Half a century ago, a politician from Minnesota challenged a sitting president for the Democratic presidential nomination. His name was Eugene McCarthy, and the U.S. senator’s candidacy helped drive then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to the sidelines in 1968. Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who on Friday announced his candidacy challenging President Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, must believe that history can be repeated.
McCarthy’s candidacy was fueled by anger over the Vietnam War and attracted brigades of young people who flooded New Hampshire for the first-in-the-nation primary and delivered an embarrassment there to Johnson, very nearly defeating the incumbent. Soon after, Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection.
Phillips is no Gene McCarthy. His candidacy is different. He has no issue like Vietnam to propel his campaign and, frankly, no real beef with Biden’s leadership. He says he loves the president. He applauds Biden’s performance and supports his legislative achievements. What he wants is for Biden to step aside now for a younger generation.
His candidacy is built on perceived anxiety about Biden’s age. The little-known Phillips, 54, elected to Congress in 2018, is a placeholder for the unease about Biden, 80, that exists among many Democrats. Phillips wants Democrats — even voters who like and respect the president — to use him to send a message that Biden should not seek a second term. The risk is that he weakens Biden rather than strengthens the Democratic Party heading into 2024.
Phillips is open about his concerns that Biden might not be the strongest Democrat to go into a general election contest against former president Donald Trump, 77, or against a younger and fresher candidate, should the Republican primaries produce a surprise. Other Democrats share those fears but not so openly. The overwhelming percentage of them probably would support Biden in a general election against Trump, but how many — younger voters or Black and Hispanic men — might stay home or even slide to Trump? It’s far too early to know that.
Biden remains the almost-certain nominee for the Democrats, and yet there are other stirrings that indicate nervousness within the party about what the coming months could bring. California Gov. Gavin Newsom is putting himself in a position to run, should something happen to Biden. He recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He is to debate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Fox News. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) flirts with No Labels and a third-party candidacy.
How strong is Biden at this point? In late October 2019, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Biden leading Trump by 56 percent to 39 percent among registered voters. That was a high point for Biden in Post-ABC polls, although throughout 2020, Biden never trailed. His lead was generally outside the margin of error, and only once was the contest a statistical dead heat. The average of polls compiled in 2020 by fivethirtyeight.com always showed Biden leading Trump.
Those 2020 polls were flawed, as the American Association for Public Opinion Research concluded in a post-election review that examined thousands of national and state polls. They overstated the margin between Biden and Trump by 3.9 points in the national popular vote and 4.3 percentage points in state polls. So the 2020 contest was closer all along than some of those polling margins suggested. Biden won the popular vote handily; the electoral college turned on fewer than 44,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
Today’s national polls show a different contest for 2024. Biden is by most measures in a toss-up race with Trump, a candidate who has lied repeatedly about what happened in 2020 and who is facing 91 felony counts in four jurisdictions, including two cases directly focused on his efforts to overturn the 2020 results.
For whatever reasons, be it that the polls are more accurately stating Trump’s support or that voters have their own qualms about the president, Biden appears to be in a battle that looks more challenging than in 2020, despite Trump’s obvious weaknesses. But the election is still a year away in a rapidly changing world.
National polls measure popular vote sentiment, not the contest for votes in the electoral college. Biden should win the popular vote, as he did in 2020 and as every Democratic nominee has done from 2008 forward. But in the handful of truly contested states where the 2024 election will be decided, small shifts among voters can make significant differences in the outcome, as 2020 showed.
The Biden reelection campaign has thrown millions of dollars into television ads, as have allies of the president, touting his accomplishments. Those ads haven’t moved the numbers. My colleagues Michael Scherer and Tyler Pager reported that the president has been frustrated about what’s happening or not happening in battleground states, although his advisers told the two reporters that they are satisfied with the initial round of ads.
Biden’s overall approval ratings have not moved in a positive direction. In the latest measurement by Gallup, his approval matched a previous low point in those surveys, with 37 percent of Americans saying they approve of his job performance and 59 percent disapproving. Among Democrats, Biden’s approval dropped 11 percentage points since September and stands at 75 percent.
The interviewing took place during the current month, at a time when Democrats have aired internal differences over the conflict between Israel and Hamas and over Israeli-Palestinian issues more broadly. Those divisions within the Democratic coalition threaten to become more acute if the Israeli offensive against Hamas results in major civilian casualties in Gaza. While support for Israel remains strong, support for the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not.
Approval ratings mean less today than they once did, as the 2022 midterm elections showed. Biden’s approval was net negative and inflation was a major concern of voters. Yet Republicans were not able to capitalize to the extent they had expected. They won the House by a narrow margin and have been dealing with the consequences ever since, as the election of Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) after weeks of chaos showed. In 2022, Republicans also failed to win control of the Senate, missing several clear opportunities with flawed candidates.
Biden and the Democrats mobilized voters around abortion rights and Republican extremism. Johnson is among the most conservative members of Congress. He is strongly opposed to abortion and gay rights, and he helped lead the effort to block certification of the 2020 election results. Closely allied with Trump, he keeps those issues at the forefront of the 2024 election.
The former president remains a threat to democracy and is in clear legal jeopardy. The current makeup and positions of the Republican Party provide the counter argument to those, like Phillips, who fear that nervousness about Biden’s capacity to lead the country into his mid-80s would be a serious election handicap.
That is the playbook for 2024 as well. Special elections this year have been good for Democrats, indicating that the issues that animated their voters in 2022 remain powerful motivators. Some Democratic strategists see quiet confidence within their party, because of the state of the Republican Party, rather than nervousness about the president, which they see as isolated rather than widespread.
Phillips will not be going head-to-head with Biden in New Hampshire early next year. New Hampshire will be in violation of Democratic Party rules, which set South Carolina as the first primary although New Hampshire state law requires it to go first. In compliance with those rules and a nomination calendar that Biden largely dictated, the president will not be on the ballot in New Hampshire. But the Phillips candidacy will draw additional attention to the issue of Biden’s age and questions about when a generational transition for the Democrats will take place.