Beating expectations in November could leave Democrats stuck with Biden in 2024
The midterm elections could go a long way toward determining whether President Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee in 2024.
Even if Democrats want to move on from Biden, who will turn 80 shortly after the elections, the better they do in November, the harder it will be for them to show him the door.
Biden’s job approval ratings are still low, but they have rebounded sharply since earlier this summer. More importantly, so have the Democrats’ chances of retaining the Senate and limiting their losses in the House.
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The party’s majorities are so small that no red wave is needed to put Republicans back in charge. The GOP only needs a net gain of one seat in the Senate to demote Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) back down to minority leader. But even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is signaling they might not get it.
If Democrats beat expectations, much less beating the Republicans, Biden will have some strong talking points for 2024. White House chief of staff Ron Klain has noted that the last Democratic president to gain seats in the Senate in his first midterm election cycle was John F. Kennedy, who remains an icon to the party faithful. If Democrats retain all their seats in the 50-50 chamber and defeat Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) or replace retiring Sens. Pat Toomey (R-PA) or Rob Portman (R-OH), Biden can claim this distinction for himself.
The president has already been strengthened by a series of legislative wins: the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, the toxic burn pits bill, and a modest package of gun reforms.
Most of the bills were passed on a bipartisan basis, especially in the Senate, and even the partisan reconciliation bill was a far cry from the original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better program the White House and congressional Democrats had been trying to get over the finish line for over a year.
Still, this progress has brought some disaffected liberals back home. Biden hit 44% job approval in Gallup and 45% in Rasmussen and CBS News. He’s up to 42% in the Real Clear Politics polling average.
Those numbers aren’t the stuff of landslides — they’re close to where former President Barack Obama was before Democrats suffered their 63-seat “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm House races — and still leave him underwater. But when combined with signs of rising Democratic voter enthusiasm, they could stem the losses in November.
Polls have shown Democrats would prefer a different 2024 candidate, and a big drubbing this November would make those calls louder. The White House will use any good news for Democrats to quiet them.
Both Obama and former President Bill Clinton went into their first midterm elections with a lot of Democratic-held districts filled with conservative voters. In 1994 and 2010, those Democrats were wiped out. While Republicans are fighting against much smaller majorities than existed in either of those elections, there is also considerably less low-hanging fruit. If the political climate improves even a bit for Democrats, it can make a significant difference.
This brings us to 2024: Biden will have a much stronger argument for a second term if Democrats avoid disaster this year. And that argument may only need to be persuasive to Biden himself. He has been running for president since 1987. Most people who entertain White House ambitions for that long end up a Harold Stassen-like asterisk in the history book. Biden is in the Oval Office.
Biden is unlikely to give up the presidency lightly. Democrats who don’t want to go into 2024 with an octogenarian with diminished campaign skills, without the pandemic luxury of a light public schedule, will face a difficult choice in a short period of time.
Not since Lyndon Johnson ended his 1968 reelection campaign after a stronger-than-expected showing by Eugene McCarthy has a primary challenge to an incumbent president succeeded. Gerald Ford held on against Ronald Reagan in 1976. Jimmy Carter defeated Ted Kennedy in 1980. George H.W. Bush didn’t lose a single primary or caucus to Pat Buchanan in 1992. Since then, no one has seriously tried an intraparty fight against a sitting president.
But every one of those incumbents went on to lose in November. The conventional wisdom became that primary challengers can rarely unseat the incumbent, but can further weaken them in the general election.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been running what looks like a shadow campaign for the 2024 Democratic nomination, mostly against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who finds himself in a similar dance with former President Donald Trump on the Republican side. (Newsom denies he is running.)
If Biden sticks to his 2024 plans, Newsom will have to decide at some point next year whether to step out of the shadows or defer to the president. If it is not Newsom, someone who has laid even less groundwork for a run will have to decide whether to step into the breach.
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The pattern that worked well for the last two Democratic presidents is that the voters got to take out all their frustrations with the White House in the first midterm, allowing the incumbent to recover and win reelection. An unintended consequence of Democratic resilience in the midterm elections is that this might not apply to Biden.
Biden is still, in many ways, a drag on his party. He just may be one that Democrats are stuck with.