'I’m in This Race to the End,' Biden Says as Party Revolt Grows

Vice President Kamala Harris introduces President Joe Biden at a campaign rally on May 29, 2024 in Philadelphia. Credit - Andrew Harnik—Getty Images

President Joe Biden scrambled Wednesday to reignite his flagging campaign among key Democrats and stamp out a simmering effort to convince him to leave the race.

After almost a week of showing minimal effort to combat worries about his ability to win this race after a disastrous debate performance against Donald Trump, Biden has finally started working the phones—taping interviews with two Black radio hosts and speaking directly with Democratic leaders including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And the White House and the Biden campaign held separate midday all-staff conference calls, with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris taking the rare step of calling into the campaign call and stopping by in person to talk to White House press officials, advisers said.

“I’m in this race to the end, and we are going to win,” Biden told campaign staffers.

The next few days are likely to be make-or-break ones for Biden’s hold on the nomination, as Democrats are growing more anxious about their prospects for keeping the presidency down to local offices. At the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden understands the worries but added he retains his resolve: “The President is clear-eyed and he is staying in the race.”

But none of that may be enough to tamp down his party’s panic over his candidacy.

Around Washington, the ongoing debate about Biden’s future continued to consume most of the conversation. Stories published early Wednesday in quick succession set the tone, with both The New York Times and CNN quoting an unnamed Biden ally—perhaps the same one—suggesting that Biden was aware he needed to prove in the coming days that he can both handle and win a second term. The White House and Biden’s campaign denied Biden had said any such thing. But in Washington, the exact facts of such a moment matter less than the permission they give to other allies, who amplified the headlines.

In the week since Democrats watched their presumptive nominee implode in real time on stage against Trump, the whispers about replacing Biden on the ticket for someone new—and importantly someone younger—have grown into a roar.

On the Hill, reliably-blue Democratic House members began circulating a draft letter to Biden, imploring him to step aside for the good of the party. As of midday Wednesday, they were still just passing it among themselves, hoping its mere existence was enough to goad Biden to action. Separately, a second group of Democratic lawmakers began drafting their own letter, telling Biden that his re-nomination would tank their hopes in swing districts.

“They’ve all lost confidence in the Biden operation,” says one Democratic consultant working with progressive House clients. “No one is in charge. It’s Biden alone, but no one thinks he is actually in full command of the levers or power here.”

Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris stood lockstep with Biden. She defended him in public and in private, telling her staff to keep their heads down and do their job without paying attention to the distractions. She joined Biden on Wednesday morning for a joint intelligence briefing in the Oval Office, sat with him for lunch in his private dining room next door, and was spotted walking the hallways of the West Wing with him. While some in the party were simultaneously pushing for her elevation as the nominee and others were flagging that she’s never led a national ticket before, some senior Democrats were dismissive of any such chatter.

A person close to the campaign who stressed the campaign was “doubling down” on Biden staying put, said Harris was the only logical alternative if the party manages to shove the President off the ticket. “If that succeeds there is zero chance you then use that same energy to push out your standing Vice President who is a woman and Black and South Asian,” the person says.

Asked by reporters about the prospect of Harris taking over the nomination on Wednesday, Jean-Pierre insisted Biden was staying in the race, but said, "One of the reasons he picked Vice President Kamala Harris is that she is indeed the future of the party."

Democrats close to the White House have been pleading with top aides to take more seriously the damage done, and understand that one terrible debate performance has effectively exploded the 2024 electoral map. A NYT/Siena College poll published Wednesday found Trump leading Biden by six percentage points—a three-point swing—and three-quarters of likely voters viewing Biden as too old to do the job. It was in line with other surveys from CNN and CBS News. Some in the party believe at least four states have shifted in recent days from the safely-blue column into jump-ball territory: New Mexico, Minnesota, Virginia, and New Hampshire. All four went to Biden in 2020, giving him 32 of the 270 electoral votes required to capture the White House.

Numerically, Biden still has a path to winning the White House without those four states based on leaked internal polls. But Democrats are skeptical that they will maintain their hold on a must-win swing state like Arizona if similar demographics in nearby New Mexico bolt. Similarly, Wisconsin and Michigan suddenly seem less plausible if Minnesota slips red; Republicans have won Minnesota just three times since Dwight D. Eisenhower grabbed it in 1952. A 12-point swing in New Hampshire since January is nothing to be blown off.

Biden’s team is making moves to answer these developments. Biden campaign aides have announced stops in the coming days in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—two must-win states—as well as an interview to be taped Friday with ABC News’ George Stephanopolous. Biden is set to meet Wednesday evening with Democratic Governors, including some who have been mentioned as potential replacements for him as the nominee such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

“They want to touch base and hear what the plan is moving forward,” a source close to the campaign said of the meeting with the governors.

In the West Wing driveway after the session late Wednesday, three of the 24 Democratic governors who talked to Biden described having an honest and open conversation about the concerns they were hearing from voters. They said they were assured by Biden that he was not dropping out and they promised to support him. “When you love someone you tell them the truth. We came in and we were honest about the feedback we were getting,” Maryland Governor Wes Moore told reporters. Moore was one of the 9 governors who spoke with Biden in person at the White House, the others attended virtually. “The President continued to tell us and show us that he was all in,” Moore said. “We said that we would stand with him.”

From left, Governors Kathy Hochul of New York, Wes Moore of Maryland, and Tim Walz of Minnesota, outside the White House after meeting with Biden on July 3, 2024.<span class="copyright">Yuri Gripas—Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images</span>
From left, Governors Kathy Hochul of New York, Wes Moore of Maryland, and Tim Walz of Minnesota, outside the White House after meeting with Biden on July 3, 2024.Yuri Gripas—Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New York Governor Kathy Hochul told reporters Biden “is in it to win it” and “all of us said we pledged our support to him because the stakes could not be higher.” Minnesota Governor Tim Walz said Biden is “fit for office” and said “what we saw in there today was a guy who was the guy who we all believed in the first time could beat Donald Trump and he did beat Donald Trump.”

Yet the panic was evident from the party’s top brass down to rank-and-file members, many of whom were speculating about whether Biden might give up the nomination as soon as today. Even routine administrative tasks drew attention amid the heightened worries. A copy of Biden’s upcoming fundraising schedule has him parked until a Colorado visit at the end of the month, an infuriating decision to those who feel Biden should be taking every opportunity to demonstrate his vitality. Even the Biden campaign’s job board is drawing unusual levels of scrutiny, with postings for a national spokesman and a social-media adviser for Harris raising theories of what it signaled about the campaign’s evolution.

The pessimistic thinking followed a terrible day for Biden on Tuesday, with Rep. Lloyd Doggett being the first sitting Democrat in Congress to call for him to drop out, joining a chorus that already included former Sen. Tom Harkin and former Rep. Tim Ryan. Biden’s team is moving ahead with plans to re-nominate him before the convention even begins in Chicago in August, perhaps as soon as July 22.

The next steps belong almost solely to Biden. And, around Capitol Hill, Democrats are reminding themselves that the Watergate crises of the 1970s didn’t push Richard Nixon out of the White House. His fellow Republicans did, with a direct confrontation in the Oval Office on Aug. 7, 1974.

Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott was as honest with the President as he could be. “Mr. President, we are very saddened, but we have to tell you facts,” Scott said, according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book on Nixon’s exit.

The next evening, Nixon addressed the nation from the Oval Office and flew home to California a day later.

So far, no top-shelf Democrat has tried to replicate the Nixon-era pressure for the good of the party. At this point, it’s mostly lawmakers trying to get the headlines without the fingerprints, and governors worried about down-ballot blowback without demonstrating too much alarm. And, to Biden advisers’ mind, until those groups take ownership of their historic ask, the President has few reasons to take their backchannel pleas more seriously.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.