Why Biden Probably Won’t Get A Serious Primary Challenger

It’s July in the year before a presidential election, and a first-term president is running for reelection. Most of the time, nothing about this situation would merit more than a passing acknowledgment: The incumbent would face little intraparty opposition, and the media would be almost entirely focused on the other party’s presidential primary.

But President Biden has a lingering cloud of uncertainty hovering over his reelection campaign. He’s fairly well-liked by his own party, but as already the oldest president ever at 80, even many Democrats feel Biden shouldn’t run again. Speculation persists that a high-profile Democrat might decide to take him on, even as alternatives such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker have insisted they have no interest. Meanwhile, thanks to his famous name — and conspiratorial views — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has garnered media attention while also climbing into the double digits in Democratic primary polls, which some have taken as evidence that he could mount a real challenge to Biden.

However, while Democrats remain concerned about Biden’s age, one ingredient is missing before there can be a significant primary challenge against him: unpopularity. The fact is, Democrats mostly approve of Biden’s performance as president. He has also made overtures to progressives, potentially stymieing a source of potential unrest — although the threat of former President Donald Trump’s return has helped maintain party unity, too. If we look back at incumbent presidents who encountered fierce opposition for renomination in the recent past, each faced substantial discontent over administration policies and/or ideological opposition from a frustrated party faction. Without such conditions, top-tier Democrats with White House ambitions are unlikely to risk upsetting leaders and donors in their party by launching a campaign against Biden. Time will tell whether Biden’s approval among Democrats will drop low enough to invite a serious primary challenge. But as of right now, Biden looks likely to avoid one.

There’s little question some Democrats are squeamish about Biden seeking a second term. Depending on the poll, somewhere between one-third and half have said they don’t want him to run again — as have a clear majority of independents. And his age is a big factor: In a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, around half of Democrats felt Biden was too old to serve another term. In the same poll, roughly 1 in 5 Democrats expressed doubt over whether Biden retained the requisite mental sharpness or physical health to serve effectively.

All things considered, then, such sentiments might provide an opportunity for a prominent, ambitious Democrat to challenge Biden. However, that hasn’t happened. This lack of activity is partly due to a desire among would-be presidential hopefuls to remain unified behind the party’s leader, knowing a primary challenge might infuriate important figures in the party and block avenues of support for a future White House bid. Moreover, some of Biden’s hypothetically most compelling challengers, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, occupy roughly the same ideological zone as Biden, making it harder to differentiate themselves on issues besides age. (Whitmer is now national co-chair of Biden’s campaign.) Meanwhile, Biden has potentially avoided a notable challenge from his left: Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Biden’s two highest-profile progressive opponents in 2020, have backed his reelection bid.

As it stands, Biden finds himself comfortably ensconced in the lead in early polls of the Democratic presidential primary. Over the past month, he has averaged more than 60 percent support in national primary polls, while Kennedy sat in the mid-teens and author Marianne Williamson was in the single digits. That said, Biden doesn’t have the same level of near-unanimous backing that Trump enjoyed ahead of his 2020 reelection bid, so these numbers may be indicative of some Democrats’ lukewarm feelings toward a Biden reelection bid.

Biden has a big lead over his primary opponents, but it varies

National primary polls of the Democratic presidential primary conducted entirely since June 5

Poll Dates Pop. Biden Kennedy Jr. Williamson
Echelon Insights June 26-29 LV 65% 14% 4%
Beacon/Shaw & Co./Fox News June 23-26 LV 64 17 10
Emerson College June 19-20 LV 73 15 3
YouGov/Yahoo News June 16-20 RV 67 8 4
HarrisX/Messenger June 14-15 RV 54 14 5
Harris/Harvard CAPS June 14-15 RV 62 15 4
Big Village June 9-14 A 60 18 11
Quinnipiac University June 8-12 RV 70 17 8
Suffolk/USA Today June 5-9 LV 58 15 6
Average 64 15 6

Limited to polls that included only these three candidates.

Source: Polls

But Biden is less vulnerable than these numbers — or the concerns about his age — might suggest because most Democrats overall are happy with his job performance. Across polls of Biden’s approval rating conducted in June that included crosstab data for Democrats, an average of 77 percent of Democrats approved of Biden’s performance. This puts him below Trump’s approval among Republicans in two polls from the summer of 2019, but almost exactly in line with former President Barack Obama’s among Democrats in two polls from the summer of 2011.

Some polls have found Biden in better shape than others, but Biden doesn’t face a big chorus of Democratic critics. Importantly, he doesn’t have a major policy or issue that has precipitated intraparty dissatisfaction, either. The state of the economy, including inflation, has been a major worry for Americans, yet Democrats have not dramatically soured on their views of Biden’s economic stewardship. In three late-June surveys, 71 percent of Democrats told Beacon Research/Shaw & Co. Research/Fox News and YouGov/The Economist that they approved of Biden’s handling of the economy, while 60 percent said the same in an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. Looking ahead, perceptions of the economy may be Biden’s biggest vulnerability in the general election — one he’s working to offset — but he has not exactly lost Democrats on this front. Even if there’s behind-the-scenes chatter among some Democratic elites about not wanting Biden to run again, the impetus for a high-profile Democrat to challenge Biden may not be there without his popularity suffering more.

Now, it is possible Biden may attract a smaller share of the primary vote than most recent incumbent presidents did during their reelection campaigns. The past four incumbent presidents had no remotely meaningful primary candidate run against them and won close to or more than 90 percent of the vote across all primary elections.

Incumbent presidents usually win most of the primary vote

Vote share for incumbent presidents across all primary elections, 1972 to 2020

year party incumbent Nat’l primary vote
1972 R Richard Nixon 86.9%
1976 R Gerald Ford 53.3
1980 D Jimmy Carter 51.2
1984 R Ronald Reagan 98.6
1992 R G.H.W. Bush 72.5
1996 D Bill Clinton 88.5
2004 R George W. Bush 98.0
2012 D Barack Obama 91.4
2020 R Donald Trump 94.0

Excludes caucuses. When Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, Ford — who was appointed vice president the year prior — became president without having been elected either president or vice president.

Sources: CQ Guide to Elections, Federal Election Commission

Yet while Biden may be underperforming in primary polls, Kennedy does not have the sort of résumé or ideological profile that past notable primary challengers have had. Kennedy remains unfamiliar to many Democrats, who may be drawn to his revered last name. But he likely has a low ceiling for support because Democrats overall probably won’t find many of his views appealing: This includes his false claims about vaccines, blaming antidepressants for school shootings and comments claiming Russia acted in “good faith” in its war against Ukraine. Not to mention, he’s making the rounds among conservative-leaning media and getting public support from conservatives, even though he’s running in the Democratic primary. Some potential voters familiar with Kennedy already have negative views: More Democrats had an unfavorable view of him than a favorable one in an early-June survey from Quinnipiac University, and they split about evenly in a mid-June poll from Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour.

In other words, Biden has made it to July without getting a dangerous primary opponent, and he remains popular among Democrats. This stands in contrast to some past presidents who provided ample ammunition to intraparty critics and usually had lower approval among members of their own party than Biden does right now.

Former President George H.W. Bush faced the last noteworthy primary challenge to a sitting president in 1992, when political commentator Pat Buchanan ran to Bush’s right. Bush had been very popular when the Gulf War ended, but Buchanan capitalized on lingering conservative suspicions about Bush, Bush’s going back on a “no new taxes” pledge and skepticism toward Bush’s more interventionist views in foreign policy. Unlike Kennedy, Buchanan was a prominent political figure, having served as a presidential aide and conservative thought leader in the paleoconservative movement who’d pressed for the GOP to adopt an “America First” outlook that was more populist, socially conservative and isolationist. When Buchanan entered the race in December 1991, Bush’s approval among Republicans was in the mid-70s in Gallup’s polling. Boosted by the party’s right, Buchanan embarrassed Bush in New Hampshire by losing only 53 percent to 37 percent. Buchanan didn’t win a single primary, but his campaign earned him a key speaking slot at the party’s national convention.

Other presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, faced challenges from their left and right, respectively, amid intraparty discontent. Ahead of the 1980 election, Carter had angered Democrats in Congress, and his more conservative fiscal views had alienated some in the party’s base. Carter had an abysmal approval rating of around 40 percent among Democrats and trailed Sen. Ted Kennedy — RFK Jr.’s uncle — in primary polling when Kennedy announced his campaign in November 1979. But helped out in part by a rally-around-the-flag effect due to the Iran hostage crisis and the powers of incumbency, Carter held off Kennedy. Four years earlier, Ford had annoyed the GOP’s rising right wing with deficit spending and a detente-laden foreign policy. In stepped former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, a leader of the party’s conservative wing who hoped to capitalize on Ford’s lukewarm approval rating among Republicans (he was in the 60s around the time Reagan announced in November 1975). Although Ford won many of the early primaries, Reagan recovered and took the race all the way to the national convention, where Ford just barely eked out the nomination.

If you squint, Bush’s circumstances might be most reminiscent of where Biden stands today, but unlike Buchanan, Kennedy isn’t mounting a campaign you’d expect from a more ideologically focused contender (i.e., from the left). Still, Biden’s approval could slide in the coming months, and the volume of conversation about a primary challenge might grow. But unlike in some past years, it may be very hard for a challenger to announce a campaign much later than October, the deadline for candidates to file for at least one key early primary. Barring Biden’s standing notably deteriorating in the next couple of months, then, he’s unlikely to face a serious challenger for renomination.

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