The Argentine Strategy: What the US Should (and Won’t) Learn From It

Sergio Massa, Economy Minister and presidential candidate for the ruling party, speaks outside his campaign headquarters after general elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. Massa held the lead in early results and is poised to face off Javier Milei in a second round Nov. 19. (AP Photo/Mario De Fina)

A few months ago, Argentina held primary elections for presidential and congressional races. The presidential winners? A self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist and an anti-crime conservative who led the race. The left-wing candidate of the incumbent party came in third. Come this week, however, with the actual first round of the elections, the candidate of the establishment came in first rather than third. So how did this happen?

Argentina’s election has three rounds: a primary, a “first” round, and a runoff between the top two first-round performers. Understanding the absurd result in the primary is simple: Argentina is mired in an economic crisis of its own making, and the incumbent vice president (former president) faces credible accusations of extensive corruption, with many believing that they have covered up for terrorists. Argentinians seek change. Some vote for conservative party candidates, but since they were in power just four years before and are thus also blamed for economic difficulties, the people have turned towards another option: Javier Milei, an ultraconservative and self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist who wants to legalize the trade in human organs and constitutional carry across the country. He also wants to abolish the central bank and switch Argentinian currency to the US dollar. He represents a desire for change. 

But how have things changed such that the incumbent party, so unpopular, came in first this time around?

The answer is that Sergio Massa, the candidate of the incumbent party, presents himself as separate from the establishment despite also serving as the current Minister of the Economy. The incumbent president, Alberto Fernández, extremely unpopular, is eligible for re-election but chose to retire instead, knowing he would lose the election. This freed up the incumbent party to nominate Massa, allowing him to present himself as a candidate of change instead of forcing him to defend a dismal and unpopular record.

The United States, too, has an unpopular incumbent president who could easily lose re-election in 2024. Biden is behind in polls; behind, no less, Donald Trump, who is about as unpopular according to polling. Trump, who is elderly, divisive, and widely disliked, shouldn’t be a competitive candidate, but he is because of how unpopular Joseph Biden has turned out to be.

Biden will have to defend a bad record on the campaign trail, including an economy widely perceived as faltering, an Afghanistan withdrawal widely perceived as botched, and now our highly divisive involvement in the Middle East. Suffice it to say that his +13 net disapproval does not bode well.

The Democratic Party has an easy out: nominate someone new who can sell themself as an opportunity for change while still preserving democratic stability and normalcy. Nominating someone else, as Argentina did with Massa, would give the Democratic Party a chance to reset its chances in this election, a chance to nominate someone with a higher approval rating, and a chance to actually win the 2024 presidential election. Just as Massa has outperformed expectations, a new Democratic candidate could outperform expectations and take the Democratic Party to new heights. And for those concerned that we’re too close to the election to make a change, keep in mind that we are still a year away from our election while the Argentine incumbent announced that he would forego re-election only six months ahead of their election. Moreover, our term lengths are the same.

This is why I support alternative candidates in the Democratic Party primary: really, any alternative. I personally believe that Biden has a near-zero chance of winning and that any primary vote for him is nearly a vote for Trump.

Argentina shows this point of view has merit: Fernández would assuredly have lost outright, to an anarcho-capitalist no less. Massa, on the other hand, has an actual chance of winning because Fernandez had the self-restraint to retire, and his party had the foresight to nominate someone else. The Democratic Party would do well to learn from their example. Otherwise, it is almost certainly doomed to lose in 2024.

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