4 factors that will determine whether Biden drops out of the 2024 race

It's a stalemate unlike any other in recent U.S. history — and nobody is quite sure how it will end.

In the days since President Biden’s much-criticized debate performance late last month, a growing number of Democrats — including big donors and elected officials — have decided he’s no longer sharp enough, at 81 years old, to either defeat former President Donald Trump or to serve another four years in the White House.

Some have even called on Biden to drop out of the 2024 race and cede the party’s nomination to a younger Democrat.

“President Biden has done enormous service to our country, but now is the time for him to follow in… George Washington’s footsteps and step aside to let new leaders rise up and run against Donald Trump,” Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said Thursday.

In response, a defiant Biden has insisted that he had one “bad night” and that he still “absolutely believe[s] that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump in 2024.”

President Biden speaks to reporters after a campaign stop in Madison, Wis., on July 5. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Biden speaks to reporters after a campaign stop in Madison, Wis., on July 5. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“I am not going anywhere,” the president said during a brief phone interview Monday on MSNBC. “Who else do you think could step in here and do this? Run against me. Announce for president. Challenge me at the convention.”

And Biden isn’t standing alone; many prominent Democrats have stuck by him.

The result is a stalemate unlike any other in recent U.S. history. At the moment, nobody is quite sure how it will end. But here are four factors that could break the impasse.

For Democrats, nothing is more important right now than beating Trump.

Before the debate, Biden led his predecessor in a two-way race among registered voters by two points, 46% to 44%, according to the June Yahoo News/YouGov poll. Immediately after the debate, Biden had fallen to 43% — and Trump had ticked up to 45%, giving him a narrow lead.

In a multi-candidate race including independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Trump (44%) led Biden (40%) by four points post-debate.

The Yahoo News/YouGov results are consistent with other post-debate polls showing a slight decline for Biden and a slight gain for Trump. Overall, Trump (42.1%) now appears to lead Biden (39.9%) by about two percentage points in 538’s national polling average. The candidates were effectively tied right before the debate.

Is a two-point national polling deficit insurmountable? Of course not, says the Biden camp. They also note that Biden trailed in the 2020 Democratic primary and came back to win it. Plus the president and his advisers have long argued that the 2024 polling systemically underestimates his support.

But there’s also another side to the argument. Surveys from key swing states — where the contest will actually be decided — show Trump ahead, on average, in enough places to win more than 270 electoral votes and secure another term in the Oval Office. And Democratic Senate candidates in the same states are outperforming Biden by wide margins, suggesting that the president is the problem, not the Democratic brand.

State-level polls that reflect both Biden’s debate performance and the subsequent Democratic freakout are still trickling in. If the president’s state and national numbers continue to fall, putting him even further behind Trump nationally and in key swing states, things could change fast. But if they stabilize at a level where the president can claim he’s still within striking distance, it’s hard to see him stepping aside.

Big donors wield a disproportionate influence in U.S. politics. The reason is simple: Campaigns are expensive — and a steady flow of money is necessary to win.

Even before the debate, Trump had been erasing Biden’s cash advantage, outraising the president and the Democratic National Committee by more than $65 million during the second quarter of 2024.

But since then, major Democratic donors have started to actively pressure Biden to step aside. According to the New York Times, a “group of them is working to raise as much as $100 million for a sort of escrow fund, called the Next Generation PAC, that would be used to support a replacement candidate.” Others are jockeying for specific figures, like Vice President Kamala Harris, to succeed Biden; threatening to withhold contributions from Democrats more broadly unless the president bows out; and moving to steer money to candidates for lower offices instead.

“I intend to stop any contributions to the party unless and until they replace Biden at the top of the ticket,” Abigail Disney, the outspoken Disney heiress and documentary filmmaker, told CNBC. “This is realism, not disrespect. Biden is a good man and has served his country admirably, but the stakes are far too high.”

In public, Biden has pushed back as hard as he possibly can. “I don't care what the millionaires think,” he said Monday on MSNBC.

Yet the same day, Biden also joined a call with hundreds of top Democratic donors and bundlers on his National Finance Committee to say that he “appreciate[s] you hanging in there with me.”

“I realize you’re getting a lot of heat," Biden empathized, according to a recording obtained by Politico.

The president’s careful, behind-the-scenes courtship of his wealthiest contributors reflects a harsh reality. When a donor defects, that gives others “permission” to follow — and nothing signals doom for a campaign like its cash drying up. The president isn’t there yet. But he’s trying to stanch the bleeding before it’s too late.

Polls influence donors; polls and donors influence politicians. So perhaps the trickiest situation for Biden right now is his relationship with other elected Democrats — many of whom have their own reelection races to worry about.

The ranks of Democratic elected officials calling on Biden to drop out have grown in recent days. According to the New York Times, six U.S. representatives and a handful of other prominent party figures have publicly said Biden should end his candidacy as of Monday afternoon. And after a private call with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries on Sunday, one senior House Democrat spoke to “dozens” of colleagues who said that Biden should be replaced, according to CNN. House Democrats will reconvene at party headquarters on Tuesday morning.

No U.S. senators have publicly broken with Biden yet, but several have expressed serious concerns.

“President Biden has got to prove to the American people — including me — that he’s up to the job for another four years,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

Biden needs “to continue to demonstrate that his debate performance was just a bad night, and that he has a clear path to defeating Donald Trump,” said Sen. Martin Heinreich of New Mexico. “What I care most about is the preservation of our democracy.”

“I’m not a pundit,” added Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. “I’ve talked to people across Ohio. They have legitimate questions about whether the president should continue his campaign, and I’ll keep listening to people.”

“Now is the time for conversations about the strongest path forward,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said Monday, as Politico reported that he is seeking to “organize a discussion among Senate Democrats about Joe Biden’s viability as the party nominee.”

So far, there are more elected Democrats who have expressed support for Biden than have called on him to exit the race. He received a shot in the arm Monday from high-profile progressives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom publicly backed the president, and from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Furthermore, some of the politicians at the top of the list to replace Biden have refused to entertain the possibility. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she doesn’t like being named as a replacement, calling the issue “a distraction.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom has remained loyal, saying that Biden’s “had our back. Now it’s time to have his.”

Biden’s best bet is to expand the ranks of leading Democrats rallying to his side. But the longer that influential figures such as Tester and Brown hold out, putting the onus on the president to “prove” he’s up to the job, the more pressure will be on Biden to perform.

The president and his team are clearly feeling this pressure, which is why they’ve recently scheduled campaign stops, television interviews and even a rare solo press conference for later this week.

With less than six weeks to go until the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the clock is ticking. The party must finalize its nomination before the convention ends.

Biden’s position, as he put it in a letter sent Monday to congressional Democrats, is that “the voters of the Democratic Party have voted. They have chosen me to be the nominee of the party. Do we now just say this process didn’t matter? That the voters don’t have a say?”

Yet now, after the debate, it seems that Biden’s own party is suddenly reevaluating his fitness — not by voting, but by closely observing him on stage, on camera and on the stump in what little time they have left.

More than anything else, the president’s own performances over the next few days will determine whether he can cling to his spot atop the ticket — or whether some combination of polls, donors and other elected Democrats force him from the race.