Joe Biden’s reelection bid faces several obstacles. Voters are still agitated by the past two years of inflation. The young are unenthused by the president, the Electoral College is likely still somewhat biased toward the GOP, non-white voters are drifting rightward, and third-party candidates are threatening to nibble at the Democrat’s margins.
But Biden’s biggest liability, by far, is his age. If reelected, the president would be 86 years old at the end of his next term. Very few Americans hold any job at that advanced age (according to Pew, 86.7 percent of Americans over 75 are retired). The notion that someone born in 1942 will be well equipped to serve as president in 2028 strains the electorate’s credulity.
A Wall Street Journal poll taken last month found 73 percent of voters saying that Biden is “too old” to run for reelection. In a contemporaneous AP-NORC survey, 77 percent said the president is too old to be effective for four more years, a majority that included 69 percent of Democrats. A CNN poll released last week produced nearly identical results, with 76 percent of voters expressing concern about Biden’s ability to complete another term and 73 percent expressing fears that the president’s age might negatively affect his physical and mental competence.
Meanwhile, nearly 56 percent of voters disapprove of Biden’s job performance, according to FiveThirtyEight. Currently, Biden leads Trump by just 0.2 percent in RealClearPolitics’ polling average. In 2020, the Electoral College’s tipping-point state was nearly 4 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.
In the face of these numbers, one might expect Biden to forgo a reelection campaign — or, at least, to face significant pressure from his own party to do so. After all, such a decision would scarcely constitute any admission of failure. As polling makes abundantly clear, it would be entirely credible for the president to say that he simply feels too old to do the job for another four years.
Yet most Democratic operatives believe that sticking with Biden is the party’s best option. And it’s hard to argue with this assessment for a simple reason: However bad Biden’s numbers are, Vice-President Kamala Harris’s look worse. A CBS News–YouGov poll released last week found 42 percent of Americans saying that the job Harris is doing makes them think worse of the Biden administration, compared to just 18 percent who said it makes them feel better about the White House. Among independents, 48 percent said worse and only 9 percent better. Even among Democrats, only 41 percent said Harris made them think better of the administration. At the same time, only 30 percent of Democrats said that they felt “enthusiastic” about Harris being Biden’s running mate.
A YouGov poll from May showed 48 percent of Americans said Harris was not ready to assume the presidency, while 32 percent said she was. Again, independents took a dim view, saying 57 to 22 that she wasn’t ready. By contrast, in August 2020, 44 percent of voters said that Mike Pence was ready to serve. In FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, only 39.5 percent of voters approve of Harris’s job performance.
The electorate’s assessment of public figures can change dramatically when they become presidential nominees. So it’s conceivable that Harris’s current approval rating is a poor predictor of how she would fare as a standard-bearer. But there’s reason to doubt that her standing can rise considerably.
For one thing, recent history suggests that public officials become less popular when they enter the presidential limelight. Hillary Clinton boasted a 65 percent approval rating as secretary of State, then went on to become one of the most unpopular major-party nominees in history.
More critically, we’ve already seen Harris wither in the spotlight of a presidential campaign. When she entered the 2020 Democratic primary, she boasted a strong fundraising base and a bevy of high-profile endorsements. Her campaign launch immediately propelled her to 15 percent support in the polls, putting her in second place behind Biden. Yet by the time she dropped out in December 2019, she was polling at under 4 percent nationally, just a smidge ahead of novelty candidate Andrew Yang. In theory, Harris was supposed to have special appeal to African American voters; in practice, when she exited the race, she was polling behind Pete Buttigieg in South Carolina. Further, her oratory as both a candidate and vice-president has been infamously awkward and unassured.
There is little doubt that prejudicial conceptions of race and gender have some bearing on her unpopularity. But this reality does nothing to reduce the hazards of running a broadly unappealing candidate against Donald Trump. Nevertheless, were Biden to step down, Harris would become the Democratic front-runner. Biden’s own election testifies to the power of vice-presidential bona fides in a Democratic primary. And the sense that the nomination rightfully belongs to Harris would only be further accentuated by her status as the Oval Office’s sitting heir apparent.
Yet her conspicuous weaknesses would ensure a contested primary. Therefore, the end result of Biden stepping down would be a long, divisive intraparty contest that would quite likely yield a nominee even more unpopular than Biden. Given this outlook, the Democrats are well advised to stick with the incumbent president who’s already proven capable of defeating Trump, his advanced age notwithstanding.
At least, this is the conventional wisdom among Democratic insiders. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin reported in February:
High-level Democrats are rallying to President Biden’s reelection, not because they think it’s in the best interest of the country to have an 82-year-old start a second term but because they fear the potential alternative: the nomination of Kamala Harris and election of Donald Trump.
And yet, if Democrats believe that Kamala Harris is not a viable presidential nominee, simply having Biden run again in 2024 does not actually solve that problem. If Harris is an uncompetitive candidate in 2024, odds are she will remain so in 2028, when Democrats will (hopefully) face the historically difficult task of winning a third consecutive presidential term. Nonetheless, it will be even more difficult to defeat Harris in a Democratic primary that year, since she will potentially be America’s incumbent president by 2028; at the very least, she will be a two-term vice-president. Letting Biden run again to avoid nominating Harris does not solve the problem posed by her unpopularity, but merely postpones it. And the longer Democrats put off confronting this problem head-on, the worse it is liable to get.
Further, even with Biden running, Harris’s lack of political support remains a challenge for the Democratic ticket in 2024. With roughly three-quarters of the electorate voicing fears that Biden will not finish his next term, the identity of his running mate takes on heightened salience. Put simply, Biden’s age makes Harris’s unpopularity a bigger liability, and vice versa.
In our era of presidential primaries, party leaders do not have the power to handpick nominees on the basis of their apparent general-election appeal. But presidents do have the power to choose their running mates. And given that sitting vice-presidents enjoy profound advantages in presidential primaries, Biden has the power to all but ensure that, should he win reelection, Democrats will have a strong nominee in 2028.
Thus, there is a strong case for Biden to pick a new running mate for 2024, one with a more promising electoral track record and approval rating than Harris. Doing so would plausibly improve his odds of winning next November and put Democrats in a better position come 2028.
Of course, there is no shortage of reasonable objections to such a gambit. For one thing, Harris isn’t just any vice-president, but the first woman to ever hold her office and the first person of Black or South Asian descent to do so. Taking the unusual step of dropping her from the ticket could plausibly offend and demotivate those who saw her election as a historic triumph.
This is a serious risk. But its severity is unclear. It is worth noting that, even among Black voters, Biden tends to have a slightly higher approval rating than Harris. Given the demonstrable pragmatism of the Democratic base in general — and non-white Democrats in particular — it seems possible that Harris’s replacement would prompt less backlash than the party’s elites fear. After all, faced with the imperative of defeating Trump in 2020, the Democratic primary electorate gamely lined up behind the candidate deemed most electable by the mainstream media. If Harris’s replacement is widely characterized as a savvy means of defeating Trump next year, then it might not be that hard for the Democratic faithful to swallow.
What’s more, the voters who are most likely to have strongly positive feelings for Harris tend to be some of America’s most committed Democratic partisans. It is not clear that a meaningful percentage of this constituency will withhold support for Biden in 2024 under any conditions.
Regardless, there are ways to mitigate any perceived slight. It is not difficult to name Democrats who both look like strong national candidates and possess at least one of Harris’s historically novel identities. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer enjoys majority approval in her swing state. Georgia senator Raphael Warnock has won two statewide elections in the last three years (although it would be ideal not to risk losing control of his Senate seat). Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth is an Asian American war heroine who outperformed her state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker, in her reelection bid last year. The Democrats’ bench of African American women is admittedly less extensive. But Illinois congresswoman Lauren Underwood shows promise. Underwood represents a district that is only four points more Democratic than it is Republican, and yet she won reelection last year — on a bad night for Illinois Democrats — by 8.3 percentage points.
In any case, Democrats would also need to secure Harris’s cooperation with any hypothetical succession. If Harris were to become an administration critic or fan the flames of backlash (even covertly), then replacing her would obviously be more damaging than retaining her on the ticket. The party would therefore need to secure her buy-in, perhaps through the promise of a Supreme Court nomination or some other coveted post. Assuming that Democrats found a suitably historic replacement for Harris and notched her enthusiastic support for the 2024 ticket, backlash to the transition could prove negligible.
A more fundamental objection to this whole argument is that there is no guarantee that any Harris replacement would end up more popular than the sitting vice-president is today. After all, as noted above, public figures often become less popular when they enter presidential politics. For all his decades of political experience, reputation for moderation, and ownership of one of the strongest post-COVID economic recoveries enjoyed by any nation, Biden boasts (at best) slightly more popular appeal than Harris. So, what if the vice-president’s unpopularity is an artifact of her position? After all, Harris herself has grown less popular the longer she’s been Biden’s right-hand woman.
This is a reasonable argument. But I do think we have reason to believe that Harris is genuinely a weaker politician than the aforementioned alternatives. For one thing, in her first statewide race, California’s attorney general election in 2010, Harris defeated her Republican opponent by less than a percentage point — this in a state that Barack Obama had won by 24 points two years earlier. In 2016, meanwhile, Harris’s margin in her Senate race was slightly narrower than Hillary Clinton’s margin over Trump in California. And as already mentioned, Harris’s 2020 campaign offered little basis for confidence in her electoral acumen.
To be sure, replacing Harris with another running mate is not a great option. It’s just that Democrats have no good ones. It is risky to switch out the first Black and female vice-president for someone else. But it is also risky to saddle an 81-year-old nominee with an exceptionally unpopular running mate who — if all goes well — will be all but guaranteed the party’s nomination in 2028. Democrats should not let status-quo bias prevent them from examining whether the latter option isn’t the worse one. And if they are truly convinced that there is no alternative to a Biden-Harris ticket, they at the very least need to make a more concerted effort at rehabilitating the vice-president’s image. The point of a running mate is to make your party’s ticket more palatable to the electorate. Right now, all signs suggest that Harris is doing the opposite.