MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Biden has repeatedly insisted that he is running for reelection, but ambitious Democrats are positioning themselves anyway because the 79-year-old incumbent might bow out in 2024.
Would-be presidential hopefuls are endorsing candidates ahead of the midterms, raising money for the national party and making visits to early primary and caucus states. Experts say the scale of the shadow campaign is unprecedented in recent political history.
The maneuvering is taking place in both public and throughout the media. In recent weeks, stories and op-eds have popped up about potential 2024 contenders, including speculation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is ready to step in and lead the Democratic Party if needed.
“The proliferation of these topics in the press shows that there is mistrust and angst 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, if the press is writing about them it’s because people are talking.”
The jockeying isn’t confined to editorial pages.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for reelection this year, released an ad in Florida last week lambasting the state’s Republican chief executive, Ron DeSantis.
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“Freedom, it’s under attack in your state,” Mr. Newsom says in the commercial as images of Mr. DeSantis and former President Donald Trump flash across the screen. “Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms, even criminalizing women and doctors.”
The ad has spurred talk of a 2024 candidacy by Mr. Newsom, despite his team’s denials that was his intention with the TV ad.
Not every aspiring Democrat is taking such an audacious approach. Some, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are endorsing House and Senate candidates across the country and campaigning for them.
Sen. Bernard Sanders and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker are taking their message directly to voters in the early primary and caucus states. Mr. Sanders was recently in Iowa 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. Officially, he was there to promote a book about dignity in the digital age, but the California Democrat also made time to meet with New Hampshire’s Democratic activists and powerbrokers.
Expounding on his vision for the Democratic Party and the country to a group of 10 voters at the Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, New Hampshire, Mr. Khanna sounded like a candidate.
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“I fundamentally believe if we create economic opportunities across this country, if we focus most on the places left out … we can lay the foundation for a strong multiracial and multiethnic democracy,” he said. “That’s ultimately what motivates me as an Indian American, who [grew up and Pennsylvania and now represents Silicon Valley in Congress] and wants to see every part of this country flourish and be interconnected.”
When asked if he was running for president, Mr. Khanna said that it all depended on the year, but was quick to clarify it was unlikely to be 2024.
“They’re not running until they’re running,” said an attendee at the New Hampshire event.
The shadow campaigns also proceed within Mr. Biden’s inner circle. Vice President Kamala Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, both of whom ran against Mr. Biden in 2020, are viewed as top contenders.
Ms. Harris recently headlined a Democratic Party dinner in South Carolina, while Mr. Buttigieg has traveled to early states like Nevada and Iowa to dole out money for infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s approval rating has fallen into the mid-30s, the economy is wracked by high inflation and Americans shell out nearly $5 per gallon for gasoline.
“Biden is politically weak right now,” said Mr. Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire poll. “A recent survey we did showed Ron DeSantis beating or tied with him in New Hampshire — that’s saying a lot because the governor of Florida isn’t all that well known up here.”
Republicans say that Democrats should be more focused on fixing the country’s problems, rather than jockeying over who might potentially succeed Mr. Biden.
“Democrats should spend less time dreaming about 2024 and instead focus on what voters are concerned about – affording gas, finding baby formula or keeping their families safe in Biden’s America,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
This underground race for the Democrat presidential nomination is also spurred by Mr. Biden’s age. At 79, he is already the oldest sitting president in U.S. history, beating a record previously held by Ronald Reagan.
With only 18 months in office, Mr. Biden is older now than Reagan was 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 in 2024.
Complicating matters is that even fellow 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 a camera as he once was and this has fed a narrative about competence that isn’t rooted in reality,” David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for former President Barack Obama’s two successful White House campaigns, recently told The New York Times. “The presidency is a monstrously taxing job and the stark reality is the president would be closer to 90 than 80 at the end of a second term and that would be a major issue.”
Voters agree. A recent Harvard-Harris Poll found that 64% of Americans believe Mr. Biden has shown “he is too old” to deal with the nation’s problems.
The view was shared by 87% of Republicans, 73% of independent voters, and 34% of Democrats. Overall, the same poll found that 71% of Americans said that Mr. Biden should not seek a second term.
Experts say that age will continue to be a factor in discussions about Mr. Biden’s future.
“It’s one thing that people who are seeking to climb the greasy pole are going to keep whispering about,” said Mr. Smith, the political science professor. “It’s no secret that Democrats did that in 2020 by hinting that he was too old to run or his ‘fastball wasn’t what it used to be.’”
• Haris Alic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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