Democrats Need a Real Primary Contest

To beat the Trump GOP, the party must give voters a proper say in who will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2024.

Illustration of a blue donkey with a slot on its back for receiving ballots.
The Atlantic

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.

The congressional hearings about the January 6 assault on the Capitol have removed the last shred of doubt: Donald Trump posed a serious danger to American democracy in the last election—and he does now. The former president continues to exert extraordinary power over Republicans, and remains the person most likely to win his party’s nomination for the 2024 election.

Anyone who cares about the future of the American republic should hope for Democrats to prevent Trump’s return to power. But the prospects are looking perilous. With inflation eating away at most Americans’ earnings, Joe Biden is less popular than his last 12 predecessors were at a similar stage of their presidencies. That might make it seem like good news if Biden chooses not to run for a second term—except that Vice President Kamala Harris, his presumptive successor, fares even worse in many polls. How can Democrats maximize their chances in 2024, keep Trump (or another candidate aligned with the MAGA movement) out of the White House, and protect the country’s democratic institutions?

To stand a fighting chance, the Democratic Party needs to take two steps. First, Biden should announce his intention to step down after his first term. Second, party grandees must resist the temptation to anoint Harris as their standard-bearer. If Democrats are to take on Trump and his allies from a position of strength, there must be a fair and open competition for the 2024 nomination, giving voters a chance to identify the best possible candidate.

America owes its 46th president an enormous debt of gratitude. Biden served the country for many decades as a public-spirited senator. As vice president, he was a loyal and competent adjutant to Barack Obama. Fewer than two years ago, his appeal to a broad cross section of Americans helped ensure that Trump was not reelected. But circumstances are now such that Biden must serve the national interest in a very different way: by renouncing any ambition for a second presidential term.

Biden’s approval ratings are dire because America is objectively in a bad way. The country is still in the throes of a zombie pandemic that refuses to end. Rising inflation has led to the steepest decline in Americans’ purchasing power in nearly two generations. Much of this is beyond Biden’s control, but as political scientists have long known, voters find fault with the president for the state of the country even when he is not to blame.

And then there is Biden’s age. The president remains in command of his mental faculties; the narrative that he suffers from such cognitive decline that he has become a puppet controlled by his aides is pushed by unscrupulous people for unscrupulous ends. But given how grim the consequences would be if the Democratic nominee were to lose the 2024 election, perfectly scrupulous observers have also begun to wonder whether Democrats should field a man who will be 81 years old that year.

The central question is whether Biden is the Democrats’ best hope of keeping Trump out of the White House. As a majority of Democratic voters have come to believe, the answer is no. So the first step is for Biden to muster the self-awareness to bow out for 2024.

That takes us to the second step. In recent history, sitting or former vice presidents have nearly always won their bids for the party’s nomination. Because Harris would be the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first person of Asian American heritage to become president, the pressure to clear the field for her would be especially intense. And if party grandees such as Biden himself and Obama endorse Harris early on, the nomination process will turn into a coronation. But making Harris the nominee without a real primary would be a profound error.

Harris has plenty of qualities that could make her a compelling candidate. She has served in a wide variety of important offices, including public prosecutor and state attorney general. She is a tough debater and a highly effective congressional inquisitor. She can also be winning in informal settings, when she comes across as more genuine and less guarded than most politicians. Anybody who underestimates her political talent is much mistaken.

Even so, Harris is unpopular. Her favorability ratings have often been even lower than Biden’s, and significantly trail those of her recent predecessors, including Mike Pence and Dick Cheney. Some of the blame may lie with Fox News and other right-wing media, which have long vilified her. But the problem is also Harris’s own. She lacks a clear political vision and a passionate constituency within her own party. When she ran for the 2020 presidential nomination, her support sank and sank. When she dropped out of the race—before even the first primary vote—she was polling in single digits.

All of this has united opposing wings of the Democratic Party in skepticism about her as a possible candidate. Many moderates mistrust Harris for the way in which she has tacked to the left in recent years, flirting with unpopular causes such as defunding the police. Despite her voting record as one of the most liberal senators in Congress, Harris has also failed to earn the trust of progressives. They view her as an opportunist—someone who made her name as a tough-on-crime prosecutor before embracing left-wing talking points when it suited—and they suspect that she’d change her tune again if it was expedient.

Should the party nominate Harris without a real primary contest, it will court two serious dangers. First, Democratic voters of all stripes will view a coronation as fundamentally unfair. This would make it more difficult for Harris to turn out the party’s ideologically heterogeneous support, and it would raise the risk of an independent candidate depriving her of crucial votes in the general election.

Second, a stage-managed primary process would make it harder for Harris to hone her message and sharpen the campaign skills she’d need to prevail over Trump or another Republican opponent. To win in November 2024, she would benefit from having to mount a real campaign for the Democratic nomination.

Matt Bennett was a senior adviser to Al Gore, the last sitting Democratic vice president to enjoy an easy path to the nomination only to lose to the Republican, George W. Bush, in the general election. “A hotly contested primary requires the candidate to take and deliver punches,” Bennett told me. “There’s a reason why every modern president had to survive a tough fight for the nomination.”

Even without the endorsements of Biden or Obama, Harris would enter a genuinely competitive primary race as the favorite. The party’s progressive wing would likely field a strong contender such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Moderates would hope for a governor such as Colorado’s Jared Polis or New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham. Contenders from the party’s ideological mainstream, such as Gavin Newsom or perhaps Raphael Warnock, may also seek the nomination.

Given the headwinds that any Democrat is likely to face in 2024, and the danger that awaits the country if Trump should prevail, a primary process that determines who can actually win is more vital than ever. What matters is to identify who best understands the political moment and can make a compelling case to the greatest possible number of Americans. From Bill Clinton in 1992 to Obama in 2008 to Biden in 2020, voters have time and again proved better at that task than pundits or party grandees.

Recent history furnishes Democrats with a painful example of how a party can sabotage its electoral chances when it tries to anoint a preferred candidate. In 2016, all the leading constituencies in the party worked to clear the way for a presumptive nominee: Hillary Clinton.

At the time, this seemed a perfectly reasonable course of action. Clinton would have been the first female president, and she had done an excellent job as a senator from New York and as U.S. secretary of state. Because her nomination seemed all but inevitable, the party elite was chiefly concerned with avoiding an intraparty fight that might weaken her position in the general election.

But attempts to ensure Clinton a virtually unopposed run backfired. As the primaries went on, they exposed the fact that she was much less popular among voters than the conventional wisdom had allowed. Her inability to win a decisive victory against an independent socialist senator who at one time did not even caucus with the Democratic Party served only to highlight her weaknesses.

Significant parts of the Democratic base came to believe that the Democratic National Committee had rigged the primary process, making them less willing to turn out for the general election. In the end, the contest produced the very outcome that the party’s power brokers had tried to avert: It exposed the nominee’s vulnerabilities, created a bitter rift, and helped Trump win the election.

For the Democratic Party to ignore that cautionary tale would be tragic. The best chance of beating Trump lies with the judgment of its voters. To avoid a repeat of 2016, Democrats need a real primary contest for 2024.