Discover more from Silver Bulletin
If Biden can't run a normal campaign, he should step aside
Democrats are taking a huge risk either way. But they shouldn't try to get away with a Rose Garden campaign.
It’s inherently kind of crazy that American presidential campaigns take more than a year to run, but they do. Late entrants don’t have a very good track record. Case in point: Michael Bloomberg, who formally entered the Democratic nomination race on Nov. 24, 2019 and spent more than $1 billion in four months. For his troubles, he won … the American Samoa caucus. And that was it.
So as much as it might make sense for Democrats to replace Joe Biden on their ticket, who’s age is a huge concern to voters and who is polling poorly against Trump, it’s not like we’re playing Fantasy Politics Manager here. Convincing Biden to step aside would not be easy. Running a race against him if he didn’t step down would be messy, with little guarantee of who would emerge victorious other than that it might be Biden anyway, worse for battle wear. Then there’s the whole question of what might happen to Vice President Harris.
So my view as of six weeks ago was that it was probably just too late to replace Biden. But as Biden’s polling gets worse — his approval ratings are near their lowest-ever number — I’ve been increasingly hedging on that. Democrats would be taking a huge risk by replacing Biden — but they’re also taking a huge risk by nominating him. There’s no getting out of this.
In a chat at the New York Times last week, Frank Bruni tried to get me off the fence, and I said the following:
Silver: Well, I’m the probabilities guy, so I’ll usually avoid answering a question definitively unless you force me to. Really, the best option would have been if Biden decided in March he wouldn’t run, and then you could have a vigorous primary. If you actually invested me with all this power, I’d want access to private information. I’d like to do some polling. I’d want to canvass people like Gretchen Whitmer and Raphael Warnock about how prepared they are. I’d like to know how energetic Biden is from day to day.
I’ve highlighted that last part because I’m not a guy who has a lot of inside knowledge about the White House — my approach is to analyze elections at arm’s-length. And it seems important to know whether the “age thing” is mostly just a perception thing or also a real thing. If Biden can’t keep up with the schedule of a typical sitting president running for re-election, or is prone to making errors when he does, voters and the media are going to notice that and Biden will wear his 80+ years like an albatross around his neck. Granted, this is a hard ask: Biden has to both campaign and govern, whereas Trump just has to campaign (well, and attend to his several criminal trials). But it’s something every previous president running for a second term has managed to deal with.
Politico’s Jonathan Martin does have inside knowledge, though — he’s one of the more well-sourced reporters in the business. So when he wrote the following paragraph this morning, it set off my internal alarm bells:
That’s in part for reasons Biden refuses to accept: his capacity to do the job. The oldest president in history when he first took the oath, Biden will not be able to govern and campaign in the manner of previous incumbents. He simply does not have the capacity to do it, and his staff doesn’t trust him to even try, as they make clear by blocking him from the press. Biden’s bid will give new meaning to a Rose Garden campaign, and it requires accommodation to that unavoidable fact of life.
It’s not entirely obvious how to regard this claim. Martin is usually a fairly straight reporter, but this is a more opinion-y piece in Politico Magazine. If this is just Martin’s view, it’s still worth listening to because he’s a well-informed observer, but not necessarily something that should change anyone’s plans.
But if this is a consensus view — a widely-acknowledged truth that other people are too afraid to say, including people in the White House — then that’s enough to pull me off the fence. It would be extremely foolish to nominate an 80-year-old man who is not up to the rigors of a modern presidential campaign — even more foolish than replacing him, which just to be clear is also an extremely foolish thing to do.
Is there any sort of objective data on Biden’s activity levels? Here is some, and it’s not great for Biden — he’s given fewer press conferences per year in office than his recent predecessors.
This could be a sign that Biden is indeed being shielded from press scrutiny.
By this measure, Biden looks better, though. He’s made a perfectly normal number of international trips as president, one of the more physically demanding parts of the job.
What about the campaign itself? In 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden was sometimes accused of running a campaign out of his basement. This accusation was false: Biden made a fair number of in-person appearances, especially from September onward.
Nonetheless, this was a considerably less vigorous schedule than Trump, even though Trump got COVID and was also serving as president. And note that the location of Trump’s public appearances were more varied, whereas Biden’s were very heavily concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan:
So look, I don’t know. But other people are in a position to know — people in the White House, people close to Biden, and potential rival candidates with well-placed sources in Democratic circles. If the choices are Biden running a reasonably normal campaign or a Mystery Democrat doing the same thing, I think it’s close. But if it’s Biden running a Rose Garden campaign versus a different Democrat running a normal one, I’ll take my chances on the alternative, and Biden can join James K. Polk on the list of historically well-regarded presidents who didn’t seek a second term.
Silver Bulletin is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.