early and often

Will Biden Dodge a Primary Challenge?

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Last summer, a shocking CNN poll found that only 25 percent of self-identified Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents wanted Joe Biden to be their party’s presidential nominee in 2024. That was at a nadir in Biden’s popularity before gasoline prices fell, before inflation abated a bit, before the Inflation Reduction Act, and definitely well before Democrats did relatively very well in the midterm elections. So Biden’s renomination numbers should be well up, right?

Well, they are — sort of. Now the percentage of Democrats and leaners who are sold on Biden 2024 is 40 percent, which is better but hardly great (it’s also lower than the 45 percent support he mustered at the beginning of 2022).

So Biden has a less-than-ideal base of support in his party as we approach the critical junction when people decide whether to run for president in 2024. Will he dodge a primary challenge? The precedents don’t make the answer entirely clear.

Twelve sitting U.S. presidents have run for reelection since the end of World War II. Two (Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson in 1968) wound up withdrawing from the field after underperforming in the New Hampshire primary. Two others (Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980) faced existential challenges from big-time opponents and fought them off without much of a margin for error (both also lost their general elections). Richard Nixon in 1972 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 had significant primary challenges that they proceeded to crush without a whole lot of trouble (though the challenges showed restive party forces). Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump were renominated without significant opposition. And JFK didn’t live to run for reelection.

So is Biden more like the lucky presidents who won renomination easily or those who had to struggle a bit?

In terms of overall job-approval numbers, Biden is in a middle range that neither invites nor completely deters competition. He’s at 40 percent right now (per Gallup, the best source for presidential comparisons). Truman was at 33 percent at this point in 1950; LBJ was at 44 percent in December 1966 (though the Vietnam War and domestic unrest were intensifying); Carter was at 50 percent in December 1978, though that was well before double-digit inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis. Clinton was at 42 percent at this point in 1994, and Obama was at 46 percent in December of 2010; Democrats had just experienced a midterm “shellacking” in both cases. Biden’s approval numbers among Democrats (85 percent per Gallup) are very high compared with most of his predecessors, but some of that is an illusion attributable to the high percentage of independents who are regular Democratic voters but don’t identify that way (making self-identified Democrats a more loyal but smaller cohort).

Some of the presidents who wound up attracting serious primary opposition did so for highly individual reasons. Ford was an appointed vice-president who became president by accident; Republicans felt less loyalty to him than they might have had he been elected to any office higher than the U.S. House. Carter was something of an ideological heretic who was openly hostile to his party’s congressional and activist wings. And George H.W. Bush famously raised taxes after promising he would never do that. For all the progressive grumbling about Clinton and Obama, fear and hatred of Republicans had reached a level in their administrations that risking party unity seemed inadvisable. These factors will also help Biden avoid a major challenge. And he has one unique advantage: All the issues Democrats have with Biden they have more emphatically with his heir apparent, Vice-President Kamala Harris. Some may calculate that renominating Biden will prevent the party from following Harris to defeat or undergoing a really nasty primary season in which Harris supporters understandably accuse other Democrats of racist and sexist motives.

Still, Biden is an 80-year-old man who isn’t terribly popular and may preside over a recession before he faces voters again. The very best thing he may have going for him is that the field of potential rivals is broad but shallow. The same CNN poll showing a sizable majority of Democrats declining to endorse his renomination also shows they aren’t close to joining ranks behind any alternative:

Among Democrats who say they’d like someone else as the party’s nominee, nearly three-quarters (72%) say they have no one specific in mind. Among those who do name another candidate, 5% mention Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 4% California Gov. Gavin Newsom, 4% Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 3% Vice President Kamala Harris and 2% Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

That sharply distinguishes Biden’s situation from Trump, his once and perhaps future opponent. Trump has one potential primary rival towering above all others in support, Ron DeSantis, who might well take down the former president if he decides to run, doesn’t make big mistakes, and can keep other candidates from joining the race.

Right now, the biggest potential threat to Biden is some credible but relatively obscure Democrat deciding to take a flier on challenging him and then catching fire. That’s essentially what happened in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy came out of nowhere to challenge LBJ and essentially drove him into retirement with a surprisingly strong showing in New Hampshire. It would be a long shot — but no longer than the odds for Biden in 2020 after he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire.

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Will Biden Dodge a Primary Challenge?