The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats’ desire to turn the page on Biden in 2024 is highly unusual

President Biden waves to reporters as he departs from the South Lawn of the White House this weekend. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The good news for President Biden in the latest New York Times/Siena College poll is that, for all his problems and unpopularity, he retains a fighting chance in a hypothetical rematch with former president Donald Trump in 2024; he’s at 44 percent, while Trump is at 41 percent.

The bad news is pretty much everything else.

And leading that list is a startling finding: Democratic voters say by more than 2 to 1 that they would prefer someone else as their nominee in 2024. Fully 64 percent say they would prefer to nominate someone not named Biden, while 26 percent want him as their nominee again.

There is very little if any precedent for this in recent political history.

The writing has been on the wall on this for a while. Even when Biden was very popular among Democrats (85 percent approval) and not quite as unpopular overall late last year, a poll still showed a plurality of Democratic-leaning voters preferred someone else as their 2024 nominee. And as Biden’s numbers have continued to decline — his approval rating is at 33 percent overall in the NYT/Siena poll — his party’s desire to renominate him has accordingly fallen.

Both polls appear to be the first of the 21st century to show more supporters of a president’s party opting for nominating a hypothetical someone else, according to a review of the Roper Center’s polling archive. And Biden’s unhappy distinction probably traces back significantly further.

Neither Trump nor President Barack Obama saw supporters of their party ever entertain such a desire to turn the page. Whenever the question was asked about them, at least two-thirds said they wanted to renominate the incumbent president. (Even when Trump was highly unpopular overall, about 8 in 10 Republicans wanted to renominate him.) Biden, by contrast, has seen nearly two-thirds of his party say they want someone else.

(Many of these polls asked the question in a different way, with some testing who people perceived as the strongest nominee, rather than asking their personal preference, for instance. Some are also among Democratic voters only, while others include Democratic-leaning independents.)

Going back further, such questions are fewer and further between. And finding views only within a president’s party are difficult. But there’s little evidence of any real analog in the last four decades.

In May 2004, 67 percent of all registered voters in a Fox News poll wagered that Republicans were happy to renominate President George W. Bush. In November 1989, 39 percent of all voters said they wanted the GOP to renominate President George H.W. Bush — suggesting strong support within his own party.

About the closest we’ve come to significant numbers of a president’s base wanting to turn the page came in early 1995, shortly after President Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party got drubbed in the 1994 midterm elections. A CBS News poll in January 1995 showed 37 percent of Democrats preferred “someone else,” but 56 percent still wanted to renominate Clinton. But that’s still nowhere near Biden’s numbers.

A Pew Research Center poll the month before showed 66 percent of Democrats said they wanted someone to run against Clinton in the primary. But that’s not quite the same as saying you definitely want someone else as the nominee. And the later polling suggests the appetite for voting for the alternative wasn’t the same, either.

Dating back further, most such questions matched the incumbent president up against would-be primary challengers — rather than an undefined “someone else.” About the closest analog to where Biden is right now is a June 1979 CBS News/New York Times poll that showed Democrats favored Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) over President Jimmy Carter 52-23. Another candidate got 8 percent. Carter went on to win renomination over Kennedy, anyway.

It’s undoubtedly true that the “someone else” poll question can be misleading. People are invited to imagine their ideal alternative to Biden, rather than flawed actual challengers. But the few primary polls we do have of 2024 suggest there is indeed an appetite even for specific challengers. Some have shown Biden’s share of the vote right around that 26 percent who want him to run again, with many Democrats opting for alternatives or keeping their powder dry rather than signing off on putting Biden back on the ticket.

And certainly, findings like this matter when it comes to Biden’s 2024 calculations. Only one elected president has ever lost renomination: Franklin Pierce. (Four other incumbents were denied renomination, but each ascended to the presidency rather than winning it in their own right.) And that came before the modern primary system began in the 1970s.

It’s quite possible Biden could still win a primary even with his current standing. And perhaps big-name Democrats would stand aside. (Only one big name has left open the possibility of challenging him, according to a recent story by CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Of course, that could always change.)

But the resounding — if still very early — message of all the data seems pretty clear: Democrats like Biden just fine, but they also think that maybe 2024 is a time for someone else to pick up the torch and carry it forward.

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