A 3-way game of geriatric chicken featuring Trump, Biden, and Bernie has younger Democrats and Republicans itching for change

A 3-way game of geriatric chicken featuring Trump, Biden, and Bernie has younger Democrats and Republicans itching for change
Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders are all top top contenders for the 2024 presidential election.David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • The 2024 presidential race is already coming into view.
  • It looks as though the two oldest presidents in history are readying for a rematch.
  • And don't count 81-year-old Bernie Sanders out entirely.

The 2024 presidential campaign, at this earliest of stages, is becoming an epic game of 3-way geriatric chicken.

In one corner is Joe Biden, who at 79 is preparing to run for reelection despite being the oldest president in nearly 250 years of US history.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is in another corner. A top political advisor for the 81-year-old socialist has said he'd make a third attempt to win the White House as a Democrat, but only if Biden doesn't run.

And the biggest wild card of them all is Donald Trump. At 76, the man who before Biden held the designation of being the oldest president in US history appears intent on getting his old job back for the power and prestige, for revenge, and perhaps to even pardon himself should it come to that.

No one can lay exclusive claim to a spot on their respective party primary ballots.


But each of those three men do hold an outsized sway right now over their party's leadership apparatus in what could be an otherwise wide-open presidential campaign.

To many observers, the three have created a power vacuum unlike anything seen in modern US history. It's also the case that Trump and Biden have the most say in the entire matter.

"Maybe they can have a meeting and shake hands and agree that neither would run," Trent Lott, the former Senate GOP leader, told Insider in an interview where he acknowledged the desire for fresh faces in the next crop of 2024 presidential candidates.

That's a growing sentiment.

Mitch McConnell, the current Senate Republican leader, recently predicted there would be a "crowded" field for the GOP in 2024. Others worry that if Trump, Biden, and Sanders don't get out of the way then everyone else on the bench may need to wait even longer to forge their own path to the White House.


"I think it's time to get a fresh look at some new candidates," Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, 47, said in an interview.

Added presidential historian Douglas Brinkley: "It's a sad state when the parties can't put up candidates in their 40s, 50s, and maybe in their 60s, but they're having to resort to people in their 70s and 80s. It stunts the outgrowth of democracy. You lose years on that kind of safe strategy."

A 3-way game of geriatric chicken featuring Trump, Biden, and Bernie has younger Democrats and Republicans itching for change
Joe Biden and Donald Trump exchange words at the final presidential debate of 2020.Chip Somodevilla / POOL / AFP

The sole candidate who can beat Trump?

Insider's "Red, White, and Gray" series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation's youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those whose primes have passed.

Biden won the presidency in the first place by making the argument that he was the sole candidate among the Democrats who could beat Trump. Now, Biden asserts that "Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic."

These are arguments Biden is readying to run on as Trump — despite his numerous legal troubles — flirts with another White House bid.


Biden himself faces political headwinds, including his own mediocre public approval ratings, high inflation, and angst from inside the party that Democrats failed to fully deliver on an ever-growing list of demands from the economy to safeguarding democracy. Losing majorities in both the House and Senate is a real possibility that some top Democrats quietly acknowledge. And two in three Democrats said that Biden is simply too old to run, according to an Insider/Morning Consult poll conducted in September.

It's also the case that Sanders' 2024 aspirations remain in their own holding pattern until Biden makes his own formal declaration of his intentions.

After spending stretches of the 2020 presidential campaign in his basement, Biden sought to portray himself as a youthful, active commander-in-chief.

But that hasn't always worked out. Conservatives gleefully highlight his every misspoken word or verbal stumble as evidence of mental decline. Biden tumbled from his bicycle during a June ride in Delaware. And after a lengthy swing through the Middle East, Biden returned to Washington with an unexpected parting gift: COVID-19.

Biden would be 86 years old when, in 2029, he'd complete a second term. It's a fact the White House doesn't want to talk about.


"That is not a question that we should be even asking," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre responded in June when asked on CNN about Biden's health and stamina.

Biden recently snapped at a reporter during a White House picnic for lawmakers when asked if he should skip a second term because of public opinion polling that says he shouldn't run.

"They want me to run," the president remarked. "Read the poll. Read the polls, Jack. You guys are all the same. That poll showed that 92% of Democrats, if I ran, would vote for me."

More recently, in September, Biden told CBS that while he has not reached a "firm decision" on whether he'll run in 2024, he intends on doing so.

"My intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again. But it's just an intention," Biden said. "But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen."


Age is likewise something neither Trump nor Sanders are keen to discuss.

"78 is not old," Trump told a New York Post gossip columnist in July ahead of the funeral for his ex-wife, Ivana, who died earlier this month after a fall at the age of 73.

Although Sanders hasn't spoken publicly about his 2024 intentions, a leaked memo written in April by a top political advisor described a scenario in which he'd jump in if Biden didn't.

Asked over the summer of 2022 about the age of America's overall leadership, Sanders snapped to Insider: "The issue facing America is not age. It is the power of a handful of billionaires who to a significant degree, control the economic and political life of the country."

A 3-way game of geriatric chicken featuring Trump, Biden, and Bernie has younger Democrats and Republicans itching for change
Votes are tabulated on the set of ABC-TV's news coverage of the 1972 presidential election between President Richard Nixon and the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. Nixon won 49 states and captured a second term.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

'George McGovern syndrome'

What's driving all three men — who'd all otherwise be well into their retirements — to stay engaged? Experts cite ego as a major factor for both Biden and Trump.


"The fact they both made it to the White House makes them think they both know how to get to the White House," said Brinkley. "Once you have power, it's very hard to let it go."

Biden's insistence on staying in office also likely stems from his own awareness of history. In particular, he has a longstanding fear that Democrats nominating a more liberal candidate such as Sanders would mean giving Republicans a better shot at winning the White House.

"The problem with the Democratic party is George McGovern syndrome," said Brinkley, referencing the anti-war nominee Democrats ran in 1972 against the incumbent GOP President Richard Nixon. McGovern won a single state — Massachusetts — plus the District of Columbia. Incidentally, 1972 is the same election cycle when Biden, at age 29, was first elected to the US Senate.

This history in mind, Democratic brass are likely to continue to coalesce against the likes of Sanders — or even a Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — as a party standard-bearer.

Mark Longabaugh, a longtime Democratic operative who worked on Sanders' 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said Trump is the singular driving force behind what happens to the rest of the field. If the ex-president ultimately enters the race, Biden will find it even easier to stick around.


"I think Trump is at the center of the decision just because of the way Biden and Biden's core supporters have positioned him as the only one to defeat Trump," he said.

But Longabaugh also said he's not completely convinced any of them will enter the 2024 primaries.

"I think there's a lot of doubt on all three of those and whether they square off again in 2024," Longabaugh said. "I can be dead wrong and Biden and Trump are in, and that's that, and we've got a general election. But I just see a lot more play on the playing field than is conventional wisdom."

That's a view that Cox, the 47-year-old first-term Utah governor, said he hopes plays out.

"A lot can change over the next year, year and a half," he said. "I'm certainly hoping that there are governors on both sides of the aisle, other candidates, who are willing to step up and challenge the status quo that are going to say, 'Hey, look, for the good of our country, we're not going to stand aside and we're going to go to battle here because we think that we have a vision to offer.'"


That Democratic bench could include Vice President Kamala Harris, 57; California Gov. Gavin Newsom, 54; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 40; and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, 57.

Potential Republican challengers for 2024 include well-known names such as former Vice President Mike Pence, 63; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 44; former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, 50; former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 58; and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, 51; Marco Rubio of Florida, 51; and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, 45.

Lott, the former Senate GOP leader, said it was important for new people to assume leadership at the highest levels of government.

His own career in politics lasted from the time he was age 32 until he turned 67.

"You have to know when to hold `em," said Lott, who left public office to work as a lobbyist, "and when to fold `em."