Everybody is in a tizzy about Joe Manchin’s retirement announcement. And maybe they should be. The conventional wisdom for months, or even for a couple years, has been that a presidential candidacy by the West Virginia senator under the “centrist” No Labels banner would mean the end for Joe Biden, and that’s the take in most of the insta-analyses I’ve read over the last 24 hours.
It’s also what I’ve always thought, and it stands to reason. Not because Manchin is a Democrat. But because it has been assumed that he splits the anti-Trump vote. But lately, even before this announcement, I’ve begun to wonder: What if Manchin is more likely to split the anti-Biden vote? In a moment, I’ll get to that case.
But first, let’s address the ramifications of Manchin’s announcement for control of the Senate. This, not the presidential implications, was what the media focused on first—that his decision imperils Democratic control of the Senate.
That’s a kind of base-covering or box-checking journalism that I suppose mainstream outlets feel they have a need to do, but it’s silly. Manchin had zero chance of holding his seat against GOP Governor Jim Justice. Not 10 percent. Not 5 percent. Zero. Justice has been consistently ahead by double digits in recent polls. One outlier poll—conducted, interestingly, for a GOP super PAC—had it at 6; but the most recent public polls pegged Justice’s lead at 12, 13, 22, and 14 percent.
The Democratic Party is all but dead in West Virginia. I say this with sadness, as a native of the state who remembers a day when everyone, from every member of Congress on down to the agriculture commissioner (Gus Douglass!), was a Democrat. The place was never a liberal nirvana, but there were a number of progressives in office, notably Ken Hechler, one of those longtime members of Congress, who’d been a Truman speechwriter and was the only member of the House to march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.
Today? Three of the 34 state senators are Democrats. Three! They could hold their caucus meetings in a closet. And only 10 of the 98 state delegates are Dems (there are two vacancies). The three state senators are from the university towns of Morgantown and Huntington. Everywhere else, the party barely exists.
So that Manchin’s seat was lost was already a foregone conclusion, and anyone who argued otherwise was wasting time.
Now let’s get to a possible Manchin presidential candidacy. First of all, I don’t think it’s certain that he’ll run. I’d call it likely but not preordained. No Labels officials have said repeatedly that they don’t want to help reelect Trump. There is of course no reason to take those avowals at face value. But they can be leveraged by an effective Democratic opposition into pressure to force No Labels to stand down if polling shows consistently that it’d be doing exactly that. So I think there is still a chance that No Labels doesn’t field a candidate, or can’t get anyone of Manchin’s stature to agree to accept its nod, and ends up with a Howard Schultz–level figure.
Second, even if Manchin does run, it is no longer manifestly obvious that he hurts Biden more than he hurts Trump. Here’s the case, which rests on three points.
One: Manchin is basically against abortion rights. His ratings record from the pro-life groups is mixed, but that’s because he has a history of voting for larger Democratic bills that contain some language about abortion that those groups don’t like. And he did criticize the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. But on stand-alone abortion bills, he’s been consistently against choice.
The 2024 election is going to be as direct a nationwide referendum on women’s reproductive rights as we’ve ever had in this country. And as we’ve been seeing since last year and saw again Tuesday, masses of voters are heading to the polls to say they want the government to do something to preserve abortion rights. Manchin’s going to be asked about this constantly if he runs. He’ll bob and weave, but if the Democrats do a good job of letting people know about the anti-choice aspects of his record—for example, he was the only Senate Democrat to join 50 Republicans in opposing a 2022 bill that sought to codify Roe v. Wade—very few pro-choice Americans will vote for him. And that category includes not just Democrats but a majority of independents and even some Republicans.
Two: He’s just not that popular. And to the extent that he is popular, he is more popular among Republicans than Democrats.
In a recent PRRI poll, Manchin was viewed favorably by 12 percent, while 41 percent viewed him unfavorably. This man who gets so much positive Beltway press was viewed very favorably by 1 percent. This by the way was Americans, not West Virginians. And there’s a recent Morning Consult poll that ranked the popularity of every senator (these were statewide polls). It found Manchin to be one of the most unpopular senators in the country. Now that’s largely because he’s a Democrat in a Republican state. There are only seven senators who are underwater in the poll, and Manchin is one of them (the only senators deeper underwater are Susan Collins, Ron Johnson, and Mitch McConnell, who is down there in Mariana Trench territory).
But here’s the good news for Manchin, according to Morning Consult. Manchin’s 42–48 numbers are actually an improvement over the last time they polled this. And that improvement has been “driven largely by Republican voters.” That echoes the PRRI poll, which breaks down that 12 percent favorable rating by party. Manchin is lowest among Democrats (7 percent), with independents in the middle (13 percent), and Republicans viewing him most favorably (18 percent).
So a surge of disaffected Democrats is going to back this guy? I don’t buy it. In fact, if we agree that somewhere around 55 percent of Republicans are MAGA and 45 percent are not, which seems about fair based on polls, that tells me that there are, at least potentially, more—far more—disaffected Republicans who might pull for Manchin. If he runs, I suspect his polls will tell him this, and he’ll go hunting where the ducks are, as Barry Goldwater put it.
Three: his unapologetic pro–fossil fuel position. Again, it will be up to the Democrats to publicize this properly if he runs. But if they do, he will perform very poorly among voters who want the United States to move away from fossil fuels—and again, that is a category that includes independents and even some Republicans.
So it’s possible the conventional wisdom is way off here. The PRRI poll data seem to support my case. In the Biden-Trump head-to-head matchup, Biden leads 48–46. When they throw in Manchin and Cornel West, Manchin garners 10 percent and West 5, but Biden still leads Trump, 41–38. If Manchin were stealing all his votes from Biden, wouldn’t Trump have been ahead in the four-way?
Manchin is a Democrat in name. But his high-profile positions are essentially Republican ones. Or at least enough of them are that an effective Democratic spin operation can convince Democratic and a majority of independent voters that Manchin just isn’t a real option for them. It would be a delightful thing if we woke up next November 6 to see that Manchin and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. cost Trump, not Biden, the White House. It would certainly be the outcome they all deserve.