How Biden May Head Off Latent Obama Backlash

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While Joe Biden’s pluses as a vice-presidential candidate are double-edged, they got the Democratic ticket good press over the weekend, a fact neatly encapsulated by Saturday’s Post headline: “Blowhard Could Be Just What Obama Needs.” But beyond all the chatter about Biden’s foreign-policy expertise and willingness to attack John McCain, poll numbers at the opening of the Democratic convention show that Biden was more than a shrewd pick; he may have been a necessary pick.

Conventional wisdom says that with Democrats ahead by about ten points in party-identification polls and generic congressional ballots but the presidential race in a dead heat, Barack Obama is underperforming at the moment — that he hasn’t “closed the deal.” But presidential campaigns are about personalities as well as parties. And if you look at the candidates’ favorability ratings in swing states, Obama is actually doing better than he has any right to expect. In Ohio, for example, 62 percent of voters view McCain favorably while 37 percent view him unfavorably, according to the latest Rasmussen data, while just 47 percent view Obama favorably and 51 percent view him unfavorably. Yet McCain is ahead by just one point in recent Ohio polls, according to RealClearPolitics. It’s much the same in other battlegrounds: As the conventions are about to get under way, McCain’s favorables are thirteen points better than Obama in Indiana, twelve points better in Florida, ten points in Nevada and Virginia — yet all of these states are extremely tight. From this standpoint, the electorate’s inclination to vote Democratic is actually buoying Obama; right now, the world’s biggest celebrity isn’t as popular in key states as the wrinkly white-haired dude.

This likability gap is clearly the result of the campaign. For one thing, the gap exists only in places bombarded by political ads, not nationwide; overall, Obama’s net favorability rating (plus twenty points) is slightly better than McCain’s (plus seventeen). For another, Obama’s ratings take the shape of an inverse bell curve: An unusually high percentage of voters in battleground states have either a “strongly favorable” or “strongly unfavorable” view of him. (McCain’s support, more conventionally, clumps in the middle.) This reflects the initial wave of adulation for Obama, followed by months of attacks on him, first by Hillary Clinton, then McCain. But while Obama’s team believes his ratings are malleable, the trend is potentially lethal for them. Mismatched poll numbers don’t last — like overvalued stock prices, sooner or later they revert to fundamentals. Maybe voters who are sick of the Republicans will decide after this week or sometime before November that Obama is personally acceptable to them. But it’s just as likely that people who don’t like Obama will choose not to vote for him — and then his standing in swing states would have a long way to fall.

Who are the voters Obama needs to close the likability gap? It’s tempting to say “Hillary supporters,” but the truth is a little more complicated. Obama leads McCain among women by about twenty points nationally and is also doing well among working-class voters, so most Clintonistas already have come home. But Obama is having trouble among older Democrats, who trend economically liberal, even statist, but culturally conservative. And he is now lagging McCain by up to ten points among independents, who had been a cornerstone of Obama’s candidacy.

Which is where Biden came in. You could be forgiven for thinking that to the vast majority of Americans who aren’t political junkies, there was no discernible difference between Biden and Evan Bayh or Wesley Clark or Tim Kaine. But Biden’s decades of appearances at congressional hearings and on news shows actually show up in polls. Among those who contended to be Obama’s running mate, Biden is much better known than anyone except Clinton and viewed more favorably than anyone including Clinton, with a 44-38 percent rating nationwide, according to Rasmussen. Biden is particularly strong among seniors (plus eleven) and Catholics (plus fifteen). And while Biden is almost as popular as Hillary among Democrats (65 percent favorable versus 77 percent), independents like him too (plus thirteen), whereas they are astonishingly sour on Clinton (minus eighteen, including a 57 percent disapproval rating). In short, among those in the running, Biden and only Biden appealed to precisely the groups with whom Obama needs to boost his standing, and could do so quickly, without the need for an extended introduction.

So, yes, Biden lets Obama team up with a committed internationalist. Yes, Biden will blast McCain with a fervor Obama still lacks. And yes, Biden will get good play from the media. But Biden’s lasting contribution to the ticket will be his plainspoken articulation of a Democratic agenda that will reassure wavering voters that Obama stands for a modernization of the New Deal. With his selection just before the convention, Obama is finally introducing himself — at pretty much the latest moment he dared — to Scranton Democrats.