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It's probably too late not to nominate Biden
None of the answers are obvious when you have an 80-year-old president.
I’ve written a lot about Joe Biden lately. But I’ve somewhat intentionally avoided the subject of whether I think Democrats would have a better chance of winning the 2024 election with a different nominee. In the spirit of being transparent with Silver Bulletin readers, I feel like I ought to be more explicit about addressing this. However, my answer probably isn’t going to satisfy anyone:
With medium confidence, I think the risks of a serious primary challenge to Biden at this point in time would outweigh the benefits for Democrats.
With low confidence, I think the risks of Biden volunteering not to run for a second would also outweigh the benefits for Democrats, but this is closer.
With low confidence, and taking full advantage of hindsight bias, I think Democrats probably would have been better off if Biden had announced 6-12 months ago that he wouldn’t seek a second term.
I think Biden’s situation is somewhat unprecedented and that these are hard questions for Democrats. Almost no matter what happens, people in 2025 will treat the answers as having been more obvious than they actually were.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll this weekend, which showed Biden significantly behind Donald Trump, touched off another round of what’s become a fairly annoying dynamic among Democrats: denial about the challenges Biden faces on the one hand, and panic about his situation on the other hand.
Let’s start with this: It is much, much too soon to give much thought to any individual general election poll. Like, seriously — it’s like a year too soon. Even in the late stages of a campaign, it’s almost always best just to toss an “outlier” poll in the average1 rather than spend a great deal of time scrutinizing it. (For what’s worth, the average shows a roughly tied popular vote — not Biden down by 10.) But these aren’t the late stages of the campaign; we’re still months away from the first primaries (although, granted, Biden and Trump are in strong shape). Empirically, polling averages tell you little at this stage, let alone individual polls.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s wrong for Democrats to be worried about Biden. Head-to-head polls are one thing. Most voters aren’t in “campaign mode” headspace yet, so as familiar as they might be with the Trump-Biden matchup, they’re still answering what is for now a hypothetical question.
However, consider how voters judge Biden on his own terms. It’s not great news for the White House: Biden’s approval ratings have been persistently mediocre despite recent economic improvement. “Why isn’t Biden getting more credit for the economy?” is on my long list of half-finished drafts. The draft is unfinished because my answer is complicated; among other issues, consumer spending patterns reflect quite a bit of optimism, even if subjective views of the economy don’t. It’s also not clear that subjective perceptions matter for presidential voting as opposed to harder metrics, like people’s take-home pay. And it may be the case that voter perceptions are somewhat lagging, and that there will be time for them to turn around before November.
Instead, the greater concern for Democrats probably ought to be what voters think of Biden’s age. Age very consistently — and in my view quite reasonably— ranks high on the list of voter concerns about Biden. And, of course, Biden isn’t getting any younger; he’ll turn 81 in November. It doesn’t take that many voters to view the three-and-a-half-year age difference between Biden and Trump2 as salient to cost him the election. Or even for Biden to suffer from a sort of bigotry of low expectations. That is, for some voters to say — wait, these two guys are my choices again? — and then either not vote at all or make their choice for haphazard reasons. Biden doesn’t want an election where the popular vote is a jump ball: Democrats will probably remain at a disadvantage in the Electoral College, although there’s a good case to be made that the GOP edge is diminishing.
Under these circumstances, I don’t think it’s at all crazy for Democrats to ask whether they’d be better off with a younger candidate. In fact, given the stakes of the election, it would be irresponsible for the party not to consider it.
The conventional wisdom is that presidential primary challenges are bad news for a party that dares to risk them. Like a lot of pieces of political conventional wisdom, however, this is formulated from a relatively small number of examples. They include the following:
In 1992, George H.W. Bush received an animated — if ultimately futile — challenge from the conservative media figure Pat Buchanan. Buchanan didn’t win anywhere, although he did cause Bush some bad news cycles with a relatively good performance in New Hampshire. Bush wound up losing by a considerable margin to Bill Clinton.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter survived a vigorous primary challenge from Ted Kennedy, but then lost in a general election landslide to Ronald Reagan.
In 1976, Gerald Ford narrowly survived a primary challenge from Reagan and then narrowly lost to Carter.
In 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson decided not to run for a third term after almost losing the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy. Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic nominee instead, and narrowly lost to Richard Nixon.
In 1952, Harry Truman decided not to run for a third term after losing the New Hampshire primary to Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Adlai Stevenson became the Democratic nominee instead, and badly lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Five cases, five losses. That’s a pretty convincing trend, right?
Well, no, not really. There are a whole lot of asterisks:
None of the cases are particularly recent and none took place in the modern, highly polarized political context.
Ford (1976) was an unelected incumbent, and it’s pretty common for unelected incumbents in any office to receive primary challenges.
LBJ (1968) and Truman (1952) had a lot of differences with Biden’s present situation. They were running for third terms, were running in an era where the primaries were more advisory than deterministic, and then they voluntarily declined to run again5 — we don’t know what would have happened if they had stayed on the ballot.
Most of the challenges — really all of them except 1952 — reflected a strong ideological divide. Kennedy and McCarthy were attacking Democratic presidents from the left, and Reagan and Buchanan were attacking Republicans from the right. That can cause problems insofar as the incumbent moves away from the median voter in order to avoid losing the primary. However, that wouldn’t be an issue if another mainstream Democrat challenged Biden solely on the basis of his age.
But the most important caveat of all is that people may be confusing cause and effect. None of these presidents were terribly popular at the time the challenges occurred, and several were quite unpopular. Their parties weren’t necessarily going to retain the presidency anyway.
This selection bias problem — candidates may receive primary challenges because they’re vulnerable rather than it being the primary challenge that makes them vulnerable — is a super tricky issue to solve for. Studies of primary challenges in Congressional races, where there’s a much larger sample size, are all over the place, with some concluding primary challenges are indeed fairly bad news for the incumbent party and others suggesting they have little effect — and some papers even claiming they may be beneficial.
Competitive primaries do provide the not-inconsiderable benefit of optionality. If Biden’s lost a step — and, for example, he can’t keep up with the rigors of a campaign schedule or perform well in debates — it would be much better for Democrats if they know that in October 2023 and not October 2024. This also applies to Biden’s challengers. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, for example, might or might not be a compelling presidential candidate for Democrats. However, how she performed at building a campaign and then competing in a series of primaries and caucuses would tell you something about that.
With all that said, let’s imagine that one of the candidate’s on Chris Hayes’s list —Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, JB Pritzker, Raphael Warnock and Gavin Newsom — announces tomorrow that they’re challenging Biden. (Yes, there are differences between these candidates, but I don’t assume that Democrats would necessarily get their pick-of-the-litter in the quite possibly politically suicidal task of challenging Biden.) What would happen?
Well, for one thing there would be an absolute media shitstorm. It would displace everything else from the news cycle — yes, even the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce news. Every critique of Biden would be highlighted and validated.
Still, the challenge probably wouldn’t work. The opposing candidate would be very much at a standing start — none of the candidates I mentioned have run for national office before, and a presidential campaign typically takes six months to a year to get up to speed. The value of optionality would be considerably diminished if voters and party elites didn’t have enough time to fully evaluate all their options. So the most likely outcome would be Biden being nominated anyway, but with battle scars that were probably harmful to him in the general election.
What about another scenario? Let’s say Biden calls a surprise press conference tomorrow — and he announces that he’s had second thoughts and won’t run for a second term.
This at least eliminates the possibility of primary-challenge-damaged-Biden being the party nominee anyway. However, it creates other issues for Democrats. The main one is what the hell happens to Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris consistency polls worse than Biden does against Trump. But Biden would be under pressure to give her a full-fledged endorsement. Even if Biden believed deep down that she wasn’t the best nominee, a non-endorsement or half-assed endorsement would make for another huge media shitstorm, without the party having little time to navigate out of it.
A last-minute reversal by Biden would also provide an advantage to candidates who had the name brands or financial wherewithal to get up and running right away. Among the five candidates that I mentioned earlier, for instance, Newsom (who has already been running a sort of quasi-2024 campaign) and Pritzker (who is super-duper rich) would be an advantage relative to Whitmer, Warnock and Shapiro. But they wouldn’t necessarily be the stronger nominees.
Here’s perhaps the most controversial part of my take: I think Democrats probably would have been better off if Biden had announced in February that he’d chosen not to seek another term. Then there would be a lot more time for “added optionality” to prevail over “chaotic shitshow”. I think Harris would probably lose a nomination fight under these circumstances — but she’d have plenty of time and resources to prove me wrong. Meanwhile, Whitmer and others would be on a more level playing field to raise money and compete with wealthy candidates like Pritzker.
But if you started that process now? I suppose this scenario looks better with a lot of coordination. You’d need Biden to stand down, you’d need party leaders to send a clear message that they wanted an open nomination process and not just Harris by default, and you’d need to make sure that Whitmer and/or other candidates the establishment liked were actually interested in running and the choice didn’t feel force-fed to voters. Ideally you’d also want to do all of this without someone leaking to Politico or the Washington Post and upending the process.
And that’s probably too much to ask for. In a democracy, you can’t just waive a magic wand and conjure the perfect candidate into existence. The invisible primary is a thing, but it’s a slow, iterative process. Biden may or may not be the best choice, but at this point the Democrats’ choice has largely already largely made.6
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No, you don’t just get to toss it out entirely.
Or who take the view that the subjective difference in the performance of the candidates exceeds their chronological age gap.
And although Buchanan was a prominent conservative media figure, he wasn’t on the scale of someone like Tucker Carlson or Rush Limbaugh.
In other words, if Bush had won, Buchanan’s challenge might not have been remembered on the same terms. So including him runs the list of selecting on the dependent variable.
In other words, Biden already won the invisible primary.