Prediction: Sorry Democrats, Biden Isn’t Going Anywhere

July 8, 2024   |   Tags:
Joe and Jill Biden walking outside | Photo: Samuel Corum/CNP/Polaris/Newscom

President Joe Biden sent a defiant letter to congressional Democrats on Monday morning stating unequivocally: "I am firmly committed to staying in this race." This followed his Friday interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, in which he said it would take a literal act of God to force him off the 2024 Democratic presidential ticket.

"If the Lord Almighty came down and said, 'Joe, get out of the race,' I'd get out of the race," said Biden. "The Lord Almighty's not coming down."

That interview failed to reassure many Democrats that Biden has the stamina to defeat Donald Trump in November, or even that he is cognitively fit to serve as president for another term. But make no mistake: He has every intention of continuing his campaign. Moreover, it is extraordinarily unlikely that he will be forced off the ticket, and pundits who expect Biden to ultimately bow out are glossing over some hard truths about power and politics—namely, that Biden wants to be president again.

At the moment, the prevailing wisdom in Washington, D.C., is that Biden's immediate fate is uncertain at best. A previously neutral-to-supportive political media has turned on him completely, in part due to a toxic combination of betrayal—reporters feel duped by the White House about the extent of his impairments—and despair over his dwindling reelection odds; countless mainstream news organizations are now calling for him to drop out. Some congressional Democrats have endorsed these calls, and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are currently meeting to discuss Biden's future. Major donors want him gone. Hollywood is out.

These defections have impacted the betting markets. On PredictIt, Biden went from having about an 80 percent chance of being the nominee on July 1 to just 40 percent a week later. Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made the case that not only should Biden drop out, he is likely to do so eventually.

"I think Biden will bow out, his current protestations notwithstanding," writes Douthat.

The columnist does make note of the major counterexample: Donald Trump, who himself faced open revolt against his candidacy in 2016 following the Access Hollywood tape. Leading Republicans, including the two most recent Republican presidential nominees at the time—Mitt Romney and John McCain—called on Trump to quit the race, but Trump defied them all. He remained the nominee and even won the presidency for good measure.

Then, in 2020, the Republican National Convention held competitive primaries and scheduled debates with alternative candidates. (Trump did not attend.) Conservative media christened Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as Trump's successor. Leaders of the party did everything in their power to move on from Trump. None of this worked. Trump's conviction that he should seek the presidency again is a more powerful motivator for Trump than the party's conviction that he should go away quietly.

Douthat acknowledges this dynamic but writes that things are sufficiently different on the Democratic side. Unlike Trump, Democratic political figures actually care what their thought leaders think about them, argues Douthat. Furthermore, "Democrats still appear more capable of functioning and deciding as a party than the Republicans." Republican elites are at the mercy of Trump and his throng of supporters, whereas Democratic elites are dealing with a much more obedient, quiescent base.

These are all compelling points. The problem is that they don't matter very much.

In order for the Democratic National Convention to nominate someone else when it meets in August, Biden would have to be persuaded to willingly step aside: He already won the delegates, they are bound by "good conscience" to vote for him, and delegates have shown little indication they would do otherwise unless he assented. Biden is the leader of the Democratic Party; there is no higher authority that can remove him from the ticket (other than the Almighty).

This means that Democrats who want to nominate a different candidate must convince Biden to go. That's going to be a tough sell, because Biden wants to be president again. (If he didn't want to serve a second term, he wouldn't have run for one.)

No one should be surprised by this. It may seem very basic, but political figures—particularly at the highest levels of influence—generally seek to retain power. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) recently died in office, and she's hardly the first senator to do so. Ruth Bader Ginsburg cost Democrats a pivotal Supreme Court seat by refusing to retire. In 2022, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa.) ran for reelection; he's currently 90 years old.

Trump has been willing to risk nearly everything—including his freedom—in order to retain control over the GOP and regain the presidency. Polls showing that other Republicans had an even greater chance of beating Biden in 2024 made little difference to Trump; Trump wants Trump to be the president, not just any Republican.

Perhaps Biden is not so self-centered and would—at some point—put the good of the party over his own ambitions. It's at least possible that if Biden were convinced he had no shot at beating Trump, and some charismatic Democratic rival had a good chance at beating Trump, he would step aside. These conditions have not been met; they are not anywhere close to being met.

According to recent polls, Biden is likely to lose to Trump. But his only plausible replacement—Vice President Kamala Harris—fares only slightly better. A CNN poll has Biden six points behind Trump and Harris two points behind Trump.

To be clear, this could be a meaningful difference if you're the Democratic Party and your only goal is to maximize your odds of beating Trump. It would be wild and potentially destabilizing to swap the candidates at this point, and historically Harris has been viewed less favorably than Biden—but it's certainly possible to construct an argument that the Democratic Party should take the gamble.

Biden is not the Democratic Party, however. If he drops out, he reduces his own odds of being the president again to approximately zero. No one can explain why Biden—from the Biden perspective—should do this.

Democrats need to persuade their president that his shaky debate performance has made his reelection so improbable that he doesn't lose much by bowing out now. They also need to make the case that Harris is so much more appealing to the electorate that Biden's continued presence in the race is blowing an actually winnable election for her. Again, that's a tough sell—particularly when the people controlling access to Biden are Jill Biden and Hunter Biden, whose judgment in this matter might be far from objective.

It's possible, of course, that Democrats overcome these significant hurdles and convince Biden to exit. There's also a possibility that Biden could have a more serious health emergency that does necessitate him dropping out. Barring that scenario, I am comfortable predicting that Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president in November. You can bet on it.

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