Beyond the Horizon 2: Democratic Ambiguity
The Biden-Harris ticket has been saddled with awful poll numbers. Combined with Biden’s reluctance to answer questions about his 2024 plans, the Democratic party’s future is vague at best.
The 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary featured a total of 29 major candidates. The largest field of presidential primary candidates for any American political party since the modern primaries began in 1972. There indeed was a candidate for everyone: Joe Biden for moderates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for progressives, Pete Buttigieg for younger voters, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer for all those Lex Luthor fans out there. The number of potential leaders for the Democratic Party was encouraging; more ideas in the primaries and more arduous debates make for a stronger candidate and party in the general election. The majority of the primary candidates backed out of the race early and endorsed Joe Biden after his commanding South Carolina win, which allowed him to win 10 out of 14 states on Super Tuesday.
As a result of moderate candidates’ willingness to endorse Biden, the party now faces a potential leadership vacuum for the next presidential election in 2024. While there are many causes for the lack of clear Democratic leadership, the most critical factors revolve around Biden. First, he has been unclear regarding his intentions to run again, often saying it’s his “expectation” to run again in 2024. During his presidential campaign, he described himself as a “transition candidate,” implying a one-term objective. During his term, the messaging on the topic has been sloppy. Kamala Harris told CNN’s Dana Bash at the end of July that:
“Joe Biden is running for re-election and I will be his ticket-mate”
A vice president announcing a new campaign for the president is unusual in politics; unsurprisingly, this statement was walked back days later, only adding to the confusion. Ambiguity around a president’s re-election campaign keeps potential new candidates quiet, afraid of announcing a campaign or being shunned by the party for going against the presumptive nominee. This effect becomes even worse if Biden does not run. The early preparatory groundwork presidential candidates should be doing is frozen and incomplete when they start their now-late campaign preparations. This also impacts the all-important donor class, who have reportedly been scrambling to figure out whether Biden will run again.
Complicating questions around Biden’s re-election are his truly awful polling numbers. According to 538, Biden’s approval rating has been under water (Disapprove>Approve) since September last year. Biden’s current approval rating is a lousy 39.7%, as voters feel the impact of high inflation, slow progress on campaign promises, and a perceived lack of urgency around myriad issues. Similarly (but worse), the Vice President’s approval ratings have also been underwater since September; she sits at a 36.3% approval rate. Even more damning is polling data related to Biden’s 2024 plans. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that roughly 7 in 10 Americans do not want Biden to run again, and among Democrats, 54% say they would not like to see Biden run in 2024. Numbers like these put Democratic Party leadership in a challenging position of either endorsing a candidate voters do not like or taking the very unusual and dangerous step of backing a challenger to the sitting president.
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A vacuum of popular party leadership hurts the party across the board. The rapidly approaching 2022 midterms are significantly impacted by how the country feels about the sitting president and the direction of the country. Biden’s approval rating and lack of confidence from voters will, without a doubt, hurt Democrats’ midterm chances and could create a confidence crisis in Biden among party leadership should the midterms go worse than expected. Any chance at furthering Biden’s agenda would end if Republicans took back the House of Representatives or Senate, closing a significant avenue towards reviving his agenda and turning his approval rating around. A challenging midterm for Democrats is made worse by Biden’s inability to raise his numbers throughout the year.
Thinking about that 2020 candidate pool? Me too. Let’s look at who might be able to run a successful campaign should Biden decide not to run. I want first to remove the apparent option, which is Kamala Harris. Her numbers are worse than Biden’s, and Harris’s has been ineffective in running a campaign. During the primaries, she was bogged down by reports of poor treatment of staff members, conflicts on proper messaging strategies, and leadership confusion caused by naming her sister Maya Harris as campaign chairwoman. Pete Buttigieg has been absorbed into the cabinet as Transportation Secretary making a run in Biden’s absence more complicated. Tulsi Gabbard has become a Putin apologist and Republican party mouthpiece, while Andrew Yang has formed a new party altogether.
Two figures disconnected from the administration and the 2020 primaries have come out as potential challengers in 2024. California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. Newsom demonstrated a strong showing in the 2021 recall election, with 62% voting against the recall. He recently created a new campaign ad to run in Florida while running for re-election. This ad shows national ambition and targets possibly the strongest Republican in 2024 that I covered in my last article: Ron DeSantis. Pritzker has made trips to New Hampshire and Florida while running for re-election and recently captured the national spotlight during his speech after the Highland Park mass shooting. Both governors show strong poll numbers for their re-election and have reached beyond their state during their campaigns. While these two candidates offer some hope for Democrats moving forward, the party must figure out its identity and future leadership as soon as possible, or none of it will matter.
The Democratic Party suffers from vagueness in vision and leadership. President Biden needs significant wins in the coming months to turn his numbers around and must also figure out a plan to hit the ground running in policy and messaging after the midterms. Whatever happens in the 2022 midterms, it will be up to Biden to get his act together - and determine his future - so the party can plan its future for 2024.
TL;DR The Democratic Party leadership faces poor polling numbers and great uncertainty about future elections. What Joe Biden does next will have major implications for the party and the county's path.