenging Biden for the nomination. The hunger for such a challenge certainly exists: A CNN poll finds two-thirds of Democrats want their party to nominate somebody else. There isn’t much mystery as to why. The same poll asked Democrats what concerns they may have about Biden and found that two-thirds cited his age, his health, his mental sharpness, or his vice-president, all of which amount to the same thing. The demand for a different option is robust. What is mystifyingly absent is the supply.
Chait means real Democrats — not MAGA-adjacent grifters like Robert Kennedy Jr. or fringe candidates like Marianne Williamson. He is specifically referring to folks like Gavin Newsom and J.B. Pritzker who actively considered candidacies last year, or others like Raphael Warnock, Josh Shapiro, Mark Kelly, and Gretchen Whitmer, who have demonstrated the ability to win the states that decide the Electoral College.
Chait offers two possible reasons for why no Democrat is responding to the clear appetite in the party for an alternative to Joe Biden:
One possible reason is that Democrats have overlearned the lesson of 2020, when pundits (your author very much included) wrote Biden off as a has-been only to watch the base rally behind him. That event lent Biden’s connection to the party’s voters a kind of mystical aura. But Biden’s 2020 victory was actually rather prosaic. Most of his challengers drastically overestimated how far left their party’s voters had moved and pitched their campaign messages too far left. And when Senator Bernie Sanders, who frightened many of the party’s voters and elites alike, seemed poised to take the nomination, Biden was the beneficiary of a panicked flight to safety.
Another possible reason is that Democratic elected officials simply like Joe Biden too much to either run against him or tell him to his face they don’t support him.
Both of those reasons seem plausible. No one overlearns a lesson like a Democrat, and Biden’s warm demeanor, overall kindness, and attentiveness to personal politics have served him well as President. It’s fair to say that every elected official (not named Kyrsten Sinema) is rooting for Biden.
However, I think the reason is much more mundane — a primary challenge would be a massive longshot with potentially devastating consequences for the primary challenger and the incumbent. Yes, as Chait points out, these Democrats are ambitious and want to run for President one day, which is exactly why they don’t want a crushing defeat in a primary and to possibly hand the election to Donald Trump.
Democratic Voters Really Like Joe Biden
Political narratives can be misleading. On the Republican side, the conversation is about Donald Trump’s stranglehold over his base. Republican voters’ devotion to Trump is portrayed as being so strong that the former President is compared to a cult leader. Reading press coverage of Joe Biden these days, one would think that Joe Biden was holding off an insurrection among his own voters. But that’s not what the polls show at ball.
Biden and Trump have nearly identical favorable ratings from members of their own party. In the recent New York Times/Sienna poll, Trump’s is 77/21. Biden’s is 77/19. In the most recent YouGov/Economist poll, Trump’s favorable rating among Republicans is 75/24 and Biden’s is 81/17 among Democrats. Republicans are about 10 points more enthusiastic, and both Trump and Biden will need to raise those numbers before the election, but the idea that Democratic voters are walking away from Biden does not show up in the polls.
As Trump is demonstrating in the GOP primary, it’s very hard to defeat a well-known and well-liked political figure.
A Generic Democrat v. A Specific Democrat
Nominating someone other than Joe Biden is theoretically appealing to a lot of Democrats. CNN pollsters kicked off the late summer Democratic polling panic by asking Democrats if they preferred a specific person or “someone besides Joe Biden.” More than 8 in 10 Democrats picked the generic someone else. Of the 18% of respondents who named someone specific, no one got more than 3% of the votes.
Whitmer, Warnock, and Pritzker were mentioned but still have relatively low name ID among the Democratic electorate. Sanders and Buttigieg are universally known and largely beloved. For the Democrats telling pollsters they believe Biden is too old, Buttigieg would seem ideal yet only 3% of Democrats specifically named him as their preferred candidate.
Democrats are worried about Joe Biden’s prospects against Trump and are interested in the IDEA of someone else running. Once you get down to brass tacks and name an alternative, they get nervous. Within the context of a possible Democratic primary, Joe Biden struggles when compared to the Almighty, but when there is an alternative, things look very different to these voters. There is no candidate — including Joe Biden — who guarantees a win against Trump. Anyone thinking of running against Biden would need to do plenty of polling before making that decision. Perhaps some of the oft-mentioned names have, but the results are likely discouraging.
A Primary Challenge COULD Hurt Biden
Another reason that a mainstream Democrat is not challenging Biden is that they don’t want to increase the odds that Trump or some other MAGA Republican will win the election.
The conventional wisdom is that facing a primary weakens an incumbent President. Intuitively, this makes sense. Biden can either spend the next six months consolidating his base, building out his campaign, and raising the billion bucks he needs or he could spend the off-year in New Hampshire diners and at South Carolina fish fries fighting with a Democrat. In terms of winning the general election, the former seems massively preferable to the latter.
All historical examples for presidential elections suffer from a small sample size problem — there simply have not been enough elections to draw real conclusions. But it is notable that two of three incumbents (Carter and H.W. Bush) to lose reelection in the modern era did so after facing primary challenges.
It’s possible that a vigorous primary challenge could help Biden. Getting out on the trail and the debate stage could make Biden a better candidate in the fall. The attention from a primary campaign could inform more of the public about Biden’s achievements. But the more likely scenario is that a divisive primary centered on Biden’s age would exacerbate the President’s biggest challenge — rebuilding his 2020 electoral coalition.
The Political and Logical Calculation
Every possible contender mentioned by Chait and others wants to be President. Heck, every person ever elected to the House, Senate, or the governor’s office has thought of being President. Passing on a presidential race is a risky endeavor for that ambition. Obama ran in 2008, even though he had only been in the Senate for two years, because the opportunity may not have come again. Donors begged Chris Christie and Rubio to run in 2012, but they passed on the chance and were old news by 2016. However, the politicians passing on this race are simply being logical. First, all of these potential candidates are ideologically aligned with Biden, support his agenda, and publicly support him. The only rationale for a campaign would be an argument that Biden is too old to be President. Even if a lot of Democrats agree with that argument, it’s a hard one to make against a President liked by nearly 8 in 10 primary voters. Second, they would probably lose — perhaps by a lot — which would damage their ability to ever run for President again. Finally, the stakes could not be higher. These are responsible people who care deeply about our democracy — a primary challenge would be a high-risk endeavor with a low likelihood of success. What if they contributed to Trump winning? How could they live with themselves? It would be the end of their careers in Democratic politics.
There is a real risk that Joe Biden will lose the 2024 election. But in a highly polarized country with a biased Electoral College, the same would be true for any Democrat on the ballot.