Why aren’t the Democrats running against Joe Biden in 2024? The trouble with ‘intra-party’ challenges to a sitting president

president Joe Biden smiling in front of microphone
Biden announced his reelection campaign on April 25. His approval rating was 40% the previous month. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, leading to fears that he’s too old to keep such a demanding job. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

With more Americans expressing their disapproval of President Joe Biden in recent months, according to the latest polling analysis, why aren’t mainstream Democrats lining up to challenge him?

It’s a question that appears to be on the minds of many observers and pundits—and voters, too—amid polling that shows most Americans don’t want Biden to run again. Biden’s low favorability, coupled with his advanced age—another point of concern for many—might have been enough to make the case for an “intra-party” presidential challenge.

Headshot of  Costas Panagopoulos
Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department and editor of American Politics Research. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

While there are fringe candidates who have launched presidential bids, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, it appears the Democratic mainstream are committed to a second Biden presidency—an indication that they might be looking to “play it safe” and maximize their chance of defeating a resurgent Donald Trump, who remains a popular pick among conservative voters, says Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department.

“It’s very risky for a party to challenge its own leader,” Panagopoulos says. “It has the potential to do lots of damage, especially when it’s an intra-party challenge to an incumbent president, who should presumably carry the banner forward for the party.”

Indeed, history has shown that intra-party challenges to an incumbent president often lead to messy outcomes for the party in question. Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980 did lasting damage to the Democratic Party that culminated in Carter’s landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan. On the Republican side, intra-party challenges to Gerald Ford in 1976 (Reagan), and to George H. W. Bush in 1992 (Pat Buchanan), resulted in similar outcomes.

The lessons that emerged from those historical examples may well serve the Democrats in the present moment—that even amid low favorability, challenges from within an incumbent president’s own party are fool’s errands, Panagopoulos says.

“In each of those instances, the consensus is that [those intra-party challenges] may have hurt the incumbent[s] and played some role in the fact that they were not re-elected,” he says. 

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The lack of Democratic challengers in 2024 and the resurgence of Trump may also signal “a real leadership vacuum in both parties” for future leaders, Panagopoulos says. In which case, “there could be a real opportunity for some ambitious politicians, who want to raise their national visibility, to start to attract some attention” by launching presidential bids. Even if said contenders fall short in 2024, the newfound popularity could “set themselves up to be at the head of the pack” in a future race. Ron DeSantis’ expected presidential bid might typify this line of thinking.

But, for aspiring Democrats, such a move risks party fracture on the order of Kennedy-Carter, Panagopoulos says. “Of course, for the Dems it would come with the very significant risk of trying to topple a sitting president,” he says. 

Moreover, Panagopoulos says that measures of presidential popularity should be tempered by the culture of polarization at present, which runs deeper than any one person—“any one president.”

“The degree to which [intra-party challenge] is a liability may be changing in an era of polarized politics, where we shouldn’t reasonably expect one’s popularity to go much higher than” Biden’s is at present, Panagopoulos says.

“There are also examples of [presidents] doing quite well with low favorability ratings overall, because their intra-party popularity is so high,” he continues, citing Trump and George W. Bush—who also “had limited favorability” prior to an upswing in popularity following 9/11—as examples.  

But Biden’s age has become a real sticking point for many voters (the president would be 86 by the end of a second term). The question of “how old is too old,” fraught though it may be, applies to other prominent Democrats with presidential resumes, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, whose previous bids for high office during 2016 and 2020 earned him considerable support among the more liberal side of the base. Concerns about Trump’s advanced age—as well as the ages of several senior U.S. lawmakers—continue to echo as well.

There’s still plenty of time for Biden, whose campaign for re-election is already underway, to reverse course, should the polling suggest that it would be better for another Democrat to take the reins, Panagopoulos says. It also depends, he says, on who emerges at the top of the Republican ticket. 

Ultimately, Panagopoulos says, those decisions will come down to several “fundamental factors.”  

“A lot … still hinges on the economy and what the economy will look like next spring and summer, as well as Biden’s favorability,” Panagopoulos says. “We’ve got quite a long way to go before those fundamentals are settled in the psyche of the electorate.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on X/Twitter @tstening90.