A shadow primary is developing among Democratic politicians concerned about President Joe Biden's prospects for winning a second term and interested in running for the top job themselves. This shadow primary is fueled by a wave of articles in the legacy media questioning Biden's leadership, age, and cognitive abilities. Recent stories in CNN and the Washington Post have blistered Biden on these fronts. And a recent poll revealed that a majority of people do not want Biden to run again.
But that wasn't the news. What was surprising was that a majority of Democrats do not want him to do so either, including a staggering 94% of Democratic respondents under the age of 30.
All of it bodes ill for Biden, the Democratic Party, and likely the pretenders to the throne taking aim at the king.
Each one of the emerging contenders is taking a slightly different approach to getting ready for a 2024 run. Vice President Kamala Harris has been quietly feeling out wealthy donors, while Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois has been seen in important political states such as Florida and New Hampshire. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is blanketing the country and the airwaves, selling the Biden infrastructure law and pushing back against Republicans — and getting transparently more attention than a transportation secretary generally does in the process. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has perhaps garnered the most publicity of the bunch, releasing an ad mocking Florida Gov. and likely GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, while claiming that it has nothing to do with his interest in the presidency.
Despite Biden's vulnerabilities, the history of modern intraparty challenges shows why these politicians are treading somewhat lightly. Since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been six major single-candidate intraparty challenges to incumbent presidents. None of the challengers succeeded in winning the party nomination or the presidency. But, importantly, all of the incumbent presidents who were challenged failed to win reelection. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson did not run again after their challengers damaged them in primaries, and the other four lost their reelection campaigns. In each case, the challenger weakened the president, or perhaps revealed the existing weakness of the incumbent.
The six cases are as follows: In 1912, ex-President Teddy Roosevelt challenged his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. In 1952, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver beat a Korea-weakened Harry Truman in the New Hampshire primary. In 1968, war critic Eugene McCarthy forced the Vietnam-burdened Lyndon Johnson out of the race. In 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged the unelected Gerald Ford from the right. While Reagan lost that race, he is the only one of the six to become president later. (Roosevelt had been president previously but did not ever regain the office.) In 1980, Ted Kennedy revealed Jimmy Carter's weakness in a furious assault. And most recently, in 1992, Pat Buchanan launched a quixotic proto-Trumpian campaign against George H.W. Bush after Bush broke his pledge not to raise taxes.
Many of these challenges were extremely bitter. In 1968, for example, McCarthy described the difference between Richard Nixon, one of the Democrats' most hated Republicans, and Johnson as like "choosing between vulgarity and obscenity." Sometimes, a challenge tore apart friendships: Roosevelt and Taft had once been such close friends that they would walk to work together. After the 1912 race, they became hated enemies.
Things were particularly intense in 1976 between Reagan and Ford. Ford had been winning steadily until North Carolina, where Reagan won a last-stand victory and gained momentum from there. The outcome was in doubt headed into the GOP convention, and the Ford team played serious hardball in its quest for delegates. Ford loyalists got choice hotel assignments and prime seats at the convention. Reagan delegates got second-rate motel rooms as far as 70 miles away from Kansas City's Kemper Arena and awful seats inside the hall. One Reagan aide recalled Ford supporters dumping trash on Reagan delegates in the arena. Ford ally Nelson Rockefeller tore a Reagan sign out of the hands of one Reagan backer from North Carolina, but then was outraged when another Reagan supporter tore out the telephone servicing Rockefeller's New York delegation. Rockefeller later held the detached phone above his head for the TV cameras to see. When Ford aides raised the prospect of a Ford-Reagan ticket to Ford, the usually nice Ford said, "Absolutely not! I don't want anything to do with that son of a b****!"
The 1980 race between Kennedy and Carter may have been even nastier. Carter had clinched the nomination early in the convention, but the Kennedy forces kept up the fight over the platform, determined to embarrass Carter. Carter aide Jody Powell later wrote of Kennedy's maintaining the struggle after the contest was over: "We neglected to take into account one of the most obvious facets of Kennedy's character, an almost childlike self-centeredness."
Kennedy aide Harold Ickes, who would later work in the Clinton White House, used a procedural maneuver to upset the carefully planned convention schedule. The move shocked the Carter team, including a Carter lawyer named Tim Smith, who got into a physical altercation with Ickes. Another Carter aide, Tom Donilon, who would work in the Clinton and Obama administrations, confronted Ickes, saying, "What the f*** are you doing? You can't do this!"
Ickes, always up for a fight, responded, "Go f*** yourself. I'm shutting this convention down, Tom."
Kennedy himself had to intervene to get the convention restarted. But Kennedy enacted his own revenge against Carter. When Carter sought out Kennedy after his victory speech for the traditional hands-in-the-air unity gesture, Kennedy actively snubbed the sitting president. Kennedy's rebuke was so obvious, and Carter's active begging for the gesture so pathetic, that newsman David Brinkley said on live TV, "Well, this is slightly awkward."
It is hard to top 1980 for nastiness, but the 1992 combatants tried. Buchanan ran an ad that said, "In the last three years, the Bush administration has invested our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art too shocking to show." He also regularly hammered Bush for Bush's famous broken pledge, "Read my lips, no new taxes." On Bush's side, he had told reporters asking whether he would go after Buchanan, "No, going to be nice." Even so, Bush ran a hard-hitting ad in Michigan attacking Buchanan for driving a Mercedes-Benz, which was both a hit on the purchase of a foreign car as well as a subtle allusion to unfair whispers that the conservative Buchanan was some kind of Nazi. (Recall Democrat Ann Richards's legendary line that Buchanan's Republican National Convention speech that year was "better in the original German.") One former Bush aide told me that by the end of the Mercedes ad, viewers could swear that the Mercedes logo looked like some kind of swastika.
There are multiple reasons for this recurring bitterness in intraparty fights. The people doing the fighting are friends and colleagues, or often ex-friends and ex-colleagues. The campaign staffs of a Republican and Democrat rarely interact personally over the course of a campaign, whereas a challenger to a party incumbent will see the opponent and staff at party events and especially at the conventions, where much of the nastiness has surfaced. Another reason for the ugliness is that the challenged incumbent is like a wounded lion, fighting for his or her political life. Similarly, the challenger often feels aggrieved, which has prompted the challenge to begin with.
Perhaps as a result of this history of failures, no incumbent has faced a serious intraparty challenge in three decades, since the Buchanan challenge to Bush in 1992. Related to this is the fact that most of the challenges in question took place in the relatively short span between 1968 and 1992, much of which was a period of great tumult and contentiousness in American politics. Given the extent of our current political divisions, it is possible to imagine that we could be entering a new era of semiregular intraparty challenges. The 1968 to 1992 period also coincided with a lot of resentment against Washington, over Vietnam, Watergate, and a general sense of government overreach. Today, we are also facing a similar sense of anti-Washington sentiment, albeit for different reasons.
One reason for the absence of intraparty challenges these last three decades is the absorption of the lesson that an incumbent who is seriously challenged in the primary typically foreshadows that party losing the next race for the White House. In recent years, potential challengers have been reluctant to take on the risk of being blamed for an election loss. But the incumbents of the last three decades have also taken steps to shore up their support so as not to be vulnerable to an attack from their flank. Bill Clinton, for example, suffered a tough midterm election loss in 1994, but he righted the ship by moving toward the center after the Republicans took over Congress. Donald Trump, for his part, never had high approval ratings in the national polls but scored very high in support within his party, as did George W. Bush, which is a key reason that neither of them faced a serious intraparty challenge. Perhaps as a result, the challenges that might have come from within the party have come from external candidates: Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, Ralph Nader in 2000, and to an extent Trump himself, who was an outsider but ran within the party system.
Another pattern is that most of the challenged incumbents came to the presidency in unusual ways. Truman, LBJ, and Ford stepped in directly from the vice presidential role, without ever initially being elected as president. Taft was hand-picked by Roosevelt to succeed him, and Bush ran as vice president, benefiting by succeeding the popular Reagan. Of the six, Jimmy Carter took the most traditional path to the presidency, but he was a dark horse who managed to beat a weak, unelected incumbent in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Joe Biden appears to fit this historical pattern in that he was vice president before becoming president, but he did not go directly from the vice presidency to the presidency as four of the six challenged incumbents did.
What does all of this mean for Biden politically? The Biden team would be wise to highlight to the media and potential challengers that things usually do not end up well for the challenger, and that the party also often suffers as a result. Biden also needs to shore up his own support. In this, he faces a dilemma in that the things he needs to do to improve in the national polls might alienate his standing within his own party, while shoring up his support within the party could contribute to continued erosion of his overall support within the country.
As for the challengers themselves, it's unlikely that the historical record will deter them if they see a real opportunity to emerge nationally. Biden's weakness makes it difficult for the Democrats to retain the White House with him in 2024, so the best shot may be to bring in a fresh face. Concerns over his age — at 79, Biden is already the oldest president in American history — also add to this possibility. If this narrative takes hold, and the recent articles criticizing Biden suggest that party operatives are whispering this theme into reporters' ears, then Biden could be in a situation facing more than one intraparty challenger going into the 2024 race. Such a case would not only be unusual, but it would also be bad news for Biden's political prospects and, likely, those of the Democratic Party.