9 min read

The Biden doomsday scenario

Or, the dangers of having soft support within your party.
The Biden doomsday scenario
(Kennedy campaign)

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The Biden doomsday scenario

When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. launched his long-shot bid for the presidency last week, I — like a lot of people — mostly ignored it.

Sure, Kennedy might have a famous last name, but he’s most recently distinguished himself (or not) by promoting zany anti-vax theories and suggesting vaccine mandates were worse than the Holocaust. His announcement speech was kind of a joke: it lasted almost two hours and got interrupted by a fire alarm. If Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson support your campaign, you probably shouldn’t be rushing to write your Democratic convention acceptance speech anytime soon.

I wrote a tweet joking about his wife starring in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (she’s Cheryl, in case you didn’t know), and moved on.


That is, until I stumbled upon the following line in Dave Weigel’s campaign newsletter “Americana”:

“Party operatives I talked to this week considered Kennedy a non-factor, and assumed that most support for his challenge — 14%, in a poll released the day he announced — was down to name recognition, from Democrats who missed the Kennedys but hadn’t followed this one too closely.”

Wait, 14%?

Is that a typo for 4%? Nope! A Suffolk/USA Today poll released last Wednesday found 14% of Biden’s 2020 voters support Kennedy for the 2024 Democratic nomination. 67% back Biden; 5% support Marianne Williamson; the remaining 13% are undecided.

A simple outlier, maybe? Well, we don’t yet have enough polling to know for sure, but the only other survey to test a Biden-Kennedy-Williamson race so far also found RFK Jr. rating double-digit support. (Morning Consult, April 13: Biden 70%, Kennedy 10%, Williamson 4% — basically the same results.)

Wiegel’s newsletter continued:

“ ‘Is Biden going to be advised to just ignore him?’ asked David Paleologos, the director of the Suffolk poll that found one in seven of the president’s 2020 supporters now considering Kennedy. ‘That’s possible, but what if Kennedy gets 30% in an early state?’ ”

What if, indeed.

It sounds crazy — and let’s be clear from the start, I’m by no means saying Kennedy has a shot at winning the Democratic nomination — but let’s game this out and take the thought experiment one step further.

Time for some game theory

The initial question we must ask: why is Kennedy polling at 14% in the first place? What does that tell us about the Democratic mood heading into 2024?

There are two factors that I believe explain Kennedy’s surprising support. (No, neither of them are a sudden surge of Democrats rejecting vaccines and embracing Steve Bannon.)

The first is the one Weigel mentioned: his recognizable name, which historically (except in 2018!) has been a helpful one to have in a Democratic primary.

But I think there’s something bigger at play: Kennedy’s support shows that Democrats are not thrilled about having Biden as their nominee again, so much so that at least 14% of them — one in seven, not a small number! — are ready to throw in with the first familiar-ish name a pollster offers them.

We know this from other surveys. Just this weekend, for example, an NBC poll found that 51% of Democrats don’t want Biden to run for a second term. According to the Washington Post, an average of recent polls show that only 38% of Democrats want Biden to be renominated; for context, 73% and 75% of their parties said the same about Donald Trump and Barack Obama, respectively, during their first terms.

In other words: the moment seems ripe for a Biden alternative. But none of the 285 Democratic governors, senators, or House members seem willing to do it, so the task falls instead to the likes of Bobby Kennedy Jr.

But, as Paleologos asks, what if the aforementioned combination — the familiar name, the extreme Biden angst — is enough for Kennedy to do not terribly in a Democratic primary? I’m not talking abut him winning anywhere, just taking a sizable enough chunk of votes from Biden that it gains attention. And then what if he does it again? And maybe again?

Remember, this is most likely taking place in a political universe where Biden isn’t talking about Kennedy at all. There won’t be debates or even, I’m assuming, Biden TV ads reminding voters of Kennedy’s anti-vax positions. That would be, in any scenario except the one I’m painting, a huge waste of money for the incumbent president. (If he does start mentioning Kennedy on the stump, you’ll know Bidenworld is getting nervous.)

So you just have this anti-Biden sentiment — and a lot of it, to the tune of 51% of the party — floating around in the Democratic ether, without Biden really punching back, while a legendary name lingers on the ballot against him. That could be good enough for a not-insignificant Kennedy showing in an early state or two, just as a protest vote, using RFK Jr. as the deeply flawed vehicle. (Think prison inmate Keith Judd winning 40% in the West Virginia primary against Obama in 2012, just because he also happened to be on the ballot. And then remember Biden is much less popular among Democrats than Obama.)

If history is any guide, what might happen next is an actual Democrat could get in the race. And then maybe another, and another after that. And suddenly Joe Biden would have a real race on his hands, all because RFK Jr. got 30% in an early state and exposed how soft his Democratic support is. That’s the Biden doomsday scenario.

Miles and inches

None of this is particularly likely — partially because filing deadlines make it difficult to join a presidential race late, so all this would probably have to be sparked by anti-Biden momentum in the polls, not just once voting starts.

Still, I think it’s an exercise worth thinking about because it brings up a glaring problem for Biden that isn’t receiving a lot of mention in the media: most Democrats don’t actually want the guy they’re about to anoint as their nominee. A New York Times headline this morning announces that “Democrats Learned to Cast Aside Reservations and Embrace Biden 2024”... except they haven’t really, Democratic leaders have done that and voters have no choice but to follow.

But all it would take — maybe right after Iowa, maybe right before — is for one ambitious Democrat to notice this (AOC? Buttigieg? Whitmer? Newsom?) and give Biden a run for his money. The president has deep institutional advantages and would likely still be the frontrunner — but he also has vulnerabilities that could create a real contest, including his advanced age and proclivity for pissing off progressives.

After all, according to that NBC poll, 64% of Sanders/Warren 2020 voters don’t want Biden to run again, nor do 76% of Democrats under 35. Just like the voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Biden’s presidency but will vote for him anyways, we see here that Biden’s Democratic support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It could still be high enough to win the nomination, but it’s also low enough that he’d likely face a contentious primary if someone real were to run — and that he should perhaps be worried about the strength of his Democratic support in the general, especially if his opponent is not named Donald Trump.

Like father, like son

If this all sounds a little far-fetched, I should note that there exists a fairly analogous historical precedent for this scenario. As it happens, it actually involves Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s father — the first RFK — as a main character.

The year was 1968, and Lyndon B. Johnson was bogged down by Vietnam and deep racial divisions in the country. His approval rating was hovering around 40%, same as Joe Biden’s. He was still expected to win his party’s nomination.

But then anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy jumped in the Democratic race, more to test anti-Johnson sentiment than with any hopes of toppling the president. “There comes a time when an honorable man simply has to raise the flag,” he declared.

In March, McCarthy shocked the political world by winning 42% in the New Hampshire primary, coming in just behind Johnson’s 49%. According to post-primary polling, McCarthy’s high showing was more driven by voters opposing Johnson than supporting McCarthy.

That sign of weakness was all it took to push a heavyweight, Bobby Kennedy, into the race; RFK announced his bid for the nomination four days after New Hampshire.

Suddenly faced with a more prominent primary challenge, and seeing the writing on the wall, Johnson surprised the country two weeks later by announcing he would not run for re-election. A surprisingly strong showing from a rival, even one not destined to go the distance themselves, succeeded in pushing the president out of the race.

Lucky streak

If anything like this scenario were to play out in 2024, the most likely place for it to start would again be New Hampshire, where Biden has wounded the political establishment by threatening its prized spot on the presidential primary calendar. Biden has never done well in New Hampshire (he came in fifth place in 2020); Williamson and Kennedy are targeting the state for that reason.

Suddenly, Biden ending New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status (which is still not a sure thing) could become more important than it seemed at first glance for an incumbent president. Even though the move will likely hurt Biden’s standing in the state, the president needs any poor showings to take place as late as possible in the calendar, after the window has closed for a challenger to jump in.

Especially if the calendar is of his own making, Biden will probably avoid all this and escape the primary largely unscathed. There’s a reason Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ 2021 biography of Biden was titled “Lucky.” A majority of your party doesn’t want you to run, but the only primary challenges you get are from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson? Lucky. Deeply unpopular across the country, but poised to face the one man less popular than you in the general? Even luckier.  

This thought experiment, then, is mostly a reminder of how lucky Biden is that the Democratic establishment has chosen to coalesce behind him (and that every officeholder has signed on to that consensus), when they could so easily go the other way and cut him loose, answering their voters’ wishes.

Other factors are at play too, including Biden’s skill positioning himself within the party and the widespread agreement that his VP isn’t a viable alternative. But there’s an undeniable lucky streak that runs through Biden’s career, repeatedly finding himself in the right place at the right time, with the right opponents. If they decide to double down behind him, Democrats just better hope that Biden luck doesn’t run out before next November.

White House: Speaking of Biden 2024, the president is expected to launch his re-election bid tomorrow, after months of waiting. Probably. He has a campaign manager and HQ in place, and reportedly already shot a launch video; the only question, as always, is whether Biden is ready to pull the trigger. Biden has famously dithered on every presidential announcement he’s ever made, from 1988 to 2016 to 2020.

  • Happening today: Biden will have lunch with VP Harris, honor the 2023 2023 Teachers of the Year, and meet with the “Tennessee Three,” the trio of Democrats who faced expulsion votes in the state’s legislature.

Congress: The most consequential vote (so far) of the 118th Congress could take place this week, as House Republicans prepare to vote on their debt ceiling plan. But as the clock ticks, it remains unclear whether the bill has the 218 votes needed to pass.

  • Happening today: Both chambers are out until tomorrow.

Supreme Court: The justices temporarily blocked a lower court order restricting availability of the abortion pill mifepristone on Friday, keeping the drug on the market while the case continues working its way through the courts.

Khartoum: “The U.S. military has evacuated U.S. Embassy personnel and their families from Sudan, President Biden announced late Saturday, as the fighting in the capital Khartoum and other cities across the country entered its second week.” — Axios

Kabul: “Less than two years after President Biden withdrew U.S. personnel from Afghanistan, the country has become a significant coordination site for the Islamic State as the terrorist group plans attacks across Europe and Asia, and conducts ‘aspirational plotting’ against the United States, according to a classified Pentagon assessment that portrays the threat as a growing security concern.” — Washington Post

Turtle Bay: “Russia running the U.N. Security Council is going about how you’d expect” — Politico

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