AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The impact of the 2022 midterm elections on the 2024 Presidential election has almost entirely been analyzed through the spectrum of the Republican Party. Few words have been published about how it has altered the dynamics on the Democratic side. But the most significant consequences of the midterms may indeed be how they upended the state of Democratic politics.
Discussion about whether Joe Biden will decline to run for reelection, whether Kamala Harris will be displaced, and who might challenge her if Biden does not run have all but vanished. But by simultaneously reinforcing Biden’s own determination to run and undermining the position of most of his leading challengers, the midterms have left Democrats with a problem. They are now at the mercy not merely of events, but of nature, hostage to the cognitive and physical health of an octogenarian whose readiness for another campaign was already in doubt.
The midterms have transformed the Democratic 2024 race in two distinct ways. The first is self-evident. The relative “success” of the Democrats in beating expectations has strengthened Biden’s own position and weakened that of those calling for a new candidate. As an incumbent President who avoided a predicted midterm wipeout, Biden’s acolytes have a ready counter to the idea that Biden cannot win the 2024 election. This also strengthens Biden against Kamala Harris. With Harris as the most likely successor to Biden, there is even less reason to take the risk in pushing him out.
It also appears that Biden’s perceived success in the midterms may make him less likely to allow himself to be pushed aside. Biden has always displayed a sense of destiny, claiming he only decided to run for president in 2020 after the 2017 Charlottesville events, and leaking to the media that he sees himself as the only bulwark against the return of Donald Trump or Trumpism in 2024. These claims are hardly flattering, which implies they reflect the actual views of Joe Biden rather than a cynical stunt for popularity’s sake. The November 2022 results are therefore likely to reinforce Biden’s own conviction that only he can win in 2024, and that it is his duty to do so.
This presents a challenge for any Democratic insiders who disagree not just with whether Biden is the best candidate, but whether he is physically up to the task. They lack the evidence to convincingly make that case to Biden himself now, and their position is further undermined by the success of John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, who won a Senate race despite a stroke which left him struggling to speak. If Fetterman could win the key swing state and the location of Biden’s “second home” of Scranton, then why not Biden?
Potential opponents of a Biden 2024 candidacy have a second problem in the poor performance of some of Biden’s leading challengers this year, which brings us to the second way in which the midterms have transformed the dynamics of Democratic politics.
Gavin Newsom, the Governor of California, was all but openly putting himself forward as an alternative to Biden following his victory in a recall election in 2021. He not only ran ads in Florida and Texas, but challenged Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to a debate. Newsom, however, seems to have neglected to campaign much at home. His 59%-41% victory this year was worse than in 2014, 2018, or 2021. More relevant to his national ambitions, it may have cost the Democrats control of the House, with other Democrats underperforming down ballot. Democrats lost seven seats which Joe Biden won in California, enough for control of the chamber. Combined with a similarly poor performance by Kathy Hochul in New York, it is hardly a surprise that Newsom took himself out of the running for a challenge not only to Biden but to Harris as well.
Newsom’s embarrassment is a direct addition through subtraction for Harris. Newsom could have challenged her hold over California in any primary contest. The danger here would have been less in terms of votes than the financial and media connections represented by Los Angeles media and San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. With Newsom sidelined, it is hard to see other Democrats being able to make inroads in the all-important state of California, not least because any efforts to do so by non-California Democratic politicians would be perceived as precisely what they are: a challenge to the Vice President, and at least nominally the President.
Harris’s own position within the African American community was also strengthened through subtraction by the midterm results. Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial contest and Val Demings in the Florida Senate race both lost decisively. Both had been floated as alternative female African American options for Biden’s Vice President in 2020, and both now find themselves out of office. Not only does this deny them any clear base from which to challenge Harris, but the easiest path forward for them to remain relevant is to seek White House appointments which would leave them dependent on Biden.
With both California money and the support of many African American voters seemingly locked down for the Biden-Harris team, it is clear why the White House used the momentum from the results to push through the most dramatic changes in the Democratic nomination process in half a century. Using the poor performance of Democrats in Iowa, as well as the need for a more “diverse” electorate to have a say as a pretext, the Democratic National Committee has cut the Iowa Caucuses from their first-in-the-nation status, replacing them provisionally with South Carolina, to be followed three days later by Nevada and New Hampshire, a week later by Georgia, and then two weeks later by Michigan.
This is a problem for someone like Pete Buttigieg, a favorite of the activist class, who owes his prominence almost entirely to a strong performance in Iowa. South Carolina and Georgia feature large African American populations, among whom Buttigieg performed abysmally in 2020. It goes without saying that someone like Bernie Sanders, who twice met his doom at the hands of African American Democrat primary voters, would stand almost no chance under the new calendar. In 2016, Sanders lost South Carolina 73%-26% and Georgia 72%-28% to Hillary Clinton.
By condensing the primary calendar and inserting the large and expensive states of Michigan and Georgia into the early stages of the process, the decision also emphasized money and establishment support, both of which lie with the White House following the neutralization of Newsom.
It is a rare instance where the best interests of both Biden and Harris converged. By ensuring that one of the first contests would have a near majority African American Democrat primary electorate, Biden also made clear that Harris would have a major advantage in the event he decides not to run. This acts as an added layer of personal security by making clear to most Democrats who might otherwise consider pushing him out that they would then be forced to operate on a playing field tilted in favor of Kamala Harris.
The new-look Democratic primary structure thus seems to be custom built to heavily favor Biden, and to heavily favor a Biden-backed Harris over every other potential challenger – with one possible exception. Along with South Carolina and Georgia Biden himself pushed very hard for one other state, Michigan, to be added to the start of the Democratic primary calendar. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer won reelection last month by 11%, a landslide in swing-state Michigan which also helped usher in a Democratic sweep of every statewide office and both houses of the state legislature. A successful female governor of a Midwestern swing-state, Whitmer would make a formidable candidate, and it is hard to believe Biden’s support for an early Michigan primary was random.
If Biden were to decline to run, and at least tacitly favor Whitmer, Harris’s strength could prove a mirage, especially as her hold on the African American vote in Georgia and South Carolina could be challenged by someone like a reelected Raphael Warnock and Congressman Jim Clyburn.
The net effect of the new primary calendar and the midterm results has been to solidify Biden’s position within the party, and to the extent they remain aligned, Harris’s. Outside the White House, Gretchen Whitmer appears to have emerged as Biden’s favorite, the sole possible successor other than Harris that Biden has moved to promote rather than hobble.
There is one flaw which compromises Biden’s triumph, however: Joe Biden himself. For all the setbacks his opponents have suffered and the ruthless exploitation of those failures, along with changes to the DNC rulebook to consolidate power, Biden remains both unpopular and 80 years old. Biden may well be able to argue that, based on the evidence from November 2022, the former does not make his reelection impossible. The latter, however, is a different matter. The midterms have left the future of the party even more dependent on the decisions and health of Joe Biden than the 2020 election did, and it is far from clear he will be able to act as a political leader, not merely a symbol. Fetterman only had to remain alive to be able to occupy a Senate seat. Biden has sought to consolidate real power, without which his new system will produce chaos, not order.
Furthermore, by eliminating every possible challenger to Kamala Harris but one, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Biden has all but ensured that specific succession struggle will follow any sudden disappearance from the scene on his part. By rigging the rules to make it so a campaign by almost anyone else will be hopeless, Biden will have all but forced leading to Democrats to line up behind either Harris or Whitmer. He may intend for them to balance each other, and thereby leave him the final arbiter of Democratic politics. But that only works as long as he is there. Without him, it ensures stalemate and a civil war worse than any since Obama-Clinton in 2008.
The midterms have therefore had a transformative effect on the Democratic Party and their future presidential prospects – perhaps even more so than has been the case for Republicans. November’s elections have allowed Biden to seize unrivaled power. Whether Democrats will come to regret that, and the better-than-expected November 2022 results which allowed it, remains to be seen.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.