Caroline Leicht

Historically, the midterms pose a challenge for the incumbent president, and it was no different for Joe Biden in 2022. His low approval ratings caused Democrats to fear a Red Wave in November. But a wave did not sweep the nation. Instead, Biden’s Democrats did far better than expected, retaining control of the Senate. But the initial enthusiasm post-midterms may not carry over to 2024.


The Curse of the Incumbent?

Over the past summer, Biden and his administration were busy getting many agenda items passed that are important to Democratic voters. The gun safety bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and student loan forgiveness announced over the summer might have played a role in avoiding the dreaded Red Wave at the midterms. The efforts seemed to pay off: Particularly younger voters and women turned out for Democrats, two demographic groups whose top voting issues have been reflected in the Biden administration’s agenda over the summer.

But the curse of the incumbent may not have been overcome entirely for Biden. Democrats lost control of the House, a significant challenge for any progressive legislation the Biden Administration hopes to pass. And despite faring better than expected in the midterms, Biden’s approval rating is still just around 40%, while his disapproval rating is steadily above 50%. Latest news around confidential documents at his Delaware home will certainly not help these ratings.

But all hope is not lost for the Democratic Party going into 2024. Should Biden decide not to run for re-election, the party has other options now. The midterms proved to be a catapult for potential 2024 candidates. Among them are familiar names like Kamala Harris, but the midterms have also put new names like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on the radar and opened up opportunities for rising political stars in the party.


Will Harris step out from Biden’s shadow?

Should Biden decide not to run for re-election, his number two appears to be the obvious second choice. At 58, Harris is significantly younger than Biden, who would be 81 on Election Day in 2024, and despite her current low approval ratings, Harris may yet be a good option for Democrats. She does better among female voters than male voters and enjoys popularity among Black and Hispanic voters as well as younger voters, particularly those under 30.

Beyond the primaries, where these demographic groups could help her win the nomination, Harris would need to do significantly better among other voter groups to gain the electoral college victory. She is currently performing worse than Biden among White voters and only does well with voters who completed a postgraduate education.

This could all change for Harris, though. If Biden does not run, Harris would have the opportunity to set her agenda and portfolio, step out from Biden’s shadow and have voters form independent opinions about her, a process that would almost certainly change current polling patterns. As the incumbent vice president, however, Harris would face the challenge of balancing setting herself apart from Biden and not diminishing their administration’s efforts.


Buttigieg as a potential primary rival

While Harris is the second choice behind Biden among Democratic voters, it is unlikely that she would run unopposed if Biden does not seek re-election. Potential opposition she may face in a Democratic primary contest may come from within the administration: Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg would be a likely candidate.

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was “the most requested surrogate on the campaign trail” ahead of the midterms, which speaks to his popularity within the party. Biden made significantly less campaign appearances and was notably absent from states with close races, not least because his low approval ratings were seen as a potential liability among Democrats. Buttigieg, on the other hand, is less disliked than Biden and Harris (Buttigieg 26%, Biden 37% and Harris 36%) and enjoys high name recognition among voters (79%).

A potential challenge for Buttigieg might be the proposed changes to the Democratic primary schedule which could see South Carolina holding the first primary contest in the calendar. When Buttigieg ran for president in 2020, he withdrew from the race after the South Carolina primary where he picked up no delegates. He has previously had significant challenges securing support from minority voter groups that make up large shares of the South Carolina electorate. If Buttigieg wants to compete with Harris, he would thus need to improve upon this significantly.


Gretchen Whitmer: The wild card favorite?

Following the midterms, there may also be a potential wild card on the horizon that could pose a challenge to both Harris and Buttigieg in a potential primary contest. Gretchen Whitmer, who was a rumored finalist to be Biden’s running mate in 2020 and was the target of a kidnapping plot thwarted by the FBI in October of the same year, has become a rising political star in the Democratic party. The Michigan Governor just won a second term in the midterms, defeating Trump-backed Republican Tudor Dixon by 10.6 percentage points, a higher margin than her first win in 2018.

Whitmer was the first female Democratic leader of the Michigan Senate, and in 2013 gained national attention for her passionate speech on abortion rights, revealing that she had been sexually assaulted as a young woman. Whitmer has been a leading voice among Democrats on this vital healthcare issue, particularly in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Ahead of the midterms, she received the endorsement of a coalition of over 150 Michigan Republicans, a testament to her ability to work across the aisle.

Following Democrats’ success in Michigan at the midterms, Whitmer has received widespread attention. Within the party, she has already been making a name for herself: She was selected to give the Democratic response to the 2020 State of the Union address and has been a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee since 2021. And while a pre-midterms poll saw only 13% of voters saying they would want her to run and 3% saying she would be their top choice, Whitmer should not be ruled out as a wild card favorite for a potential Democratic primary contest after her recent success.

While the midterms have created some challenges for current political stars within the Democratic Party, including President Biden, they have also proven to have been a platform for rising political stars like Buttigieg and Whitmer. The Democratic Party now has both challenges and opportunities to consider as they set out to keep control of the White House in 2024.



Caroline Leicht is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Southampton, researching gender, media and politics. She is the current Communications Officer of the PSA Early Career Network. Prior to joining the University of Southampton, Caroline worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and covered the 2020 US Presidential Election.

This blog is an adaptation of Caroline’s chapter “Rising Stars and Fading Stars: Challenges and Opportunities for the Democratic Party After the Midterms” published on 30 January 2023 in a briefing paper on the 2022 US Midterms. Titled “Exploring the 2022 US Midterms,” the briefing paper was published by the PSA American Politics Group and consists of eight chapters analyzing aspects of American politics in relation to the 2022 Midterms. The full brief is available on the PSA APG website.