Democratic elites struggle to get voters as excited about Biden as they are

WASHINGTON — The Democratic elites who hold high office, raise the money and pound the campaign message are all-in when it comes to President Joe Biden’s re-election.

But they’re not oblivious to an uncomfortable reality: Their own voters aren’t sold.

“I’ll say the elephant in the room,” Minyon Moore, chairwoman of the 2024 Democratic convention, said last week in a private phone call discussing the event with party fundraisers. “People talk about his age. But you know what? I come from a family where age is wisdom, knowledge, participation, experience.”

“I would rather have Joe Biden on this field, at this time, than any president,” Moore continued in a call that NBC News was able to hear.

A quirk of the 2024 presidential cycle is the chasm that’s emerged between the party establishment and rank-and-file voters. For Democrats, more than half don’t want to see Biden run again, an April NBC News poll found.

Biden isn’t about to drop out and, indeed, Democratic leaders have engineered it so that he’s on a glide path to the nomination at the party convention next year in Chicago, interviews with nearly two dozen party insiders show. They readily concede that in their own conversations with voters they hear doubts about whether the 80-year-old Biden is up to the job and the party’s best chance to hold the White House. Their response: Get over it.

“What I tell people is, ‘He’s going to be the nominee, and that’s it,'” one Democratic fundraiser said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about Biden’s prospects. “The notion of someone else bursting out, that’s a pipe dream.”

Rank-and-file Democrats may react to Biden with a collective “meh,” but party leaders say they are loathe to see a genuinely open and competitive race for the nomination. History suggests that would be a mistake, they add.

The last Democratic president to face a serious primary challenge was Jimmy Carter, who defeated fellow Democrat Ted Kennedy and then went on to lose the general election to Ronald Reagan in 1980. A contested primary would hamper Democratic chances next fall, party leaders argue, adding that ditching Biden for an untested alternative carries a set of risks that the party can’t accept with so much at stake.

“A robust competition is in order when we don’t have a sitting president,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the former House speaker, told NBC News. “A sitting president with the accomplishments of Joe Biden — what’s your point?”

President Joe Biden arrives to a speaking event in Milwaukee (Christopher Dilts / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden arrives to a speaking event in Milwaukee (Christopher Dilts / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Clearing the field for Biden has left many Democratic voters frustrated by the lack of options. It’s also a bit of a gamble. Despite the multitude of criminal charges facing Donald Trump, the former president and Biden are running neck and neck. If Trump’s campaign were to collapse before the nomination is wrapped up, a younger Republican nominee — with less baggage — may pose an even bigger threat to Biden’s re-election.

Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota is a lone voice among Democratic lawmakers calling for Biden to drop out of the race and make room for younger candidates to step forward.

“I believe there are other candidates who have a far better chance, and don’t have the actuarial risk that the president has,” Phillips said in an interview, adding that with Biden as the nominee, the best chance for Democrats to hold the White House is to run against Trump.

“Why does everyone have blinders on? Why are we essentially being led to this cliff without knowing what’s on the other side?” he added.

‘Smart politics’

No sitting president wants the distraction and expense tied to a primary fight, and Biden avoided one despite low approval ratings. (Trump’s ratings were slightly higher than Biden’s at a comparable point in his term.)

Hell-bent on stopping Trump’s comeback and pleased with Biden’s record, allies employed a mix of blandishments and not-so-subtle warnings to spare Biden the burden of a sharply contested primary. Former President Lyndon Johnson famously said that he’d prefer to have his foes inside the tent “pissing” out than the reverse. It’s no accident that none of Biden’s would-be challengers are lurking outside.

Within weeks of Biden formally announcing his candidacy in late April, his campaign set up a national “advisory board” that included prominent Democrats seen as potential presidential candidates, including Gavin Newsom, J.B. Pritzker and Josh Shapiro — governors of California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, respectively. Another rising Democratic official, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, was named co-chair of Biden’s campaign.

“Biden’s team has embraced anyone who could be campaigning for him,” said John Emerson, who was U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Obama presidency. “They’re treating them well and you see that with Gavin Newsom and Gretchen Whitmer. That’s smart politics. You want them in the tent and part of the team. That kind of treatment certainly makes it awkward to consider challenging an incumbent.”

Senior Democratic officials said they made it a top priority to talk to any governors or presidential hopefuls and get them on board with the re-election effort, effectively deterring them from pursuing the nomination.

One person deemed a potential threat to the president was Newsom, who has worried people close to the White House by laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid. Biden allies have not been shy about getting the word out that it would be self-defeating for ambitious white male candidates like Newsom to try to snatch the nomination away from Biden and Kamala Harris, who made history as the first woman and person of color to become vice president.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file)

Consider the past: A string of Democratic candidates who failed to lock down Black voters went on to lose the race for the party’s nomination — including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

“When you had people who were trying to test the waters” for a presidential bid, “the party rose up and made it clear to those individuals — who were mostly white men — that to disrespect the vice president would not be well received by women and people of color within the party,” said Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic strategist. “They got a little bit of a smack in the face.”

When he was White House chief of staff, Ron Klain spoke to Newsom and was assured that the governor would not run, NBC News has reported. Pelosi, a fellow Californian, has also talked to Newsom. She said that she never felt a need to persuade him to stay out of the race.

“Every impression I’ve had from him in our conversations was that this is not a place he was interested in going,” Pelosi said.

“Everyone knows we have to win this election,” she added. “We cannot afford to make a move that does anything to hurt the prospects for Joe Biden to be president of the United States.”

The gap between Democratic officials and the voters they represent is starkest when it comes to Biden’s record.

When Democratic elites look at Biden, they see the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Democratic voters view the president, many see an old man.

People vote during the Presidential election at a polling location (Jon Cherry / Getty Images file)

People vote during the Presidential election at a polling location (Jon Cherry / Getty Images file)

“Democrats just don’t have any choice and it’s so difficult,” said Dennis DeConcini, 86, an Arizona Democrat who served with Biden in the Senate. “He’s too old. So am I. What I tell people is in comparison to Trump, he’s a decent guy. He may be too old and stumble a little bit. The problem, in my opinion, is the Democrats really have a problem if he didn’t run because [Vice President] Kamala Harris — I don’t think she could be elected.”

“We’re kind of stuck with Biden because of that,” he added.

Biden allies insist the president’s accomplishments — not pressure — are what has kept challengers at bay. Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington, ran for president in 2020 but opted not to try again this time around. One reason, he says, is that Biden has delivered.

“Democrats historically are a rebellious group,” Inslee said in an interview. “We’ve had all kinds of presidential primaries. It’s unusual that has not happened” this time. “But it’s based on the president’s performance.”

He drew a contrast between Biden and Trump, whom he grappled with during the Covid-19 crisis. “It’s night and day between our state’s relationship with the executive branch compared to when Trump ignored us,” he said. “I remember asking for his [Trump’s] assistance in Covid and he basically told me that wasn’t his job.”

“It was a brush off at a moment of desperate need for our state,” Inslee added. Biden, in turn, “has been responsive in every way we’ve requested, including the most recent fires we had in Spokane County. The president called me and the FEMA director called me.”

‘If there’s no one better’

Everyday voters aren’t so dazzled. Persuading them to look beyond Biden’s age and focus on concrete accomplishments won’t be easy for a party leadership that’s moving toward a coronation at the Chicago convention. A survey in July found that 71% of people had heard little or nothing at all about one of Biden’s signature legislative victories: a massive spending package to curb global warming.

Even if inflation and the jobless rates are declining — as Biden likes to point out — many people still feel stressed by high prices both at the grocery store and the gas pump. Against these real-world pressures, Biden’s legislative breakthroughs may seem an abstraction.

A person shops at a supermarket in Chicago (Scott Olson / Getty Images file)

A person shops at a supermarket in Chicago (Scott Olson / Getty Images file)

“I need my party to stop acting as though the suffering that people are feeling, especially socially and economically, is a figment of their imagination and they don’t understand all that we’ve done,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who was a staunch critic of Biden during the 2020 primary. “The talking heads feel it. The people in the bubble feel it. But big mama and big papa do not feel that this economy has gotten better for them.”

Throughout the country, a yearning for something other than the Biden-Trump rematch is easy to spot. In a focus group with Georgia voters who supported Biden in 2020, the moderator started a question by asking for a show of hands of those who wished neither Biden nor Trump were running in 2024. Before he even finished getting the question out, all five hands went up.

“The analogy I like to use is Trump and Biden are like the fifth-place team playing the sixth-place team, and you’re being required to root for one of them,” said Rich Thau, who ran the focus group in May of swing voters who had switched from Trump in 2016 to Biden in ’20.

If there are grounds for optimism among Democrats, it’s that the election may come down to a clarifying choice: Biden on the one hand or a former president facing multiple indictments on the other.

“Joe Biden is the sitting U.S. president and he clearly beats Trump in a general election and he already has once,” said Jim Messina, who ran Barack Obama’s successful re-election campaign in 2012. “So, what are we supposed to do? Go to an unproven candidate who fails on the national stage, when we have a successful presidential candidate?”

Visiting a county fair with her mother in northeast Ohio on Thursday, Catiana Kutyla, a Democrat from New Jersey, spelled out the calculus that many in the party may be making.

“If there’s no one better, I’ll vote for Biden,” she said. “But if another candidate comes up who’s actually younger, understands what this country needs, and just seems like a better candidate, then I would vote for that candidate.”

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