The curious case of Dean Phillips's last-minute primary challenge

His run isn’t based on a major policy or ideological disagreement with Biden.

October 31, 2023, 2:20 PM

It looks like President Biden won't have perfectly smooth sailing to the Democratic nomination, after all. On Friday, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips announced a 2024 presidential campaign, arguing that while Biden "has done a spectacular job" as president, the party "needs to look to the future" to ensure it can defeat former President Donald Trump. Phillips's move came nearly three weeks after erstwhile primary contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr. dropped out of the Democratic primary to run as an independent. While 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson is also running, Phillips quickly moves to the front of the line as Biden's most notable opponent within his own party.

Like many past presidential primary challengers, Phillips has targeted New Hampshire to make a splash. And he could notch a symbolic win there because Biden won't be on the ballot due to the Democratic National Committee's impending sanctions against Granite State Democrats for violating the party's primary calendar rules. The congressman's campaign is motivated by concerns over Biden's electability given Democrats' apprehensions about the president's advanced age (he'll be 81 in November), poor approval rating (40 percent in 538's national average) and early general election polls that may foreshadow a difficult race against Trump.

Phillips has laid out one chief campaign goal: Ensuring Democrats defeat Trump in 2024. However, the two paths he's set out for how to do that don't seem especially viable — and are also somewhat incongruous. One route involves him actually winning the nomination and offering a stronger (and notably younger) opponent to Trump. But Phillips's path to defeating Biden in the Democratic primary looks vanishingly small. Biden has maintained solid approval numbers among Democrats and he hasn't upset a large swath of the party on any standout issues, which leaves Phillips with no obvious fissures to capitalize on. Moreover, to have any shot at success, he probably should have launched his campaign much earlier in the election cycle.

The second option, according to Phillips, is that his challenge will push Biden with a tough primary campaign that better prepares Biden for the rigors of facing Trump. But despite his intentions, the little-known congressman may risk damaging Biden ahead of the general election by indirectly calling attention to the president's weaknesses.

Who is Dean Phillips?

The first question for some will be: Who is Phillips? He's a 54-year-old, third-term congressman from Minnesota, where he represents the suburbs west of Minneapolis. The millionaire Phillips was heir to his family's distilling company, and he also led the gelato manufacturer Talenti. He's Jewish, and he's argued in the wake of the Israel-Hamas conflict that the U.S. needs to support Israel, although he backs a two-state solution long-term. In Congress, Phillips has been a fairly moderate member of the House Democratic caucus. He falls to the right of about 80 percent of his party colleagues in's ideological data, and he belongs to the center-left, business-oriented New Democrat Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

The Minnesotan teased a potential run for months, but also said that the party would benefit from a competitive primary. In fact, the delay in his campaign may have been due to his efforts to encourage another, better-known Democrat to run before deciding to do it himself. Although some Democrats have criticized Phillips's run as self-aggrandizing, in theory his entry might still be aimed at luring a higher-profile Democrat into the race by demonstrating that there's an appetite for an alternative — although time is running out for such a scenario to be remotely feasible. It remains to be seen if Phillips will explicitly criticize Biden's policies — he's mostly applauded the incumbent's tenure — but at least one Phillips slogan ("Make America affordable again") points to his additional focus on economic concerns, a chief worry for Americans over the past couple of years — especially inflation and the higher cost of living.

Of course, Phillips is very much a long shot to win the Democratic nomination for president. Although he qualifies as a "major" candidate under 538's criteria, Phillips is a relatively obscure congressman — tellingly, 538 could not locate a single national survey that had asked about Phillips, such as a poll testing his favorability rating. Understandably then, Phillips intends to focus entirely on the New Hampshire primary at the start, but to have a chance he would need to attract fundraising support and build a broader campaign apparatus to capitalize on any success he has there. Phillips will have an experienced national campaign manager leading the way in Steve Schmidt, a former Republican operative and manager for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign who broke with the GOP over Trump. It's an eyebrow-raising choice, but perhaps not surprising given that Phillips probably struggled to find a Democrat willing to risk their career in party politics to run his campaign.

Why Phillips is an unusual primary challenger

A fundamental problem for Phillips (or any primary challenger) is that Democrats have a positive view of Biden's work as president. It's true polls have shown Democrats are worried about Biden's age, and many have shown a large share — sometimes a majority — would prefer a different nominee and/or for Biden not to run again. But those concerns alone may not stop Biden. What's missing so far is a second ingredient: sizable intraparty frustration with Biden's job performance. Biden's circumstances are largely the same as they were in July, when 538 laid out why Biden was unlikely to face a significant primary challenge. Namely, 78 percent of Democrats approve of Biden's performance as president, which represents only a very slight tick downward from where he stood in January 2023 at 80 percent.

This is not to say that Biden doesn't face some degree of unhappiness among Democrats when it comes to his handling of different problems. Most notably, Democrats have lower approval ratings for how Biden has handled the economy and related challenges like inflation, which remains a chief weakness for the president. Still, Democrats remain more likely to approve than disapprove of Biden's economic handling. And overall, partisan views may also be keeping Democrats in line behind Biden despite doubts about him, just as they pushed Republicans to overwhelmingly disapprove of Biden from the start.

Another factor missing behind Phillips's campaign is the lack of a clear ideological disagreement and/or single overriding policy issue driving his run against Biden, which contrasts greatly with past presidential primary challenges. Looking back, pretty much all in the post-World War II era had one or both of those conditions.

Biden's overall approval is poor, but there are striking differences between his current political position and that of past incumbents who faced primary challenges. Unlike most, Biden has retained a high approval rating among his party base, and his struggles with the economy don't necessarily compare with some of the historical events and controversies that damaged the standing of previous incumbents who faced notable primary challengers.

Pivotal issues helped provoke two damaging results for incumbent presidents in the 1952 and 1968 New Hampshire primaries. In 1952, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver challenged President Harry Truman, whose standing had been crushed by accusations of government corruption, the ongoing Korean War and economic strife. Truman had an approval rating in the 20s — and in the 40s among Democrats. Kefauver defeated the incumbent 55 percent to 44 percent in New Hampshire's March primary, and Truman announced he wouldn't run again later that month. In 1968, growing public opposition to the Vietnam War fractured the Democratic Party. Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy ran against President Lyndon Johnson as an anti-war candidate, as LBJ's approval among Democrats sagged into the low 50s. Johnson narrowly won New Hampshire's March primary as a write-in candidate, 50 percent to McCarthy's 42 percent. But the president's relatively poor showing prompted New York Sen. Robert Kennedy Sr. to enter the race, and LBJ then announced he wouldn't seek renomination.

More recent primary challenges have usually been driven by broader ideological disagreements. In 1976, moderate Republican President Gerald Ford fended off a conservative challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who led the GOP's ascendant right against Ford's politics of deficit spending and détente toward the Soviet Union. In 1980, Sen. Ted Kennedy came from the left against President Jimmy Carter, who had frustrated some liberals and labor leaders with his more conservative economic policies; Carter's approval rating among Democrats was in the low 40s for most of the latter half of his presidency. And in 1992, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush with a proto-Trumpian populist, socially conservative and isolationist message. Buchanan embarrassed Bush in New Hampshire, losing only 53 percent to 37 percent, and while Buchanan didn't win a single primary, he earned a key speaking slot at the party's national convention.

While Phillips has made references to economic concerns, he's said he wants to avoid criticizing Biden's job performance, in contrast to most past challengers. A political moderate, Phillips isn't pursuing an ideological challenge from Biden's left — in fact, high-profile progressives have backed Biden's reelection. And with his focus primarily on Biden's age and his refusal to explicitly question Biden's policies, Phillips isn't really running to his right, either.

Even if Phillips doesn't explicitly attack Biden, though, his assertion that he can strengthen the party by challenging Biden is debatable. Historically, the divisions laid bare in the 1968 Democratic, 1980 Democratic and 1992 Republican primary campaigns may have contributed to or been symptomatic of the issues underlying the eventual defeat of the incumbent president's party. Whether that would be as true today is harder to know. Polarization in our politics has grown, and voters have been increasingly locked in to their sides since the 1990s. So come hell or high water, most Democrats and Republicans — including independents who lean toward those parties — are going to stick with their preferred party.

However, any tacit criticism Phillips makes of Biden could garner attention and reinforce negative perceptions of the incumbent. It's not hard to imagine Phillips saying something about, say, the higher cost of living that attracts ample media attention. Republican ad makers might then conceive of pitching voters with a line like "even Democrats think Bidenomics have failed." Phillips's comments on other issues, like public safety and crime — another issue on which Biden's approval ratings lag compared to his overall ratings among Democrats — could also prime the media and public to focus more on Biden's challenges. And while there are fewer swing voters, these issues could influence their choices, which are incredibly important in an environment where most presidential elections are decided by fine margins.

This brings us to perhaps Phillips's preeminent concern, his claim that nominating Biden would set Democrats on a course to lose to Trump. Early 2024 general election polls testing Biden against Trump show a very close race, so there's little question that Biden could lose — especially considering his approval is poor and the public is unhappy with the state of the economy. Trump also showed in 2016 that he could carve a path to victory even while losing the national popular vote, which could happen again. In other words, Democrats have plenty to fear. But that fear is also borne of the reality that close presidential elections are practically a given in our deeply-divided political era. More broadly, presidential polls a year out from the election have notably more error than polls in the summer of the actual general election year. These polls might have more value than typical early polls based on voters' high familiarity with both candidates. But needless to say, the state of the economy, war and peace, Trump's legal issues and many other developments could significantly affect the electoral environment between now and November 2024.

Granted, Biden is the oldest president ever, which is an unprecedented raison d'être for a presidential primary challenge. Yet if Phillips wanted to more aggressively push Biden to "pass the torch," he probably should've gotten into the race sooner. The congressman would've given himself more time to gain traction and attention — or perhaps set the table for a bigger name to jump in, as he's suggested he was waiting for — by entering in the late summer, when rumors first sprang up that he might run. Take it from the commentators who have already laid out the many logistical challenges that would deter a late Republican primary entry by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who some GOP donors view as a white knight who could ride in to give Trump a real battle in the Republican primary. Based on the realities of the primary calendar, a campaign beginning this late seems borderline quixotic.

The New Hampshire wrinkle

Still, Phillips's decision to target New Hampshire could produce an interesting dynamic because that contest will function differently in 2024 than in the past. Following Biden's lead, the DNC implemented a primary calendar in which South Carolina's primary would lead off on Feb. 3 and New Hampshire's primary would share the second position with Nevada's primary on Feb. 6. However, New Hampshire officials are moving forward with their primary, which will likely take place in late January, and state Democrats have refused to create an alternate party-run contest on the DNC's mandated date. As a result of this violation of national party rules, New Hampshire Democrats will likely lose at least half, if not all, of their convention delegates, and candidates could face losing all of their delegates if they run in New Hampshire's unsanctioned state-run primary. In light of this, Biden did not file to appear on the primary ballot. This all means that Phillips not only can't get any delegates out of the state, but he also could forfeit his right to any future ones, too.

However, these developments have dovetailed such that Phillips could grab headlines by winning — or coming close — in New Hampshire, with unknown consequences for the rest of the primary campaign. The theory for Phillips may be that, if he starts winning, the party would eventually compromise with him regarding the delegate penalties. At the very least, the potential optics of this situation are clearly a concern for some New Hampshire Democrats, who've begun organizing a write-in effort for Biden. Yet a write-in campaign could still prove to be embarrassing for Biden if he only narrowly wins — and even more so if he loses. Regardless of the nuances of this situation, it's easy to imagine the media taking a result like that and running with it as a signal of Biden's weakness.

But even a seemingly strong performance in New Hampshire is unlikely to buoy Phillips to the party's nomination. Biden would almost certainly cruise to victory in South Carolina, which provided a sorely needed boost to his 2020 campaign after losses in other early primary states, and then also Nevada, where Phillips missed the candidate filing deadline. Today's campaign calendar would also throw cold water on the possibility of any early success by Phillips inspiring other Democrats to join the primary field. Whereas Johnson's weak showing in New Hampshire prompted Kennedy to jump into the 1968 race, today's system doesn't really allow for candidates to enter the fray so late. That's because many primaries have candidate filing deadlines in 2023 or early 2024 — for instance, most candidate filing deadlines for the numerous Super Tuesday (March 5) contests are in November and December.

However, something unexpected could happen, perhaps because of Biden's age or health, that might propel Phillips into a much more viable position in the 2024 Democratic primary. By running, Phillips is doing what more notable Democratic names have not — giving himself a chance. That puts Phillips in a position not dissimilar from the Republicans currently running against Trump, who may cling to the hope that Trump's legal troubles — or his own age-related issues (Trump is 77) — could provide an eventual opening if they can just stay alive in the GOP primary.