Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We know the 2022 midterm elections haven’t happened yet, but this summer has seen an unusual amount of activity on the 2024 front.
Namely, many Americans, including Democrats, are really down on the idea of President Biden seeking a second term, while former President Donald Trump continues to dominate the news cycle. A sizable portion of Americans say they don’t want Biden or Trump to have a second term, but is there, uh … a path for anyone who isn’t Trump or Biden in 2024?
Let’s tackle this chat in two parts:
- First, what is the case for — or against — any other Democratic presidential candidate breaking through?
- And second, what is the case for — or against — any other Republican presidential candidate breaking through?
OK, first up. Is there a Democrat who can take on Biden?
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): I don’t think so, Sarah, especially if Trump is the nominee. If Trump announces that he’s running for a second term, I think: 1) Biden will run again, and 2) there won’t be a damaging primary to take him down.
What Democrat is going to take Biden on against Trump? Democrats will coalesce around the nominee who can beat Trump, and Biden has already proved that he can.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): I’m generally someone who thinks the 2024 nominations are Biden’s and Trump’s if they want them, but I think Biden is particularly safe. There just isn’t an obvious Democratic heir apparent. The closest thing is Vice President Kamala Harris, and she’s not going to run against her own running mate.
alex: Right, Nathaniel. I just don’t see notable Democrats wanting to participate in a messy, protracted primary against the sitting president. It would be a terrible look for the party.
In an earlier time, I could maybe see Sen. Bernie Sanders stepping up to the plate and attracting a decent share of the vote, but in 2024, I don’t think he’d bother, or be successful.
nrakich: Sanders has already said that he will not run against Biden. (They’re friends!)
sarah: More like frenemies. 😉
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): That’s a good point, Alex, about Democrats likely not wanting to participate in a messy primary. The order of operations to all this is very important.
If Trump looms large, that may encourage greater Democratic unity. Regardless, though, it’s very hard to take on an incumbent president in a primary — no incumbent has ever lost renomination in the modern presidential primary era. There have been some primary polls testing Biden against a multicandidate field that have him leading but only in the 30s in terms of support. However, I don’t think a crowded field would develop if Biden were running again.
nrakich: Yeah, and the incumbent presidents who have faced serious renomination fights (e.g., former President Jimmy Carter) lost their subsequent general election. No Democrat will want to be blamed for tanking Biden’s chances against Trump.
Another complication: I know polls show that Democrats largely don’t want Biden to run again, but party elites aren’t acting that way. Just look at the hubbub that ensued after Rep. Carolyn Maloney said she didn’t think Biden would run again in 2024. Her primary opponents jumped all over her, and she had to apologize! To me, that’s the sign of a party united behind their leader. (It’s almost Trump-like!)
kaleigh: Yeah, I don’t see anyone running if Biden makes good on his stated intention to run again. But I like to imagine alternate-universe scenarios since “no one” is not a very thrilling answer.
alex: Well, if Trump doesn’t run, then I think Biden maybe doesn’t run. (“Maybe” is doing a lot of work here.) But to your point, Kaleigh, that opens the door for other Democrats to enter the race. It’s just that no obvious candidate comes to mind for me currently.
kaleigh: I’m not fully convinced that Biden saying he will run means he actually will. It would be a really bad look for the sitting president to openly say, “Yeah, no, I’m good with one term,” especially at this point in his presidency. But as Alex points out, if for some reason Trump doesn’t run, that does give Biden a chance to step back at the end of this term.
sarah: Yeah, I was going to say there are a couple of pretty big assumptions baked in here. The first is that Trump will in fact be the nominee — we’ll debate that more in a bit!
And the second is that Biden actually runs again, as Kaleigh just said. That calculus could change as we get closer to 2024 and Trump isn’t the nominee.
nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I would be surprised if a prominent Democrat runs against Biden. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if he declines to run for reelection. He would be 86 years old by the end of his second term; it’s just really hard to imagine him serving at that age.
geoffrey.skelley: Because campaign decisions don’t always happen in an orderly fashion, it’ll be interesting to see how long Biden waits before he makes a final determination about his 2024 intentions. If Trump jumps in quickly before this November’s election or just after it, Biden will have plenty of time to decide. But if Trump were to unexpectedly wait to announce — or were even to float the idea he won’t run — that could complicate Biden’s decision-making process if he is considering not running again.
alex: I guess I’m just skeptical that Biden would throw in the towel without an obvious heir apparent — despite his age.
sarah: I know it’s incredibly early still, but general-election polls show that one of Biden’s strongest factors as a candidate is his performance against Trump, right?
nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I think Biden definitely benefits from a perception that he is still one of Democrats’ most electable options. (After all, he beat Trump in 2020.) But I’m not sure how much the data backs that up. According to a YouGov/Yahoo News poll from the beginning of the month, registered voters picked Biden over Trump 45 percent to 42 percent. But they also picked Harris over Trump 45 percent to 44 percent. That’s not a significant difference. And that’s before even getting into the fact that 2024 is two years away and early general-election polls are pretty meaningless.
geoffrey.skelley: It largely depends on the pollster as to whether Biden leads or Trump leads, but on balance, Biden may lead slightly more often than not. I do think, though, some Democrats believe anyone other than Biden might be weaker against Trump. It’s a question of the known vs. the unknown.
alex: Maybe part of the calculus against Biden seeking a second term is that Democrats just don’t want him to, as Nathaniel and Sarah hinted at earlier. A July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll found that Biden is facing his lowest approval rating since taking office — and Democrats are a large part of the reason why. Per the survey, Biden’s overall approval rating sits at 36 percent, a 4-percentage-point drop from the end of June. Most of the discontent appears to be coming within Biden’s own party, too. There was a 9-point decline among Democrats between the two polls.
To be clear, 75 percent of Democrats said they approve of the job Biden is doing as president. Compare that with the previous month, though, when 84 percent of Democrats felt the same. And surprising no one, his approval rating among Republican voters is much, much lower. In July, only 5 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of independent voters approved of the job Biden is doing (which is on par with how Republicans felt in late June, too).
sarah: Is it unusual that Biden is this unpopular, especially among members of his own party?
alex: Well, on the one hand, presidential approval often declines in a president’s first term. I’d bet, too, that Democrats were especially optimistic after Biden beat Trump and Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate, but that they were then disappointed after Biden’s administration failed to address a number of key issues he campaigned on, e.g., a student loan forgiveness program, an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, etc.
On top of that, Biden has had to continue navigating America’s response to the pandemic, which has been messy, along with unexpected events like Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine and a faltering economy.
geoffrey.skelley: The fact, though, that Biden’s approval rating is at 70 to 75 percent among Democrats is unusual. Both Trump and former President Barack Obama usually had approval ratings of at least 80 percent or more among members of their own party, although they did occasionally dip below that mark. Where Biden goes from here — back up or stagnant — could be important to determining whether he runs again.
But OK, a lot of you have said there is “no heir apparent” when it comes to a Democrat who isn’t Biden. This isn’t a 2024 draft — soon, right? 😉 — but what does the Democratic bench look like if Biden doesn’t run?
kaleigh: If Biden’s not at the table, then Harris is an obvious choice. Not only is she veep, but also she held her own during the 2020 primaries and could follow a similar trajectory as Biden himself did, using his record during the Obama administration to build out the basic platform planks.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Kaleigh. Any discussion of Democratic candidates beyond Biden has to start with Harris. Sitting vice presidents who run to succeed their presidential ticket-mate almost always win the party’s nomination. You’d have to go back to Democratic Vice President Alben Barkley in 1952 — so prior to the modern primary era — to find one who didn’t. Granted, the last person in this situation was Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and he, of course, didn’t end up winning the general election. So there is that.
alex: But Harris’s 2020 campaign wasn’t great. That said, I did find this survey interesting: A May Harvard University/Harris poll shows that 19 percent of Democratic and independent voters would want Harris to run if Biden doesn’t seek a second term. (She was voters’ top choice). After Harris, 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (!!) and Sanders both came in at 10 percent, while U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg netted 7 percent.
sarah: The only problem for Harris is that her approval rating is even lower than Biden’s right now. 😬
nrakich: True, Sarah. Democrats do have other options, though. Buttigieg clearly wants to be president too, and he doesn’t have an obvious other office to run for. Democrats also have a fairly deep bench of governors and such who could run if they want — Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Gavin Newsom of California, Jared Polis of Colorado, etc.
sarah: OK. Is it fair to say that we’re all in agreement that there is not room for anyone else in the Democratic primary aside from Biden — unless, of course, he doesn’t run?
alex: The fact that no one easily comes to mind tells me … yes.
sarah: OK, time to talk about the Republican side of things. Is there room for any one else other than Trump?
geoffrey.skelley: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan all seem to be lining up to run.
But, of those, DeSantis is the only one who (currently) seems capable of defeating Trump should the former president indeed run. In fact, if Pence, Haley, Pompeo and Hogan were all to run, that would arguably be good for Trump. After all, we saw in 2016 that the Republican primaries’ use of winner-take-all or winner-take-most delegate systems helped Trump pretty handily win the nomination with only a plurality of the primary vote. So if you get a number of candidates splitting up the vote not going for Trump, it’s just going to make it easier for him to win.
kaleigh: The Republican ticket is a little more interesting. You’re not challenging a sitting president, and there certainly seems to be at least some hesitancy over Trump and the idea that he has too much baggage and might not be able to win in a general election … again.
A New York Times/Siena College poll from last month found, for instance, that almost half of Americans who planned to vote in the 2024 Republican primary would choose a candidate other than Trump in a primary race.
sarah: Yesssss, Kaleigh. I’m glad you brought up that poll, because I thought that was an interesting way to frame the results, as one could also argue from that poll that Trump is still the undisputed leader. He was first, with 49 percent support, and DeSantis was in second, at 25 percent. No other candidate broke the double digits.
nrakich: There is definitely more room for a challenger to Trump than to Biden, but Trump would still be favored. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 56 percent of Republican and independent registered voters said they would support Trump, while 18 percent said they would support DeSantis, 8 percent said they would support Pence and a bunch of other candidates all got 2 percent or less. Even if you look at head-to-head matchups between Trump and DeSantis, Trump wins, albeit by a narrower margin. According to that YouGov/Yahoo News poll I mentioned earlier, Trump beats DeSantis 44 percent to 35 percent among registered voters in a direct matchup.
kaleigh: Absolutely, but this point (from the Times reporting on the poll) was an interesting comparison to me: “His share of the Republican primary electorate is less than Hillary Clinton’s among Democrats was at the outset of the 2016 race.” Of course, Clinton ultimately won that race, but it wasn’t a guarantee — Sanders gave her a real run for her money.
nrakich: Eh, Kaleigh, you can cherry-pick one historical example to make basically whatever point you want to make. The Times could have also compared Trump to Gore’s position in 1999. He, of course, went on to win the primary without much trouble.
That said, DeSantis is clearly a legitimate threat to Trump; a 9-point lead in the polls is not secure. That’s especially true since Trump has universal name recognition, while DeSantis doesn’t. That implies he has more room to grow.
alex: I know we had a chat back in the day about whether Trump’s grip on the GOP is still strong. At the time, I said that Trump may be weaker than some would like to admit, but after Tuesday night’s results — most notably Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s primary loss coupled with the fates of the nine other Republicans who voted to impeach the former president — I actually think it’ll be really hard for another Republican to cut through his power.
Sure, Trump hasn’t won every race he’s got involved in (think Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp or Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who will each advance to the general election), but he still has a pretty good track record overall of endorsing candidates that win. Moreover, I just don’t see an obvious heir apparent to the GOP, either.
kaleigh: What you all are saying is fair, but do you all not see any evidence of Republicans getting nervous about Trump as a candidate?
sarah: The reality is that it’s just very hard to answer this question definitively. I do think we’ve seen some cracks in Trump’s influence, as we debated earlier this year. Polls like the one from The New York Times you cited earlier, Kaleigh, also clearly show that Trump isn’t entirely unopposed. There are more subtle things happening behind the scenes, too, like Fox News and the Murdoch conservative empire reportedly distancing themselves from Trump.
It’s still too early to place any stock in these general-election polls, but we’re not too far away from the point when early primary polls will be useful, and what we’ve seen in our analysis of 40-plus years of early primary polls is that it’s really hard for people who aren’t household names to break through.
We knew early on, for instance, that Biden was the front-runner. So the question for me now is whether anyone on the Republican side can clear Trump’s name recognition, and I don’t know the answer to that … yet.
kaleigh: I think there’s at least some evidence Republicans are worried about Trump’s candidacy. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from July found that about a third of Republicans said Trump should not run again, and that’s an increase from six weeks earlier, when they asked the same question and just 26 percent of Republicans said Trump shouldn’t run. That said, a majority of Republicans disagreed with the idea that Trump should not run.
All I’m saying, though, is there may be a little more room for a challenger on the GOP side than on the Democratic side if the presumptive candidate runs again. I wonder, too, whether Trump’s protracted legal troubles will affect the share of Republicans who don’t want him to run. Maybe. Maybe not. At any rate, Republicans will likely still face an uphill battle in overcoming Trump.
geoffrey.skelley: For me, it comes down to whether Trump still has a favorability rating north of 80 percent among Republicans. Because polls at this point are still largely telling us that Republicans would vote for Trump if he ran again.
Admittedly, Republicans don’t yet know the alternatives that will be available to them. But considering around two-thirds of Republicans don’t believe Trump lost in the first place, it’s not hard to imagine a lot of them still backing him once we get into the presidential primary season.
sarah: It’s still very early, though! Someone like DeSantis, for instance, has to win his governor’s race first before he can go all in on 2024.
kaleigh: I’m not sure his supporters would see it that way, Sarah. To them, it might just be starting the party early.
sarah: Fair. OK, where do folks stand on this question of whether there’s room for someone other than Trump in the GOP? I think there might be more disagreement?
nrakich: It’s pretty clear that there is some room for a Trump challenger. The question is just whether there’s enough, and if so, whether the opposition will be too divided to take advantage of it.
kaleigh: I think there is space for a challenger in the GOP, but that challenger will still have a real hard time overcoming Trump’s popularity, and if there’s more than one challenger splitting the few non-Trump votes, it will be a snowball’s-chance-in-hell scenario.
geoffrey.skelley: I haven’t had a chance to dig into old primary polling data yet regarding this question, but DeSantis’s situation strikes me as interesting. He’s a first-term governor who was only a three-term House member before that, yet he’s already polling pretty well in national polls of GOP presidential primary voters. That’s unusual! And I do think it means that he has a pretty high ceiling of potential support even against Trump, and that he maybe could best Trump in a largely head-to-head matchup. But as we’ve all noted at this point, the more candidates, the better it probably is for Trump.
alex: Hmm, I don’t know. I just don’t think there’s an obvious GOP heir to Trump. I know other names have been mentioned, but they just don’t have the same power over voters that Trump currently has.