In poll after poll this year, many and sometimes even most Democratic voters have said they don’t want President Joe Biden to be the party’s nominee again in 2024, mainly because of his age. And yet Biden, who isn’t facing a credible primary challenger, seems to have that renomination locked up.
Jonathan Chait of New York magazine is wondering why that is. “The demand for a different option is robust,” Chait writes. “What is mystifyingly absent is the supply.” In his telling, many politically skilled Democrats, such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, could run and have a reasonable shot at defeating Biden and winning the presidency — but they aren’t.
On the website formerly known as Twitter, many Democrats pilloried Chait for his article, but the specific reasons for the pillorying differed in an interesting way. Some argued that Biden is a strong candidate, basically saying that reports of his political weakness are greatly exaggerated.
But others simply claimed the process of challenging Biden in a primary would inevitably prove so divisive and damaging that it would help Trump win in 2024. This logic implies that, even if Democrats fear Biden has serious weaknesses, it’s better to stick with him.
I think the second argument, while being convenient for Biden’s interests, is likely correct. But rather than take it for granted, it’s worth examining its underlying assumptions in more detail. Why isn’t any credible candidate giving a primary challenge a shot? And what would happen if someone did?
Challenging the incumbent president is a messy process
Primaries are democracy in action: the people (or at least the rather limited, unrepresentative subset of the people willing to turn out for a partisan primary) vote to choose a nominee. Primaries are also often, in practice, messy, expensive, and divisive.
All incumbents naturally would rather avoid serious primary challenges, for their own interests — that’s one less election to worry about. Parties also frequently try to deter such challenges, in part due to the belief that a cleared field is better for the party’s general election chances, and in part for reasons of control. As a result, credible primaries to incumbents at any level are pretty rare. Potential contenders demur both because these contests are difficult to win and because even trying them means running afoul of the party establishment.
Incumbent presidents in particular really prefer to avoid primaries, due partly to the messy history of how such contests unfolded in the second half of the 20th century:
- In 1968, LBJ faced challenges from Gene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy over the Vietnam War. He soon abandoned his reelection bid, and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, got the nomination at the convention instead. Humphrey lost in the general election to Richard Nixon.
- In 1976, Gerald Ford was challenged from the right by Ronald Reagan, who did quite well but ultimately fell short of victory. Ford lost in the general election to Jimmy Carter.
- In 1980, Carter was challenged from the left by Ted Kennedy, who won several states and took his fight to the convention before falling short. Carter lost the general election to Reagan.
- In 1992, George H. W. Bush was challenged by commentator Pat Buchanan, who didn’t manage to win any states. Bush lost in the general election to Bill Clinton. No president since has faced a credible primary challenge.
Except for LBJ, all of these primaried presidents won the primary but lost the general election. That suggests that defeating an incumbent president in the primary is difficult. The conventional wisdom is that it also makes them the party more likely to lose the general election, though that is difficult to prove, since all of these incumbents were primaried because they were already unpopular.
The Biden- and Trump-specific factors
Of the candidates mentioned above, the one a primary challenge worked out best for is Reagan. He fell short of beating Ford in 1976, but then Ford lost, and Reagan had effectively established himself as the frontrunner for 1980. So in a vacuum, you might think an ambitious Democrat would try to do something similar.
The difference is that Biden’s general election defeat would not mean installing a Georgia peanut farmer in the presidency, but rather Donald Trump, whose potential return to power terrifies Democrats.
And the risk of being blamed for Trump’s return to power may well be giving many challengers pause. A primary challenge against Biden seems unlikely to succeed but could well result in him limping into the general election wounded. It also basically amounts to an attempted hostile takeover of the Democratic Party, which would likely earn the eternal enmity of that party’s establishment — and perhaps many of the party’s voters, should the challenger get the blame for enabling a Trump victory.
“While rank-and-file voters fret about Biden’s age, experienced pols know a primary would wreck the Democratic Party and ensure a Trump dictatorship in 2025,” Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch argues.
Chait suggests that a primary against Biden need not be all that divisive — that it could be positively friendly by not being based on issues at all. “The entire campaign message could be that he has performed a valuable service to the country but is getting on in years,” he writes — a sort of Sure Grandpa, let’s get you to bed campaign.
Yet even if that was the challenger’s approach, it would entail a Democrat validating one of Trump’s biggest critiques of Biden, placing it at the center of the media agenda for months. If the challenger is serious about trying to win, things are unlikely to stay so friendly throughout the contest.
If Biden does end up losing to Trump with some sort of age incident playing a major role, there will certainly be much second-guessing about how Democrats drifted into a foreseeable disaster. But the logic seems sound enough. An ambitious Democrat likely thinks waiting for 2028 is preferable to sticking their neck out to challenge Biden, since this year they’d likely lose and may even become a party pariah.