MANCHESTER, NH — President Biden has repeatedly insisted he is running for re-election, but ambitious Democrats are positioning themselves anyway because the 79-year-old incumbent could step down in 2024.
Would-be presidential candidates support candidates before the midterms, raise money for the national party, and make visits to early primary and caucus states. Experts say the scale of the shadow campaign is unprecedented by the standards of recent political history.
The maneuvering takes place both in public and in the media. Stories and commentary have surfaced in recent weeks about potential contenders for 2024, including speculation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is poised to step in and lead the Democratic Party if necessary.
“The circulation of these issues in the press shows that there is distrust and fear within the Democratic Party about Joe Biden’s ability to run again and win,” said Andrew Smith, a pollster and political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum when the press writes about them, it’s because people are talking.”
The scramble is not limited to editorial pages.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is up for re-election this year, published an ad in Florida last week denouncing the state’s Republican chief executive Ron DeSantis.
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“Liberty is under attack in your state,” Mr. Newsom says in the ad, while images of Mr. DeSantis and former President Donald Trump flash across the screen. “Republican leaders, they ban books, make voting difficult, restrict speech in classrooms, and even criminalize women and doctors.”
The ad has spurred talk of Mr Newsom running for office in 2024, despite what his team intended with the TV ad.
Not every aspiring Democrat is so bold. Some, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, support and campaign for House and Senate candidates across the country to bolster their image as national political figures.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker are taking their message directly to voters in early primary and caucus states. Mr. Sanders was recently in Iowa at a meeting with striking auto workers, while Mr. Pritzker was the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s annual convention last month.
Rep. Ro Khanna, another potential 2024 candidate, was in New Hampshire last week. He was officially there to sell a book about dignity in the digital age, but the California Democrat also took time to meet with New Hampshire’s Democratic activists and leaders.
As he laid out his vision for the Democratic Party and the country to a panel of 10 voters at the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, Mr. Khanna sounded like a candidate.
“I fundamentally believe that if we create economic opportunity in this country, if we focus most on the wild places, we can lay the foundation for a strong multiracial, multiethnic democracy. “That’s ultimately what motivates me as a Native American, who [grew up and Pennsylvania and now represents Silicon Valley in Congress] and wants all parts of this country to thrive and be connected.”
Asked if he was running for president, Mr Khanna said it all depended on the year, but was quick to clarify that it was unlikely it would be 2024.
“They don’t run until they run,” said one attendee at the New Hampshire event.
The shadow campaigns are also taking place within Mr. Biden’s inner circle. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, both of whom ran against Mr. Biden in 2020, are considered top contenders.
Mrs. Harris recently chaired a Democratic Party dinner in South Carolina, while Mr. Buttigieg has traveled to early states like Nevada and Iowa to distribute money for infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s approval rating has fallen into the mid-30s, the economy is battered by high inflation, and Americans are shelling out nearly $5 a gallon for gas.
“Biden is politically weak right now,” said Mr Smith, who leads the University of New Hampshire poll. “A recent poll we did showed that Ron DeSantis is hitting or related to New Hampshire — that’s saying a lot because the Florida governor isn’t that well known up here.”
Republicans say Democrats should focus more on solving the country’s problems rather than bickering over who could potentially succeed Mr. Biden.
“Democrats should spend less time daydreaming about 2024 and instead focus on what voters care about — affording gas, finding baby food or protecting their families in Biden’s America,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
This underground race for the Democratic presidential nomination is also spurred on by Mr. Biden’s age. At 79, he is already the oldest sitting president in US history, beating a record previously set by Ronald Reagan.
At just 18 months in office, Mr. Biden is now older than Reagan at the end of his two terms in the White House. If he runs for another term, Mr. Biden will be 81 on Election Day 2024.
To make matters worse, even other Democrats admit that Mr. Biden’s age is increasingly showing in public appearances.
“He looks his age and isn’t as agile in front of the camera as he used to be, and that’s fed a narrative about competence that’s not rooted in reality,” David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for the former president Barack Obama has acted in two successful campaigns in the White House, the New York Times recently told. “The presidency is a tremendously tiring job and the stark reality is that at the end of a second term the president would be more likely to be 90 than 80 and that would be a big problem.”
The voters agree. A recent Harvard-Harris poll found that 64% of Americans believe Mr. Biden has shown “that he is too old” to deal with the nation’s problems.
This view was shared by 87% of Republicans, 73% of independent voters, and 34% of Democrats. Overall, the same poll found that 71 percent of Americans said Mr. Biden should not seek a second term.
Experts say age will continue to be a factor in discussions about Mr. Biden’s future.
“It’s one thing people keep whispering about trying to scale the greasy pole,” said Mr. Smith, the politics professor. “It’s no secret that Democrats did that in 2020 by implying that he was too old to run or that his ‘fastball’ wasn’t what it used to be.”