Representative Dean Phillips has been on a media tour begging for a prominent fellow Democrat to mount a primary challenge to Joe Biden. The 54-year-old who flipped a longstanding Republican district in suburban Minneapolis in 2018 claims to be a lone honest voice hoping to shake up a political establishment paralyzed by fear of offending the president. Phillips, a former food and beverage CEO, said on NBC’s Meet the Press, “In business, you have to recognize it [when] the data speaks the truth.”
Phillips’s data recognition skills could use some work.
“Democrats are telling me that they want, not a coronation, but they want a competition. The New York Times poll this week found 55 percent of Democratic voters want some alternatives to the current people in the primary,” Phillips contended on CBS’s Face the Nation. But that’s not quite what the poll said.
The question asked was not “Do you want alternatives to the current people in the primary?” It was “Do you think the Democratic Party should renominate Joe Biden as the party’s candidate for president in 2024, or do you think the party should nominate a different candidate for president in 2024?”
Whether one wants “the party” to nominate a different candidate differs from whether one wants a contested primary, let alone new candidates for the existing primary. One can have reservations about Biden and wish he could be cleanly swapped out for a younger, charismatic, unifying candidate without itching for a divisive, debilitating intra-party battle.
Further, Phillips slightly embellished the result from the Times poll. While it’s true that 45 percent said they wanted to renominate Biden, only 50 percent said they didn’t. To puff up the number, Phillips threw in the 5 percent who “didn’t know” or refused the answer the question.
And he omits data. He didn’t note a separate Times question probing “how you would feel” if Biden was renominated. Only 28 percent said they would be “dissatisfied” or “upset.” Fifty-one percent said “satisfied” albeit “not enthusiastic,” and another 20 percent would be “enthusiastic.”
One year ago, in the Times poll, only 26 percent of Democrats wanted to renominate Biden, versus 64 percent calling for a “different person.” A 38-point gap has narrowed to five. As the economy has strengthened and inflation has cooled, Biden’s standing among Democrats has improved. Yes, Biden is softer among his fellow Democrats than Clinton or Obama were in the third year of their presidencies, but the trajectory is in the right direction.
During last Sunday’s Meet the Press interview, Phillips made a far more egregious misstatement. “Joe Biden right now is down seven points in the four swing states that will decide the next election,” claimed Phillips.
Presumably, he meant that Biden is behind the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump by seven points in each of the four states classified as toss-ups—Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—or by an average of seven points when combining the results of those states.
But recent nonpartisan polling, collected by the FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics websites, does not show Biden trailing Trump significantly in any of those four states.
In Arizona, an August poll from Emerson College has Biden behind by two points in a two-way race with Trump and (counterintuitively) cutting Trump’s lead to one point when including Green Party candidate Cornel West.
In Pennsylvania, a June Quinnipiac University poll pegged Trump’s lead over Biden at a slight one point.
In Wisconsin, the Marquette Law School Poll found in June that Biden leads Trump by a healthy nine points.
In Georgia, we don’t have any nonpartisan polls conducted in 2023. Still, in November 2022, Emerson College had Biden with a one-point lead, within the margin of error, and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell gave Biden a four-point lead.
If we expand the data pool to include partisan polling outfits, we still don’t see Biden getting crushed.
Citizens to Save Our Republic, a pro-Biden bipartisan super PAC trying to pressure No Labels to drop a threatened third-party bid, commissioned several swing state polls in June. In two-way races, Biden led Wisconsin by six, trailed in Arizona and Georgia by four, and tied Trump in Pennsylvania. (Adding a No Labels candidate tipped all four states to Trump.)
Citizen Awareness Project is a Koch network group trying to deny Trump the Republican nomination, which commissioned several swing state polls over the last few months. For Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Biden is up four (three if including voters who “lean” toward a candidate). For Georgia, Biden is up three (two with leaners). For Arizona, Biden is up one (tied if including leaners).
And the Hardworking Americans super PAC, affiliated with Georgia’s Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, commissioned a June poll that gave Trump a one-point lead among voters in the Peach State.
For an incumbent president, these are hardly the worst swing state poll numbers taken in the third year of office, when support for incumbents often sags. Florida trial heats sampled in August or September 2011 ranged from Barack Obama winning re-election by two to Mitt Romney romping by 10. Romney led all five Virginia polls taken in September and October 2011. (Florida would become Obama’s narrowest victory, and Virginia third most.) A December 2011 USA Today/Gallup poll collectively found Obama behind Romney by five points in 12 battleground states.
Swing state polling wasn’t nearly as widespread in 1995, but in September of that year, Bob Dole was up eight points over Bill Clinton among Florida voters in the Mason-Dixon poll. Clinton would eventually win the state by six.
Phillips said on CNN, “The numbers are horrific, the polling numbers.” But they are not horrific. Nor are they spectacular. They are what you should expect from an electorate that’s been evenly divided for the last two decades. In the previous two presidential elections—after the insanity of the Trump presidency—the difference between Hillary Clinton’s and Biden’s popular vote margin over Trump was only 2.4 points. The range of national popular vote outcomes since 2000—except for Obama’s 2008 relative landslide—has been unusually narrow, from George W. Bush’s 2.4-point edge in 2004 to Biden’s 4.5-point win.
Considering the rigid political environment, there’s little reason to believe replacing Biden with a less known, less tested candidate would substantially change the equation. In the Real Clear Politics general election poll average, we can see that swapping Trump for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis only tweaks Biden’s lead from 0.4 to 2.4 points.
Beyond Phillips’s shoddy data analysis, his substantive argument for replacing Biden is similarly flimsy.
Phillips leans on vague, ageist platitudes, such as “The call to action is to ask the president to pass the torch.” Asked on Face the Nation what issue was the “Vietnam” of this election, Phillips responded, “The Vietnam of this election? I think everybody knows. And it’s about turning the page to the future.”
The moderate member of the Problem Solvers Caucus argued, “We need to restore faith in government. We should do that in a thoughtful, meaningful, legitimate, and bipartisan manner. And it can be done. We need leaders in the next generation to do so.” But why does bipartisanship require leaders in the next generation? Some of the oldest people in Washington—chiefly Joe Biden—have produced a slew of bipartisan legislation in the last three years, addressing Ukraine, gun safety, infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing, and postal service reform. And some of the youngest members of Congress—such as Representatives George Santos, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Elise Stefanik, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—are unhinged ideologues.
“There’s clearly a disconnect between the accomplishments of this president and his administration, and his support and the intention of voters in the next election,” said Phillips to Minneapolis radio host Chad Hartman—as if no president ever struggled to sell his accomplishments to a skeptical public! That is not a problem solved by firing the person with the accomplishments.
Referring to Hunter Biden’s legal troubles, Phillips lamented, “I don’t think the president is corrupt. I think the investigation will show that. But—and this is the important part—it’s the image,” suggesting our current era of “partisanship” will make voters believe the worst. But when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked, “wouldn’t this happen to any Democratic nominee?” Phillips replied, “It probably will.” That undercuts his argument. Every Democratic presidential nominee for the last 36 years has faced a deluge of vicious attacks. A new candidate doesn’t necessarily provide a clean slate for Democrats but a fresh canvas for Republican smear artists.
Phillips can’t even bring himself to criticize Biden’s performance. “I adore Joe Biden. He saved this country,” he said on Meet the Press. A week prior on Face the Nation, he gushed, “President Biden [is] an amazing man. I love the man. He is competent. He is honorable. His integrity, I believe, is unvarnished. He has led this country through extraordinarily difficult times. And this is not about him. This is about listening to people.”
When Phillips tries to make the case against Biden, he fudges the numbers, traffics in ageism, and waves away Biden’s record. When he defends Biden, he touts the record of a man who fits the criteria he claims to want in a president. Phillips should consider listening to himself.