Why we shouldn’t expect a Biden primary challenge or voluntary drop-out

President Biden hands Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) a pen
Bonnie Cash/UPI Photo
President Biden hands Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) the pen he used to sign the Inflation Reduction Act during a ceremony at the White House on Aug. 16.

Even with his recent string of successes, Democratic candidates and commentators are piling on the idea that the low polling numbers and concerns about his age will lead to President Joe Biden either not running for reelection or facing a serious primary challenge. This may seem unusual, but discussion of a candidate bowing out or facing a primary is par for the course for any sitting president.

But anyone counting on a primary challenge or a voluntary single term will likely be sorely disappointed. Presidential primary challenges are a constant source of discussion but rarely materialize. And, perhaps surprisingly, in recent years the Democratic Party has been remarkably unified at shooting down primary challengers for other high-ranking positions.

Calls for a primary challenge or a voluntary one-term usually occur right when a party is suffering a downturn in the polls and the economy, especially if they are facing a daunting midterm fight. Even the most popular recent presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, heard calls that they would face serious challenges or, in the case of Reagan, step aside for a better, more vigorous, contender. Obviously, these were all ignored by the presidents, who went to score resounding victories two years later.

But warding off these primary challenges is key to a reelection run. Presidents have a great track record of winning reelection, but that radically changes if they face an intra-party contest. Starting with the first contested primary in 1912, when President William Howard Taft beat back former President Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgent primary run, all presidents who have had to beat back a perceived real fight have either retired or lost. We saw this with Harry Truman, who was embarrassed by Sen. Estes Kefauver’s strong showing in New Hampshire in 1952; Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.

It is worth considering that it has been 30 years since any notable primary contest has taken place, as both parties and any primary challenger should be aware of this track record and the fact that among challengers, only one (Ronald Reagan in 1976, who barely lost his nomination challenge to the unelected Gerald Ford) went on to later success. All the other challengers never received their party’s nomination for the presidency.

For Democrats, who have a reputation as a divided party, the painful losses in 1968 and 1980 may have proven a strong object lesson. Not only has the party avoided any presidential primary fights, they have also been remarkably successful in backing incumbents in Senate and Governor contests. In the 21st Century, only one incumbent Senator lost a primary, and that one, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter in 2010, was a long-time Republican who flipped parties the year before. It was the first time Specter ever tried to run as a Democrat. For Governor, only Hawaii’s Neil Abercrombie in 2014 lost a primary.

Due to his age, there are many who are looking to see Biden voluntarily step aside. This is a real question, especially if Biden faces a serious health setback. But despite the polls, voters are becoming increasingly comfortable with older presidents. While Biden is the oldest president, the second- (Trump), third- (Reagan) and sixth-oldest (George H.W. Bush) on the list of oldest presidents at their election all served in the last 40 years. More to the point, the expectation that Biden will remove himself seems to ignore presidential behavior. Biden had been actively pursuing the presidency for over 35 years. It beggars belief that some poor polling numbers are going to put an early end to his long goal of serving as president.

Right before a midterm, there is always a fever pitch for a new face in the next election. Biden is no exception. His advanced age gives the discussion a new wrinkle and also allows for calls for him to step aside for other reasons. But observers should not be fooled. Both political parties are well aware of the devastating repercussions of a primary contest. No matter what candidates are saying now, every step will be taken to avoid it.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and a senior research fellow at the Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center. He also writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags 2024 presidential candidates 2024 presidential election 2024 presidential race Biden primary challenger biden reelection Biden retirement Democratic Party Harry Truman Joe Biden one term Ronald Reagan William Howard Taft

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