The next presidential election is still two years away, but with a strong majority of voters saying they don’t want President Joe Biden to run again, there is a very real possibility that Biden becomes only the fourth sitting president in history not to run for a second term. This has led to some speculation about who might replace him on the Democratic ticket.
Earlier this month, the president told “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley that “it’s much too early” to confirm a reelection bid. “My intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again. But it’s just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen,” Biden said.
The president’s indecision has brought renewed focus to the question, “If not Biden, then who?” Though no clear consensus figure has yet to emerge, several prospective Democratic candidates are already vying for the public’s attention.
Biden’s comments come after a summer where numerous polls highlighted his unpopularity among the general population and among Democratic voters. In July, Biden’s job approval rating hit 38%, according to Gallup, earning him the worst sixth-quarter job approval rating of any president in recent history.
Though his job approval rating among Democrats has remained much higher, closer to 80%, a New York Times/Siena College poll and a CNN poll, both conducted in July, found that only one-quarter of Democratic voters want Biden to run for reelection. For the other three-quarters, the president’s age and job performance, followed by a desire for someone new and more progressive, were primary reasons for preferring someone other than Biden as the party’s 2024 nominee.
This sentiment is shared by independents, 80% of whom do not want Biden to run for reelection, according to a recent Deseret News/HarrisX poll.
Public opinion might play a central role in Biden’s decision whether to run for reelection, said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“If over the course of the next year you start to see his approval rating begin to tick back into the 30s, it really becomes difficult then for the president to believe that he would have a serious chance at winning reelection, and that perhaps passing the baton onto someone else would be more useful,” Hudak said.
Another determining factor for Biden will be his opponent, according to Hudak.
“I think there are probably a handful of candidates for whom the president believes it would be important for him to run against; chief among them would be Donald Trump,” he said, explaining that Biden sees himself as the only candidate who could beat Donald Trump in 2020 and might feel an obligation to run against him again if he is the 2024 Republican nominee.
In that case, if Trump declares his candidacy, and poor health or low job approval don’t rule out a presidential run, Biden would likely face little to no opposition in the Democratic primaries, according to Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.
“I think that having that kind of clear and present danger for Democrats of a Trump candidacy could be an incentive for them to rally around their party’s standard bearer once again,” Rakich said.
But absent the threat of Trump, or if a low approval rating and old-age force Biden to bow out of the race (Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term), the party’s preferred nominee is far from certain. Though history might give us a clue.
“The list has to start with Vice President Kamala Harris,” Rakich said.
Rakich’s claim is backed up by historical precedent. There have been 14 vice presidents since the end of World War II, and eight of them have gone on to become their party’s presidential nominee, making it the most predictive factor in party nomination and, subsequently, the presidency.
Harris would enter the 2024 primary season with the name recognition of vice president, just as Biden did in 2020, and could be seen as his natural successor by the coalition who voted for him in the 2020 primary, Rakich said, citing her ability to straddle the liberal and progressive camps and her appeal to Black voters.
Polls are split on whether Harris is the frontrunner for a 2024 presidential bid if Biden decides not to run again. But with an approval rating even lower than Biden’s, hovering around 37%, precedent might not hold in the case of Harris.
Besides the vice president, we should expect other familiar faces from the 2020 Democratic primary to return in the 2024 race, Rakich said. First among them is Pete Buttigieg, whose spot in Biden’s cabinet and focus on policy could make him a popular candidate for the moderate and technocratic wings of the party, Rakich said, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who experienced early success as a moderate candidate in 2020.
On the progressive end of the 2020, and potential 2024, primary candidates is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has made a name for herself by proposing blanket student debt relief and higher taxes on businesses and the rich. Then there’s Bernie Sanders, who briefly led the race in 2020 and remains one of the most popular and recognizable politicians in America. However, at 81, and with two failed presidential attempts behind him, a Sanders’ nomination seems unlikely, Hudak said
There are also some newer political figures who appear to be gearing up for 2024 presidential runs, according to Hudak. These include Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — both with significant fundraising capacity and executive experience as governors that could give them momentum in a presidential run, Hudak said. Newsom, especially, has gained national recognition for speaking out on culture war issues, such as gun policy and abortion, and for his willingness to go head to head with Republican governors like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
The list could go on. But when considering who could replace Biden as the Democrat’s presidential nominee we should keep one thing in mind, according to Rakich.
“Democrats are probably looking for someone who they feel can beat a Republican, regardless of whether that’s Donald Trump or not,” he said. For Rakich, this means a more moderate candidate. “I think that a progressive candidate will have a harder time making their case to voters for that reason.”