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Why do so many Democrats prefer ‘fringe’ candidates to Biden?

Historically, big poll numbers for obscure challengers — such as Robert Kennedy and Marianne Williamson — are a scary harbinger for an incumbent. This time around, though, analysts say they might not be as scary.

(CN) — Between a quarter and a third of Democrats prefer a little-known candidate with out-of-the-mainstream views and no political experience over President Biden, according to recent polls showing surprising strength for primary challengers Robert Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson.

This isn’t great news for Biden in the general election — but it’s also not as bad as it might seem, according to political experts who spoke with Courthouse News.

Among Democrats, Kennedy is currently at 20% nationally in the RealClear Politics polling average and Williamson is at 8.5%.

Even Democrats who prefer Biden want the two upstarts to be taken seriously. A whopping 79% of people who voted for Biden in 2020 want him to debate his two primary opponents on television, a Newsweek poll showed — despite the fact that no incumbent president has ever participated in a televised primary debate.

But political analysts say the eyebrow-raising numbers don’t reflect deep support or even familiarity with Kennedy, a nephew of the late president with questionable views on vaccines and autism, or Williamson, a self-help author who has at various times suggested that psychic powers can affect everything from disease processes to hurricanes.

“There is no groundswell of support for Kennedy's unhinged conspiracy theories or Williamson's unhinged new-age ramblings,” said David Niven, who teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati.

There is, however, a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the party’s standard-bearer, and this is translating into Democrats naming any other candidate or simply wanting more of a contest. “Huge chunks of Democratic voters would prefer someone else,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University who has correctly predicted every presidential election since 1984.

A recent Forbes poll showed a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden at the top of their ticket. The million-dollar question is, will these Democratic voters abandon Biden in the general election — or simply stay home and not vote at all?

In the past, when arguably “fringe” primary candidates have done shockingly well, they have often revealed serious weaknesses in establishment figures that forecast doom in the general election. Examples include Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Pat Buchanan in 1992 and Bernie Sanders in 2016.

But Biden’s situation is different, most experts say, because in those cases the party rank-and-file were using obscure candidates as a way of registering anger with their leadership. Most Democrats aren’t angry with Biden; they simply don’t think he’s a strong and vigorous candidate — but they’ll still vote for him if the alternative is Donald Trump.

“There is a world of difference between the apathy that President Biden must overcome in his party compared to the outright hostility that George H.W. Bush was up against in 1992 or Lyndon Johnson was up against in 1968,” said Niven.

McCarthy, Buchanan and Sanders “had burning issues,” said Lichtman. “There are no burning issues here.”

Mack Shelley, who teaches political science at Iowa State University, said “the contemporary equivalent of a Gene McCarthy-style insurgency seems unlikely” because there is no “Vietnam War-level impetus.”

Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the New York State Capitol in Albany on May 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

Of the differences between Biden and his leading Democratic opponent, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, noted that they “tend to be Jesuitical” compared against their differences with the Republicans: Kennedy disagrees with Biden on the war in Ukraine and criticizes him on civil liberties.

Robert Kaufman, a professor at Pepperdine University who has written numerous books about recent presidents, said Kennedy and Williamson are less like McCarthy and Buchanan and more like Herman Cain in 2012 and Howard Dean in 2004, both of who had surprising polling bumps before voters got to know them better and rejected them.

David Greenberg, a presidential historian at Rutgers, thinks much of Kennedy’s appeal is his name. “In the 2000 election George W. Bush became the early frontrunner in the polls because a lot of people mistakenly believed he was his father,” Greenberg noted. “People might not think Kennedy is the dead RFK, but they see the name and they think there’s something to like there.”

With no burning issue driving Democrats to actively dislike Biden, his lack of support is mainly due to his age, which makes voters feel worried rather than hostile.

“You watch him on TV and he sounds like my old uncle who’s not always fully there,” said Smith. And Shelley said younger voters in particular often see Biden a “a spent force … who could be their great-grandparent.”

Biden is also a dull, uncharismatic figure who is “not exactly Barack Obama,” said Lichtman. Democrats were willing to settle for him in 2020 in an effort to beat Trump, but that doesn’t mean they’re enthusiastic about him.

Inflation is the other cause of Biden’s low approval, said Smith. But this seems unlikely to be motivating Democratic defections because neither Kennedy nor Williamson has made inflation a central campaign issue.

Smith downplayed the significance of polls showing that Democrats want a televised debate. It would seem odd to be opposed to them, he noted, because debates “are an expectation of our politics now; they’re built into what you do.” In Biden's case, though, it’s possible that some Democrats want to see Biden debate to gauge how fit he is for the job.

It’s unclear which factions of the Democrats’ coalition are telling pollsters that they prefer the obscure candidates. Kennedy appears to be drawing support relatively equally along race and gender lines, although Williamson runs strongest among white women.

The recent polls don’t break down support by ideology, but Kaufman suspects that Kennedy and Williamson’s backers are drawn largely from the progressive left who want more attention paid to social priorities and less to defense and support for Ukraine.

But when the time comes, these voters will show up at the polls and pull the lever for the president, according to Kaufman. “Progressive people may blow smoke, but they’ll vote for Biden.”

This is especially true if Trump wins the nomination because he will drive Democrats to the polls to keep him from returning to office, Kaufman said.

Greenberg agreed: “Many Democrats are hesitant about Biden but resolute in hating Trump. They’ll hold their nose and vote.”

As a result, in the Republican primary, Democratic leaders “are praying it’ll be Trump,” Smith commented.

The tendency of Democrats to return to the fold despite their grumblings was demonstrated in last year’s midterms when the party did better than expected, Kaufman believes. He said the fact that there has been “zero movement” among potentially serious Democratic challengers such as California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker shows that top party officials understand the polls as revealing restlessness but not true voter discontent.

Democrats are saying they want someone else, Greenberg noted, but “you can’t find an individual someone else who would outpoll Biden.”

Smith agrees that whatever misgivings Democrats have now about the president, in the end they’ll vote for him. People are partisan on both sides, he said, and, unless there’s some extraordinary issue at work, when they get into the voting booth, it’s “our skunk is better than yours.”

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