Three months ago in our quarterly list of the top 10 most likely Democratic candidates for president in 2024, we changed things up. For a while, we had been ranking only the candidates not named Joe Biden. In the seemingly unlikely scenario he didn’t run again, the idea was, here’s who would be next in line.
But that scenario seemed to be growing more likely, so we decided to also include Biden on the list. The reason: There might come a time when the incumbent president isn’t the most likely nominee the next time around, for whatever reason. And his own 2024 maneuverings were suddenly very much worth evaluating in real time.
He’s still the most likely nominee, and he’s still sending the signals that he truly intends to run again. But it’s all looking significantly more tenuous than it was even three months ago.
A poll this week showed that 26 percent of Democrats wanted Biden to be their nominee in 2024, while 64 percent preferred “someone else.” As Biden’s approval rating has fallen, he has also seen erosion on this question — to the point where about the only analog we can find in modern political history is Jimmy Carter.
People like the idea of a hypothetical alternative, often much more than the flawed, actual ones. It’s entirely possible the president’s numbers will recover if inflation wanes. But many — indeed, most — Democrats, who still like Biden personally, would prefer someone else on the ballot in 2024, at least right now. And that’s highly unusual.
The main question from there would seem to be whether anyone will challenge Biden for the party’s nomination — a la Reagan vs. Ford in 1976 or Kennedy vs. Carter in 1980; thus far, most everyone insists they’ll defer, as CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere recently recapped.
But the more immediate question is whether current conditions tempt Biden to ultimately decide not to run at all — and, more immediately, tempts the party to push the 79-year-old in that direction. Modern elections are about base mobilization, after all, and about the only way Biden seems likely to get a strong base turnout is if Donald Trump or someone else the Democratic base hates is the Republican nominee. Even then, it seems a pretty big gamble to put up someone Democratic voters are so lukewarm on.
With that as the backdrop, here’s our latest list of the 10 most likely 2024 Democratic nominees. As usual, this list factors in both likelihood to run as well as likelihood to win if they did run.
Others worth mentioning: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Stacey Abrams, Mitch Landrieu, Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.)
10. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Remember how we mentioned pretty much everyone has indicated they’ll defer to Biden (whether or not they would ultimately do so)? Well, the New York congresswoman is the big name who hasn’t really done so. She recently declined to say whether she’ll back Biden in 2024, citing the fact that he’s not running yet. But that fact hasn’t stopped others from saying they would stand behind Biden. Ocasio-Cortez, of course, is very young. And we shouldn’t necessarily take this is posturing for a run; she also has an interest in assuring Biden caters to her wing of the party, after all. (Previous ranking: 10)
9. Roy Cooper: The North Carolina governor is the would-be hopeful pushed by a set of Democratic strategists who think the best course is to nominate a Southern governor with proven crossover appeal (which Cooper certainly has). Whether he has any designs on running is another matter. The longtime former state attorney general had to be talked into running for governor in 2016, after all. So does he really have the desire to take the next, much-bigger step? It’s a very valid question: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was a leading hopeful in 2020 before he decided he didn’t have the fire in the belly. Cooper can make an argument that few on this list can make, having won repeatedly in a state carried by Republican presidential nominees, including in the same election. (Previous ranking: 6)
8. Gretchen Whitmer: The Michigan governor checks a lot of boxes as a well-regarded, proven commodity in a swing state. And if she can win her 2022 reelection race — no easy proposition in this environment, but one aided by the GOP’s ballot problems — she’ll likely vault up this list. Interestingly, Whitmer recently passed on an opportunity to say whether she’d urge Biden to run again: “You know, I’m not going to weigh in on whether he should run,” she said, adding, “If he does run, he’ll have my support.” (Previous ranking: N/A)
7. Gavin Newsom: Perhaps nobody is making early and interesting plays these days as much as the California governor. He recently launched ads in Florida aimed at Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), the second-most-likely 2024 GOP nominee in our rankings. And Newsom has offered not-terribly-subtle criticisms of how his party is prosecuting the national political debate. We still don’t know that a former San Francisco mayor is really what Democrats are looking for, but it’s as evident as ever that Newsom is building toward something, no matter how much he downplays it. (Previous ranking: 9)
6. Bernie Sanders: Shortly after our last rankings, something interesting happened: Sanders’s 2020 campaign put out a memo stating that Sanders might run again, if Biden doesn’t: “In the event of an open 2024 Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Sanders has not ruled out another run for president, so we advise that you answer any questions about 2024 with that in mind,” the memo told supporters. The 80-year-old independent senator from Vermont had previously stated that he was “very, very unlikely” to ever run again, which at the time took him off this list. After the memo went public, Politico reported that Sanders himself had approved it. (Previous ranking: N/A)
5. Elizabeth Warren: The senator from Massachusetts has carved out some of her own space in the post-Roe v. Wade debate, proposing a crackdown on crisis pregnancy centers which she said are often “deceptive” efforts to “harass or otherwise frighten people who are pregnant to keep them from seeking an abortion.” She has frequently said she’s running for reelection and not president — but in that present-tense way that doesn’t specifically rule out that changing in the future. (Previous ranking: 4)
4. Amy Klobuchar: The best hope for the senator from Minnesota might be that Biden recovers but decides not to run anyway; her political profile is somewhat similar to Biden’s — that of a more traditional, pragmatic politician who isn’t necessarily going to wow anyone. It didn’t pan out for her in 2020, but without Biden in the race and potentially with Trump looming as the alternative, perhaps Democrats might be tempted for a similar recipe to what won in 2020. (Previous ranking: 5)
3. Kamala D. Harris: Historically, vice presidents have been able to craft images somewhat apart from the presidents they serve. But Harris has seen her image decline right alongside Biden’s. Just as Biden appears to be the most unpopular president at this point in his first term since Harry S. Truman, she is one of the most unpopular modern vice presidents at this point. She has a bigger pedestal than anybody on this list in the event of a post-Biden race. But the way things are going right now, she would need to somehow differentiate herself. And that’s not an easy trick when you’ve still got your day job. (Previous ranking: 3)
2. Pete Buttigieg: The transportation secretary continues to carve out a potentially attractive space in Democratic politics, quite apart from his Cabinet duties: as the guy able to go on Fox News and combat the right’s talking points in a calm and steady manner. Most recently, he did so on a protest of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh at a steakhouse. Similar to Newsom, if Democrats are putting a premium on the ability to drive a message against Republicans — a not-insignificant consideration in modern politics — Buttigieg makes a lot of sense. (Previous ranking: 2)
1. President Biden: Biden has almost always couched his 2024 plans as saying he “intends” to run, which carries some wiggle room. But The Washington Post’s Tyler Pager and Michael Scherer reported recently that it’s not just idle talk: that Biden’s political operation is doing the things you would expect to announce a reelection campaign next year. Biden this week also offered an animated response to the poll mentioned above, saying, “Read the polls, Jack. You guys are all the same. That poll showed that 92 percent of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me.” That’s true, and he still narrowly led Trump 44-41 in a 2020 rematch, but all that’s in the general election. And polls show significantly fewer Democratic primary voters say they would vote to advance him to that contest. (Previous ranking: 1)