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Thursday, April 13, 2023

What Are Biden’s 2024 Chances? I Asked These Democratic Campaign Veterans.

What Are Biden’s 2024 Chances? I Asked These Democratic Campaign Veterans.

President Biden, in a blue suit and wearing sunglasses, speaks to reporters holding microphones and cameras.
Kenny Holston/The New York Times

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On Monday, when the “Today” show’s Al Roker asked President Biden about seeking a second term, Biden replied, “I plan on running, Al, but we’re not prepared to announce it yet.”

That answer strikes me as another in a series of soft launches and quasi-commitments meant to manage expectations, but the president and those around him have been signaling that he intends to seek re-election. When it comes, an official declaration will be just a formality, a campaign mechanism to concentrate attention and coverage.

Biden is running now.

And in anticipation of the inevitable, in recent weeks I talked to several political advisers who’ve run campaigns for Democratic presidents to get their assessments of Biden’s advantages and challenges.

The list includes Timothy Kraft, who ran Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign in 1980 until just before the election, and Les Francis, who stepped in to run day-to-day operations in Kraft’s wake. It also includes James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and David Plouffe, who ran Barack Obama’s in 2008.

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I wasn’t interested in predictions, which are mostly worthless this far from Election Day. I wasn’t asking how the race would look at the end, but how it looked at the beginning.

To start, there was general agreement that Biden’s policy record was strong: The economy, a mixed bag with low unemployment and high inflation, may be a net positive for Biden right now, but some said that how voters feel about it nearer the election is what will matter most. As Plouffe said, “People have one life, and they are living it right now.” It’s about how people feel about that life at the moment they vote, regardless of what the data say or the future holds.

Most of these political pros agreed that Biden’s age will be a significant issue to overcome — one reason they’d prefer a rematch with Donald Trump rather than a contest against a younger, first-time Republican presidential candidate who’d be able to draw a more stark generational contrast. It’s unclear how the age issue will play out, but as Kraft put it, the Republicans “are going to do this ‘Sleepy Joe’ thing to the fare-thee-well.”

The other reason Trump is the preferred opponent is that, as Francis observed, “he is damaged goods, and he’s going to be more damaged.” The consensus was that Trump’s legal problems will help him in the primaries but weaken him in the general. The consideration is simple: Among those who voted against Trump-created chaos in 2020, who would vote for Trump in 2024 after he’s sown even more chaos?

Several of the consultants were conscious of, and concerned about, the country’s growing partisan divide and the dwindling pool of swing voters and swing districts — the shrinking number of minds to change and hearts to woo. An untold number of people in the United States “have probably never met anyone from the other party,” Carville said.

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He raised perhaps the most interesting concern, one I wasn’t expecting: “The biggest story in my mind out of 2022 is abysmally low Black turnout.” Specifically, he said, “it’s a problem with younger Black voters.”

In the most recent midterm elections, even in places where Democrats fielded strong Black candidates against flawed Republican opponents, Carville considered Black turnout underwhelming. But he isn’t sure what’s causing this problem, or how to fix it.

I talked to Terrance Woodbury, a founding partner at the consultancy HIT Strategies, which researches Black voter sentiment. A January survey found that three-quarters of Black voters don’t believe their lives have improved since Biden became president, despite his administration’s “initiating or completing” a majority of the Black agenda, Woodbury said.

Woodbury underscored what can only be described as a glaring communications failure, particularly when it comes to young people. As he said, “It’s not that we haven’t made progress,” it’s that younger Black voters “don’t know about the progress.”

Now, people can chafe at Woodbury’s characterization and criticize voters for not staying abreast of political news‌, but it’s not a winning strategy to place blam‌e on the voters you’re trying to court‌.

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Kraft echoed the concern, and said it went beyond outreach to Black voters: “The D.N.C. chairman should be on those Sunday talk shows or should have more guest columns, op-ed pieces, anything.”

Carville is also worried about Republican weaponization of the term, and idea of, “wokeness.” If being woke “means that people, particularly Black people, should be aware of interactions they have with white power, it’s a totally legitimate word,” he said. “But if it means the triumph of identity over ideology, you lose me, and I think you lose a lot of people.”

He went further in his attempt to insulate Biden from the concept, saying, “The most non-woke person is Joe Biden,” even as he’s “become the greatest president for Black America maybe we ever had.”

I think that’s a stretch, and his framing could do more harm than good in trying to attract young Black voters, but it could work in attracting another demographic that Democrats are worried about: the non-college-educated. In fact, one of Carville’s central complaints about wokeness is his belief that it was appropriated by white intellectuals.

This all bleeds into an issue Plouffe calls “the biggest question in American politics today”: whether Republicans continue to make gains with non-college-educated voters of color in an era in which the “education fault lines are much more severe than they were in 2008 or 2012,” with Democrats attracting more college graduates and Republicans strengthening their position among those who didn’t graduate.

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My takeaway from these conversations was that, at least at the beginning of his campaign, Biden has obvious advantages but also faces significant obstacles. Often, late in campaigns, Democratic candidates try to use fear of the opponent as voter motivation. But that can backfire.

As Woodbury told me, his firm saw a significant erosion in turnout and Democratic support in 2022 among Black men because they “do not respond to messages of fear and loss.” Instead, he said, “they need a message of what they have gained, not what they will gain.” They respond to a message of being empowered rather than being endangered.

This messaging, which should already have been a more central part of Democrats’ overall pitch, has to start now.“

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