The 2024 presidential election is already strange
The Cook Report’s Amy Walter points out that whether former President Donald Trump takes another run at the Oval Office or not, the 2024 presidential election will have at least one unusual feature. If President Joe Biden runs for re-election and wins the Democratic nomination, he’ll extend his own record for oldest major-party nominee. If he doesn’t run? Walter calculates that the last person who originally achieved the presidency though election and then chose not to run again was James Buchanan in 1860.
That’s a bit tricky; before the two-term limitation kicked in in 1951, the presidents who opted against running for a third term would count, which would make choosing not to run a bit more common. But it’s tricky for another reason, too.
Some of those who didn’t run were interested in remaining in the White House — but their parties did not share that interest. And before 1968, it was even harder to judge who was really a candidate than it is now. There were presidential primaries starting in the 20th century, but before the electoral reforms of the 1960s they were optional opportunities for candidates to prove their popularity to party actors, and sitting presidents and other strong candidates didn’t enter them. The real action happened at national party conventions and shortly before it, and candidates who flopped might never have much of a public record of their candidacies at all.
It’s similar to how, nowadays, if a politician gives a few speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire but never advances beyond that stage, it’s hard to know whether to classify that as lack of interest by the candidate or by the party. If retiring presidents such as Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and Woodrow Wilson in 1920 are better classified as having run and dropped out than not running at all, then Biden not running would be an even rarer event.
Unless, of course, Biden himself is in that boat — currently running without saying so, and leaving the option of a graceful retirement alive if things look bleak.
We don’t and can’t know at this point. Whatever Biden is thinking, it’s made sense up to this point for the success of his presidency for him to act as if he’s running for re-election. Otherwise, he’d be a lame duck, and that would cost him influence.
At some point — probably somewhere between the midterms this November and, say, early 2023 — Biden will have to declare one way or the other, because his party will need an answer. Up to that point, everyone is just going to have to wait.
Walter also raises the possibility of a nomination challenge. I’ve speculated in the past that the magic number in presidential approval rating necessary to spark a serious nomination challenge to a president seeking re-election is around 40% (Biden is now at about 42%).
It’s not so much that any president doing better than that is probably popular enough within the party to defeat a challenge. It’s that as long as the president is perceived within the party as having a decent chance of being re-elected, the risks of internal squabbling — and the risks of taking on a president and losing — are just too large. As long as almost all party actors follow that logic, it’s unlikely that a challenge will build momentum. My strong guess would be that a serious nomination battle involving Biden that would stretch into the primaries is unlikely. If he’s unpopular enough that his hold on the nomination is in trouble, he’ll surely just announce that he won’t seek a second term.
If Biden does remain unpopular, however, the conditions would be close to what has previously set the stage for a serious third-party or independent campaign. Those have usually happened when a sitting president is eligible to run but has weak electoral prospects.
That situation was present for the comparatively strong runs of Ross Perot in 1992, John Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace in 1948 and former president Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. (Perot’s second campaign, in 1996, was far less successful than his 1992 run; had he run for the first time that year, when a popular Bill Clinton was on the ballot, it’s unlikely he would have gone anywhere at all.)
The logic is simple: There are available voters who supported the president four years earlier but have moved away from the incumbent, while out-parties often seem disorganized and un-presidential, especially early in their own nominating process. There’s no guarantee that a third-party or independent candidacy would launch in those circumstances; a contender would need a lot of money, fame and political skills to produce a real campaign. But if Biden is a bit more unpopular and is still running next year, the conditions would be right for it.
Early presidential retirements, serious nomination challenges and significant third-party or independent campaigns are all usually the consequence of presidential weakness, not the cause of it. Perhaps things could be different this time — certainly, Biden could choose not to run in 2024 for health or age reasons even if he’s far more popular than he is now. But otherwise, the logic of the situation probably hasn’t changed.
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