Who should lead? Democrats, Republicans struggle to decide

This combination of photos shows former President Donald Trump, left, and President Joe Biden, right. Biden and Trump are preparing for a possible rematch in 2024. But a new poll finds a notable lack of enthusiasm within the parties for either man as his party’s leader, and a clear opening for new leadership. The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds a third of both Democrats and Republicans are unsure of who they want leading their party. (AP Photo/File)

By Hannah Fingerhut | The Associated Press

February 14, 2023

WASHINGTON (AP) — While President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, are preparing for a possible rematch in 2024, a new poll finds a notable lack of enthusiasm within the parties for either man as his party’s leader and a clear opening for new standard-bearers.

About a third of both Democrats and Republicans are unsure of who they want leading their party, according to the poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

No single Democrat captures significant support when asked who should be their party’s leader; instead, Democrats sprinkle their attention across more than a dozen politicians. Yet they also feel more hopeful than dejected about their party. Some Republicans, meanwhile, coalesce around a couple of individuals — Trump included. But a majority remain uncommitted to him despite his grip on the party, and Republicans have grown somewhat more pessimistic about the GOP’s future.

The findings reflect a deep sense of uncertainty about the future of the nation’s political parties and the challenges both face in tethering their frayed — and perhaps disenchanted — coalitions.

For Democrats, it’s another warning sign about the depth of Biden’s support amid concerns about nominating someone who would be 86 at the end of a second term.

“He’s certainly at an age where he’s not going to run for office, he’s gonna walk,” said David Townsend, a 58-year-old veteran services manager in Indianapolis who leans toward the Democratic Party.

Townsend said he would support Biden if he were the nominee, but he wants a new voice to lead with vigor and energy. He suggests Biden could have a role in shaping the future.

“He needs to be on the lookout for a standard-bearer, someone that could carry his message forward,” Townsend said.

Despite his status as an incumbent president who has accomplished many of the party’s long-sought priorities, fewer than half of Democrats — 41% — identify Biden as the current leader of the party in an open-ended question. Just 12% said they want Biden in the role.

But Democrats are far from rallying behind someone else. They lack consensus on one individual — or even two or three — to lead them. Instead, in the open-ended question, 15 people are each mentioned by between 1% and 5% of Democrats. Thirty-seven percent say they don’t know or don’t answer the question.

By contrast, among Republicans, 22% name Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and 20% name Trump as the individual they want to lead the party.

Republican Daniel Alvarez, 30, of Lakeland, Florida, likes both his governor, DeSantis, and Trump.

“I would preferably take either one of those guys,” said Alvarez, a lineman for a telephone company. But if it came down to it, he’d choose Trump in a primary.

“The country was better” when Trump was president, he said.

Still, there appears to be openness to a new face among Republicans, as there is among Democrats, even if there isn’t someone specific in mind.

A majority of Republicans don’t choose Trump or DeSantis, though no other individual comes close to their level of support. Eleven others — including former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who launched her 2024 bid Tuesday — are each named by just 1% of Republicans.

Angela Foster became emotional talking about how she feels the country is going in the wrong direction under Biden’s leadership. The 66-year-old Republican-leaning independent voted for Trump in 2020.

“I would love to see Trump back in the Oval Office to straighten things up. Followed by DeSantis. That’s what I want. I want an eight-year plan,” she said with a laugh.

But Foster, who lives in Gallipolis, Ohio, and works part-time as a cashier, said she wants to see the Republican Party get back to its traditional values and quit the infighting.

Only 38% of Republicans say they are optimistic about the future of the Republican Party, while 36% are pessimistic and 24% say they feel neither. Pessimism has grown since October, when 27% said they were.

By comparison, more Democrats look ahead with hope. Forty-four percent of Democrats say they are optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party, while 26% are pessimistic. An additional 30% say they are neither.

Republicans who are pessimistic are less likely than optimistic ones to name a chosen leader. Overall, 34% of Republicans — more than either Trump or DeSantis get individually — say they don’t know or didn’t respond to the question.

Hugh Lawing considers himself an independent who leans toward the Republican Party. He doesn’t want Trump to run and isn’t sure about DeSantis, who he said “wants to be “Trump Jr.” The 59-year-old retiree in Marietta, Georgia, hopes that more options will come forward.

“It’s a long way away and it’s up in the air,” Lawing said.

For Democrats, there’s no shortage of options, including lawmakers and others unlikely to seek the nomination. Trailing Biden at 12% as the preferred leader, new House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez each earn 5%.

Greg Davis, 34, voted for Biden in the 2020 general election. But as a self-identified social Democrat, he was “not impressed” with Biden during the primary campaign and would prefer a progressive candidate.

“I would rather he not,” the Hilliard, Ohio resident said of Biden running for reelection. “But I don’t really have a specific candidate in mind.”

Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and even former President Barack Obama are each named as the preferred party leader by 3% of Democrats.

“I can’t admire that man enough,” Darlene Zwolinski said of Obama.

Zwolinski, a 63-year-old acupuncturist in Lakewood, Colorado, said she’s happy with what Biden has done, but he was mainly the one “to get the win” against Trump and, for that reason, might have to be the one again.

“If there was somebody in the wings that was like (Obama) that could step in, I would love to see Biden bless that person and maybe graciously bow out,” she said. “However, I don’t see anybody right now.”


The poll of 1,068 adults was conducted Jan. 26-30 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.