A series of troubling polls for President Biden is giving more fodder to the independent and primary candidates running for the White House in 2024.
Several recent surveys have shown Biden trailing or neck and neck with former President Trump, raising Democratic concerns even as the party emerges from a successful election night Tuesday.
Those fears could prove helpful for rivals such as Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), as well as independent contenders including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, who have seized on those low figures to bolster their own campaigns as the 2024 presidential election kicks into higher gear.
“You don’t need to be living in New Hampshire to know that President Biden is in trouble,” said Cullen Tiernan, an organizer in the Granite State, where Biden’s presidential rivals have flocked after he supported a change that downgrades their early voting status.
Panicked Democrats got some relief this week when their party won seats in red and purple states. But the bad polls — which have started appearing on a daily and weekly basis — are still top of mind for many who see an uphill climb to next November. The lower Biden drops, the louder the screams from those trying to convince voters there’s another way to win.
Kennedy and West, who plan to compete in the general election if they qualify for enough state ballots, are joined by three Democrats who believe Biden himself is the biggest hindrance at play this cycle. They’re implying they can handle Trump if it comes to that.
Some are making that pitch more diplomatically than others.
“It’s not about disrespecting President Biden,” Phillips, a centrist and the latest to challenge him, said in Manchester, N.H. “I respect him, but he’s going to lose the 2024 election to Donald Trump. And that is an existential threat to the United States of America.”
The White House often brushes off bad polls as imprecise indicators of what’s to come. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre cautioned against paying too much attention to any given data point so far out from when voters get a chance to have their say.
“We should really be very mindful here, and one of the reasons why is just a year ago, back in 2022, there was the red wave that never materialized,” she said this week.
Tuesday’s electoral successes, ranging from the Kentucky governor’s mansion to the Virginia state Legislature, give Biden’s allies even more examples to point to.
But candidates lacking confidence in Biden are also sharpening their pitches accordingly, saying outright that he has too many shortcomings and can’t cobble together the necessary coalition to keep the White House.
A three-term congressman, Phillips is the only elected lawmaker trying to unseat the president, confusing some establishment Democrats about his calculations. One member of Congress suggested there’s little daylight between his agenda and Biden’s.
That hasn’t stopped him and other similarly ambitious aspirants from vowing to press on. He has pleaded with early-state voters to consider that the 80-year-old president doesn’t have what it takes, especially as the public appears to be signaling it wants a generational shift at the top.
Marianne Williamson, a prominent author and political outsider, and Cenk Uygur, who started The Young Turks media channel, are also running against Biden in the primary, criticizing him from the left.
Both have drawn attention to the latest New York Times/Siena College survey as a wake-up call that Trump could peel off Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania — where the former Republican president is leading by as much as double digits. The survey shows Biden narrowly ahead in Wisconsin.
“He is the weakest major candidate I have ever seen,” Uygur, who has set out to inspire outrage about Biden’s political fragility, wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter. “If no one else gets into the race, I will shock the world and catch Biden.”
Williamson offered a similar campaign pitch: “He won’t win. But I will,” she wrote on X, linking to the poll’s findings.
According to that survey, Biden is behind Trump in select swing states by a margin of 4 to 10 points, prompting even sympathetic Biden voices to chime in about whether the president should or shouldn’t take another stab at the Oval Office, noting that he has stumbled considerably and upset parts of the coalition that helped propel him to the White House in 2020.
One startling data point for the administration shows Biden losing young voters to Kennedy, who is gaining ground among 18- to 29-year-old voters, earning 34 percent of them compared with Biden’s 30 percent.
It’s not just that poll, either. A CNN survey released Tuesday, just as the positive election results for Democrats started trickling in, shows Trump beating Biden by 4 points among registered voters.
“Anybody who’s been watching American politics for, say, the last decade should know this was going to be a very close race,” said Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster.
“Could Kennedy or West or Uygur use this? Yes, but it’s not going to help them much,” he speculated. “Pretty soon there’ll be a new set of polls.”
Adding to the intensity of the moment, Democrats are now grappling with how to handle two foreign wars and Biden’s response to both. His opponents are less tethered to the ideology and party orthodoxy around Ukraine and Israel and are seizing on those factors as points of contrast. Kennedy, West, Williamson and Uygur have been outspoken about Biden’s approach to the conflicts.
“Gaza and Ukraine have created a polarized electorate, yet these divisions do not fall neatly into right and left,” said Hassan Martini, executive director of No Dem Left Behind, a grassroots group working to expand Democrats’ bench. “[Kennedy Jr.], for instance, represents more bipartisan-minded, anti-establishment voters. Meanwhile, Cornel has stated that a second Biden term could lead to [World War 3], appealing to … the American public who worry about the U.S. getting drawn into a war between Israel and Hamas.”
“We see a real diversity in the political landscape at the moment,” Martini noted. “It’s only natural that voters’ attention is pulled to third-party candidates who represent a wider range of viewpoints.”
While public polling shows a mixed response to the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war, some Biden allies and Democratic operatives say there’s a myriad of factors that could change the outcome of the race for the incumbent.
Some say there’s not enough reason to panic about the independent and third-party challenges — for now, at least — and argue they may have a surprisingly positive impact. If voters see a nail-biter between Biden and Trump, casting their ballots for outsiders becomes that much more consequential.
“They’re running as independents,” said Mellman. “People who would otherwise be Biden supporters are going to be more concerned about wasting their vote after seeing these polls than they would be before.”