(The Hill) — The chances that President Joe Biden could attract a primary challenger are rising amid devastating polling numbers among Democrats and particularly young voters.
His loyalists have defended him against the increasingly negative headlines. They say he stepped into a mess made by former President Donald Trump and that some of the lawmakers in Congress who were supposed to help him turn things around have been difficult and disappointing.
But that willingness to prop up the sinking president has been wearing thin. Day by day, Democrats are considering a possible new scenario: challenging the sitting president for the 2024 nomination.
“Unless Biden comes to his senses and announces that he won’t run again, a contentious battle for the nomination seems very likely,” Normon Soloman, founder of the progressive network RootsAction, told The Hill.
“The president may not realize or care that the trajectory of his policies has been taking him farther and farther from the Democratic Party base, but his distance from that base would likely be catastrophic for Biden if he tries to get nominated again,” he said.
As Biden’s popularity dropped to the low 30s, some of his former supporters began rethinking what the next two years could look like. Even if he runs again — as he has stated publicly and privately — the tacit pact that implies others in the party will step aside for him seems to be fading.
“The tone-deaf and self-centered thing for him to do would be to soldier on – insisting that he should be president until January 2029 – while damaging the party’s prospects in the process,” Solomon added.
Solomon’s group was so angry that it put together an official campaign to stop Biden from running again and is already commissioning signatures.
A lot of that frustration reflects the paralyzed state of the country under his party’s control.
For months, Democrats have grumbled about Biden’s lack of traction and spoken about who could step up if the president chooses not to run, but most have been hesitant to say outright someone else should replace him.
That’s beginning to change.
The deluge of problems — from the war in Ukraine, to surging gas prices, more mass shootings, the dismantling of Roe v. Wade and, most recently, a frightening inflation figure — has added to the perception that the president has taken his hands off the wheel.
On Wednesday, reports that the inflation rate hit over 9 percent, exceeding anything in recent history, made things worse. The White House quickly responded by saying the numbers were “out-of-date” because the cost of gas had come down a bit recently.
Few efforts to turn things around, however, have registered.
A New York Times-Siena College poll released this week offered a startling data point for those starting to make the case for a Democratic challenger. According to the survey, well over half of Democratic voters sampled – 64 percent – said they wanted another candidate to be the party’s nominee.
“I don’t think it’s a given frankly that he would win the primary,” said Steve Phillips, a progressive Democratic strategist who works on issues related to race and democracy. “I don’t think a primary and or its outcome is cataclysmic.”
“He could win, but he might not,” he said.
A serious primary challenge to a sitting president is rare, but Democrats have two examples from relatively recent history to look back on.
Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) mounted a competitive campaign in 1980 against former President Jimmy Carter. Both ultimately fell short, but Bush and Carter both lost in the general election.
Several Democrats who have been seen as helpful allies to the president are now being talked about as possible replacements. While it’s an open question if anyone with less name ID could climb high enough to win the nomination, some are putting in the apparent legwork now.
A pair of governors have recently taken steps that have elevated their national profile. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) traveled to the White House this week and met with Ron Klain, the president’s chief of staff, while Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) also went to the Oval Office and on a separate occasion to New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary. On Saturday, he’ll be in Florida, a crucial swing state where Trump resides.
Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who skyrocketed to prominence after winning the Iowa caucus in 2020, officially changed his home state registration to Michigan, one of the top general election battlegrounds.
“It’s a much broader question than Biden,” Phillips said, speculating about the landscape in 2024. “It’s a question of what’s happening in the country and what is the fight within this country, and then who’s best positioned to lead that.”
While there has been extensive polling showing Democrats’ dissatisfaction with Biden, data on how potential challenges would fare against Biden in a primary or against a potential GOP nominee in November has been scarce.
In 2020, Phillips said that Biden emerged as “the right person for that moment” for his ability to restore some degree of normalcy and strongly rebuke the white nationalism that was stoked during the Trump years. But much of the division Trump led with has not gone away, and some Democrats wonder where the president has been.
“That fight to roll back all of the civil rights progress in this country continues, and yet, that’s a fight that Biden is reluctant to lean into,” he said. “That’s what accounts for his poor approval rating. We want this to be a multiracial, multicultural country unapologetically, but Biden doesn’t want to fight those fights with the same intensity that the right does.”
Progressives, including young voters, are among the most upset with Biden.
The same New York Times-Siena College poll found 94 percent of Democratic primary voters ages 18 to 29 said the party should nominate someone other than Biden in the next presidential election.
With their up-close view from Congress, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who each attracted a lot of the youth vote, have been publicly pushing Biden to be a more action-oriented president. They acknowledge two of their Senate colleagues, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), have bucked most of his agenda, but are encouraging him to do more with his own authority while he can.
With just about three months until the midterms, those liberal Democrats have also taken things into their own hands. Warren has set out to tackle low youth registration numbers with a new plan to boost turnout among soon-to-be college students and improve voter ID rules on campuses. And Sanders along with others on the left have pushed consistently for reforms, including changing the Senate’s filibuster, that would allow most of Biden’s own proposals to move through the upper chamber without Republican support.
Others, including the senator’s two campaign co-chairs, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and former Ohio House candidate and activist Nina Turner (D), have been talked about as possible challengers, with Turner preferring a more outspoken anti-Biden approach than Khanna, who has worked closely with the administration.
“Constructive criticism is part of democracy,” Khanna told The Hill this week. “I’ve personally called for Biden to do more to bring down inflation like passing a windfall profit tax to lower gas prices and going after Wall Street for driving up housing prices.”
But the progressive congressman says he’s more interested in party unity at this point, noting the implied danger in his eyes of a return to Trumpism is real.
That possibility, which Democrats have speculated about since Biden narrowly defeated Trump, seemed more likely this week after the Washington Post and New York Magazine both reported that the former Republican president is considering announcing a third bid. According to both outlets, the timing around midterms is the biggest part of his decision.
“I believe that our party needs to unify behind the president and I will support him in 2024,” Khanna said. “But the goal should never be to just attack or weaken him. The threat of another Trump presidency is too serious for that. Biden has beaten him once and deserves our respect.”