Top Democrats see Republicans’ unenthusiastic greeting of Donald Trump’s third White House bid with a combination of schadenfreude and perhaps some other German word for terrifying, unintended consequences: They love seeing the former president struggle, but privately some tell CNN they worry this could lead to a more difficult 2024 campaign against a younger, fresher Republican.
President Joe Biden heads into Thanksgiving for the first of several stretches with family members whose advice he’ll seek on whether to launch another campaign. He has privately and publicly signaled that he sees Democrats’ better-than-expected midterm results as an endorsement of him running for a second term – and he’s reveling in how many in his party seem to be agreeing with him.
Biden and his aides believe that even with a potential recession looming next year, his reelection argument will grow stronger. They say voters will start to feel the benefits from the implementation of laws the president has signed over the past two years. They think House Republicans flexing their narrow hold on power through government shutdowns and debt ceiling showdowns to try to force repeals of those same laws will help them even more.
According to CNN’s conversations with 24 Democratic elected officials, top operatives and Biden aides, the past two weeks have left them more confident that Biden would be their best bet to beat Trump in 2024. Some say they miscalculated how much appeal Biden continues to hold. Others now realize voters see him as a likable enough bulwark against extremism and a decent man, who can be a standard-setting, consensus choice amid historic polarization. Several onetime opponents say they’ve come around to thinking that maybe his approach in not responding with rage to the people raging at him has been more effective with voters.
“What he did translated more with voters than favorability ratings, and that’s important for Democrats to remember as we go forward,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, adding that after talking to Biden on the election night call he received as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, he’d be “surprised” if the president doesn’t run again.
When asked, though, how they’d feel about Biden’s chances against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or other Republicans who could make a generational argument without the baggage Trump brings, many Democrats’ voices tend to tighten. “Not great,” said one top operative. “Uneasy,” said two others, in separate conversations.
Others point out that nearly all of Democrats’ key midterm victories were narrowly won, leaving them worried about how little room for error there likely will be next time.
Four Democratic members of Congress, asking not to be named to speak candidly, estimated that at least half of their colleagues would pick someone other than Biden as their 2024 nominee – if they could vote by secret ballot.
All four also said that if there were a second question about whom they’d want instead, the votes would be all over the place – with several noting that one of the strongest arguments for Biden running is that it would help Democrats avoid a chaotic primary and give their bench time to gain more experience before the 2028 election.
Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, the first Democrat in Congress to call for Biden not to run, said that regardless of his respect for the president, the midterm results or where Biden’s popularity lands, the party needs to “create pathways for new generations of leaders.”
“There’s a pragmatic element of this too. I believe the country will be in a place where they’ll be looking for a new generation as well,” said Phillips, whom several colleagues note has become the person voicing feelings others are keeping private.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, one of the few Democrats running in 2022 who appeared at an event with the president and scored an unexpectedly big reelection win in the onetime swing state, had long talked about how the best argument for another Biden campaign was that he could beat Trump again.
Asked after Trump’s announcement if he’d be as confident in Biden against another Republican, Bennet dodged.
“I just think that’s too contingent a question to answer,” the senator said.
A few weeks ago, when many expected significant House losses for the party, Phillips was one of multiple Democrats predicting that the election aftermath would include more and louder calls for Biden to step aside. Phillips acknowledged last week that those calls haven’t come but attributed that more to the “culture of deference” in Congress than to renewed support for Biden.
“It’s a little bit like when Trump was president, and none of the Republicans would say what they really thought on the record,” said one Democratic strategist.
Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster also expressed doubts about Biden running for reelection as she campaigned in New Hampshire. Back in Washington after winning a sixth term by a wider-than-anticipated margin, she said she’s still not convinced.
“I’m still in a wait-and-see, and I think a lot of people are,” Kuster said, noting that she has “been a Biden fan since she I was pregnant with my son, who was just sworn into the New York Bar.”
Asked how she’d feel about Biden going up against a Republican who was younger and fresher than Trump, Kuster initially responded with a long “Hmmmmm.” She said she’s less concerned about that because she believes if Biden does run, that will drive Republicans to Trump, while if Biden doesn’t, that will drive them away from Trump.
“It is an easy thing for people to underestimate Joe Biden – and they’ve been doing it and being wrong for a couple of election cycles now,” said one Biden adviser. As for those who still have doubts, “there are some Democrats who aren’t happy unless they can be anxious about something,” the adviser added.
Incoming members of Congress who won their seats this year are among the most openly enthusiastic about a Biden reelection campaign.
“I think he’s the guy who can beat anybody,” said California Rep.-elect Robert Garcia, who’s close with both the West Wing and Vice President Kamala Harris. “Presidents get reelected if they’re successful and if the American people want them back, and to me there is nothing in the president’s first two years that points to that he shouldn’t run again.”
Maxwell Frost, the 25-year-old Florida Democrat who is the first member of Generation Z (those born after 1996) elected to Congress, said he was supporting Biden too, minutes after borrowing a tie to make his first visit to the House floor to watch 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announce she’d be stepping down from leadership.
“He’s been unafraid to put forth bold, transformational ideas and policies, and that’s really what excites young voters,” Frost said, citing the infrastructure deal and the health care, tax and climate package dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act. Asked whether he was concerned about a potential generational contrast with Biden if the Republicans back someone other than Trump, Frost said, “I’d say good luck with whoever they put up.”
“It doesn’t matter” who the Republican nominee is, argued Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, fresh off his own reelection in a swing state that Biden won narrowly in 2020. “The Biden-Harris administration will carry Nevada and will carry the country again.”
After a strategy of not even saying Trump’s name at all in his first year and then pounding on Trump by name throughout the midterm campaigning, the president is expected to revert to talking about his predecessor “sparingly,” an adviser said. What Biden and aides will do, though – like with the new section of the White House website touting administration achievements, which was launched last week a few hours before Trump’s presidential announcement – is emphasize their record in contrast with Trump’s rhetoric.
A Trump rematch might be easier, several Democratic operatives involved with the preliminary thinking said, because they’d know how to go about it. They hope that one lesson of the midterms is Democrats’ ability to make voters see many leading Republicans as extreme and tainted by Trump.
As they wait on a Biden decision that they expect to drag into at least January, and with members of the president’s own Cabinet divided on whether he’ll go through with a launch, aides are planning to head into next year with events and travel to showcase now-tangible achievements.
“There’ll be a bridge built that wasn’t built this year, more of the impact of prescription drug benefits will be felt,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, an early and consistent Biden supporter.
Early planning is also underway for a string of state dinners, starting with one scheduled for December 1 to honor French President Emmanuel Macron, both to highlight what the White House says is Biden’s reasserting of American global leadership and to demonstrate another notch toward a post-pandemic normal.
Meanwhile, aides are also gearing up for two years of trying to frame every move by the new House Republican majority as extremist overreach, including undermining the legitimacy of any investigations in the eyes of the media and the public. They’re counting on House Republicans who face tough reelections in 2024 to themselves back away from some of the biggest threats, such as impeaching the president. And as personally painful as any Republican inquiries of Biden’s son Hunter will be for the president, aides believe that the politics will boomerang in their favor by making Republicans look like they’re chasing conspiracy theories down rabbit holes rather than governing and by making Biden seem empathetic in a way that has consistently been his greatest strength.
“The last two Democratic presidents lost the House – by far more than Biden did – and in both cases, that provided a powerful reelection foil,” said a person familiar with White House thinking. “We are dealing with a much more extreme Republican Party than they were. … But Biden does not provoke the Republican base in the way that other national Democrats have.”
Republican attempts to make Biden an anchor to Democratic midterm candidates by saying his name and flashing his image in ads about inflation, border control or gas prices don’t seem to have been decisive for independents and swing voters. Biden’s greatest weakness has repeatedly proved his greatest strength, several Democratic strategists said: People don’t feel strongly about him. There are few T-shirts with his face on them or flags with his name on them, but he also doesn’t inspire passionate hate. As Republican operatives tend to admit, voters’ sense of him is so well established that it’s hard to make anything stick to him.
What does stick, in focus group after focus group: his age – he turned 80 on Sunday – and the sense that he’s not up to the job. One place where that caused problems: Pennsylvania, where Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman was seen as independent from Biden – until the aftermath of his stroke. Then, focus groups noted, voters began to draw connections between the two men related to their physical fitness for office. (Fetterman, however, was able to overcome enough of those perceptions to help his party flip an open seat.)
Biden “has his work cut out for him in terms of having folks believe he can command this job for four more years,” said one person familiar with the focus group findings.
Some Democratic politicians and operatives shudder imagining a younger Republican nominee campaigning around the country at multiple stops a day, bounding onstage and reinforcing the skepticism that’s already in voters’ minds. These Democrats say their solace is fantasizing about Trump failing to snag the GOP nomination and then sabotaging the Republican nominee’s campaign, out of spite.
Biden’s inner circle has seen the focus group data and has heard the same complaints. They’ve also seen how those concerns faded over the summer, as Biden signed more bills. That mattered for other Democrats too, with Rep. Dan Kildee, who just won a tight reelection race in Michigan, saying that people connecting with those legislative successes “got me over the finish line.”
Kildee said he believed Biden would be strong against Trump in Michigan, which Trump won by less than half a point in 2016 but Biden carried by 3 points in 2020. As for how he’d fare against another Republican, “there’s too many chess moves between now and then to figure that out yet,” Kildee said.
After how unpredictable the factors shaping the 2020 and 2022 elections were, Biden’s circle doesn’t see a point in trying to guess exactly what he’d be campaigning on by the end of 2024. But the Biden adviser touted the president’s “wisdom and experience,” saying that had “allowed him to achieve an extraordinary legislative record and extraordinary record of global leadership in the first two years of his term.”
“I don’t see anybody else that’s stronger. With all the things he’s doing, I don’t care how old he is,” said Eileen Reyes, a former Pete Buttigieg supporter from Luzerne, Pennsylvania, speaking ahead of Biden’s joint rally with Barack Obama in Philadelphia the Saturday night before the election.
Stephanie Schlatter, a lawyer in Washington who wore her old Biden-Harris white T-shirt to the celebratory speech Biden delivered at a Washington theater two days after the midterms, agreed.
“My parents are older than he is, and they’re still whooping it up,” she said. “People are starting to come back from the nastiness, and they’re starting to see results.”