President Biden is entering the new year riding high off a better-than-expected midterm election performance for his party that has improved his political standing while damaging his chief GOP rival — former President Trump.
Yet Biden also enters the new year with lingering questions over his age and his overall political strength — most notably whether he can defeat a different Republican in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis if he is the GOP nominee in 2024.
DeSantis has said he’s focused on his job in Florida and, unlike Trump, he’s not officially in the 2024 race. But he’s expected to come under pressure to get in as Republicans look for a stronger candidate in 2024 than the former president.
While Trump’s image has been tarnished by the GOP’s disappointing midterm elections, DeSantis coasted to reelection in Florida as Republicans overall in his state performed strongly.
If Biden had a good midterm, DeSantis had a great one, and he’d represent a very different kind of challenge than Trump for Biden — if he were to defeat Trump in a GOP primary.
Cristina Antelo, a Democratic strategist who runs Ferox Strategies, said Biden’s age remains a concern among Democratic voters, despite a string of legislative accomplishments by Democrats under Biden — and his party’s midterm performance.
Biden, 80, would finish a second term at the age of 86. Running against DeSantis, 44, instead of the 76-year-old Trump could draw a different kind of contrast for Biden.
“It’s crazy to me that Biden is polling so low, even with Dems, considering how much has been accomplished in these first two years,” Antelo said. “But, yes, Dems seem worried that ‘an old white guy’ at the top of the ticket just isn’t going to cut it if the threats to democracy that Trump embodies aren’t on the ballot.”
Biden’s rise in 2020 had a lot to do with Trump. A big part of his campaign was that he was the Democrat best positioned to end the Trump presidency. Biden himself said he likely would not have run for the White House that year if Trump had not been president.
Polls continue to show Biden with an edge over Trump, but the head-to-head polls matching up Biden and DeSantis give Republicans reason for optimism.
A Marquette Law School poll released on Dec. 1 found Biden and DeSantis tied in a 2024 match-up, with 42 percent of registered voters picking each candidate.
The poll showed Biden 10 points ahead of Trump, suggesting the incumbent president might be a bigger favorite against his old opponent.
Most Democrats, at least on the record, express confidence in Biden regardless of who his opponent is, though some do acknowledge DeSantis could have some advantages compared to Trump.
“Not having Trump’s insurmountable baggage is a huge advantage for DeSantis, but it remains TBD whether he possesses Trump’s talents as a candidate,” said Bruce Mehlman, a former assistant secretary at the Commerce Department under former President George W. Bush.
Other polls give credence to Democratic fears about Biden’s age.
A recent USA Today-Suffolk University poll found that 50 percent of Americans want a president between 51 and 65 years old, while 25 percent want a president 35 to 50 years old. Only 8 percent said they wanted a president who is between the ages of 66 and 80.
Biden will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee in 2024 unless he decides against a run, or if his health does falter.
And a number of Democrats say he’ll be tough to defeat no matter who his GOP opponent is.
“In essence, it always comes down to can you motivate the base,” said Ivan Zapien, a former Democratic National Committee official.
He said it could be a tougher challenge for Biden against a non-Trump GOP nominee, but added that Biden “has proven that he can motivate the base very effectively and that’s a proof point that I think works to his advantage if he decides to run regardless of who he runs against.”
Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins said Biden has already proved his detractors wrong once with the coalition he has been able to build.
“President Biden has managed to unify the Democratic Party in a way that no Democrat could have predicted four years ago. He’s built a coalition of progressives and moderates that proved during the midterms can be a winning combination,” Hopkins said. “If I’m Ron DeSantis, I would think twice about running against Biden in this cycle.”
Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and a former adviser to former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the midterm elections were less about personality than they were about issues, like the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. That helped Democrats and could continue to do so in 2024.
“In the midterm election, there were two competing narratives: There was the Republican narrative of inflation and referendum of Joe Biden. Democrats were talking about the Trump overhang, but also were able to talk to some key constituencies after the Dobbs decision,” Lampkin said, referring to the Supreme Court decision toppling Roe v. Wade.
Other Democrats say that no matter who Biden faces, he should focus on selling his own achievements.
“The president needs to spend his time selling the accomplishments that he has had and then talking about what he would do if he’s reelected,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist and donor.
“I think for this reelection, or any reelect, you have to worry about things you can control. I don’t know that they can really control what happens on the Republican side,” he added. “As we’ve seen with Trump from the day he started, people underestimate him.”