The Embattled Biden Campaign Tests Kamala Harris’ Strength vs. Trump

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) takes questions at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 9, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) takes questions at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 9, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Under siege from fellow Democrats, President Joe Biden’s campaign is quietly testing the strength of Vice President Kamala Harris against former President Donald Trump in a head-to-head survey of voters, as Biden fights for his political future with a high-stakes news conference Thursday.

The survey, which is being conducted this week and was commissioned by the Biden campaign’s analytics team, is believed to be the first time since the debate that Biden’s aides have sought to measure how the vice president would fare at the top of the ticket. It was described by three people who are informed about it and insisted on anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. They did not specify why the survey was being conducted or what the campaign planned to do with the results. It could be read as the team gathering information to present a case to the president that his path forward is slim, or to argue that Biden is still the strongest standard-bearer for his party.

The effort comes as some longtime aides and advisers to Biden are said to have become increasingly convinced that he will have to step aside from the campaign, and in recent days have been trying to come up with ways to convince him that he should, The New York Times reported Thursday. A growing number of prominent lawmakers have called for Biden to drop out or suggest he should reconsider his plans to run.

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While some of Biden’s top aides have quietly argued that Harris could not win the election, donors and other outside supporters of the vice president’s believe she might be in a stronger position after the debate and could be a more energetic communicator of the party’s message.

In a memo to campaign staff Thursday, Biden’s campaign chair, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, and his campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, wrote about the “path ahead.”

“In addition to what we believe is a clear pathway ahead for us, there is also no indication that anyone else would outperform the president vs. Trump,” they wrote. “Hypothetical polling of alternative nominees will always be unreliable, and surveys do not take into account the negative media environment that any Democratic nominee will encounter. The only Democratic candidate for whom this is already baked in is President Biden.”

The memo also appeared to acknowledge an erosion of Biden’s support.

“The movement we have seen, while real, is not a sea-change in the state of the race,” the memo says.

As the White House and the Biden campaign try to project a unified front, some of their supporters are engaged in a tough assessment of who should top the ticket.

Biden’s political future will be determined in part by his performance during Thursday’s news conference at the NATO summit in Washington at 6:30 p.m., which party lawmakers, officials and donors have said they will closely monitor. It will be his longest unscripted appearance since the faltering debate performance two weeks ago.

Before the news conference, Biden is dispatching some of his top aides — including Steve Ricchetti, Mike Donilon and O’Malley Dillon — to Capitol Hill to settle nervous Democratic senators who have begun to break ranks. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has predicted that Biden will lose and deeply damage Democrats in downballot races. And Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., on Wednesday evening became the first senator to explicitly call for Biden to drop out.

Much of the attention is on Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, who has said publicly that he is “with Joe” but who has signaled privately, Axios reported Wednesday, that he is open to a ticket not led by Biden. In a statement provided after that article published, Schumer said, “As I have made clear repeatedly publicly and privately, I support President Biden and remain committed to ensuring Donald Trump is defeated in November.”

One person who spoke directly with Schumer last weekend, who discussed the conversation on the condition of anonymity to protect the relationship, said the majority leader was looking for a way to find a different candidate while being mindful of Biden.

So far, much of the discontent has been voiced in similarly private and vague ways. The Democracy Alliance, a powerful network of major liberal donors, released a memo to members Thursday morning stressing its commitment to funding House races in what Pamela Shifman, the president of the group, framed as a “challenging moment.” The memo made no direct mention of Biden, other than alluding to the fact that he could lose.

“The House is a bulwark against authoritarianism and our insurance policy against Project 2025,” Shifman wrote, referring to the far-reaching policy plans by Trump allies. “We can’t be caught flat-footed like we were eight years ago. After 2016, it would be malpractice for us not to have a plan in place for if the worst happens.”

The president’s team had felt bullish earlier in the week after a hard push Monday to silence his Democratic critics, which included an open letter to Congress, a cable news call-in, a presidential appearance on a top donor call and a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus.

But any progress in moving past the debate was undone early Wednesday when former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Biden still had a decision to make about whether he was running — nearly a week after he told Democratic governors and ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos that he was staying in the race.

Pelosi delivered her message — implying that Biden could reconsider his candidacy — on “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC show Biden often wakes up to watch. It was the same program to which Biden had phoned in for an interview Monday to declare that he was committed to running.

Pelosi, Schumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the Democratic leader in the House, are seen as three of the most influential figures in the debate over whether Biden should step aside.

The question of what might come afterward if he does drop out has convulsed the Democratic Party and shaped the conversation about what to do. Many in the party have doubted Harris’ ability to unite a sufficiently broad coalition to defeat Trump in November.

Although the Biden campaign is littered with aides panicked about Biden’s political standing, the president has been sanguine in his discussions with donors and Democratic elected officials, blaming the party and news media “elites” for the anxiety.

Since the debate, Biden’s innermost circle has shrunk to his family and a very small group of his closest aides, effectively cocooning the president. It is not clear how much Biden has been informed about how his standing has dropped among Democrats.

Harris has been careful to demonstrate complete loyalty to Biden’s bid. But outside supporters of her candidacy have been quietly and carefully floating the idea that she might be a stronger contender against Trump — with some even going so far as to suggest potential running mates for the vice president.

This week, strategists and donors who were supportive of Harris circulated a presentation of polling assessing her strength with younger voters and showing that 2 out of 3 Democratic voters in battleground states supported the idea of Harris as the nominee in a scenario where Biden dropped out.

Some of Biden’s aides have been privately skeptical of Harris’ ability to win the election.

Shortly after the debate, Biden’s campaign chair, O’Malley Dillon, and his White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients, met with a group of anti-Trump Republicans at a hotel near the White House. The meeting had been planned weeks before the debate, but the two Biden advisers found themselves fielding pleas from some in the room that Biden drop out after his poor showing onstage. Biden’s advisers said the conversation was a nonstarter.

When some of the Republicans suggested that Democrats had a number of other options among the party’s governors, O’Malley Dillon said that the options were either Biden or, if he were to drop out, Harris and indicated that the discussion was a waste of time, according to one person briefed on what was said.

“Jen was clear: The 2024 ticket is President Biden and Vice President Harris,” said Kevin Munoz, a Biden campaign spokesperson.

Another person who was briefed on the meeting and who recounted the discussion about Harris said the implication some took was that the Biden advisers did not think she would fare any better than the president.

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