Now that both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have officially ignored my advice not to saddle the Democratic Party with two mid-septuagenarian front-runners for their 2020 presidential nomination, there is naturally a lot of discussion of the former veep’s positioning, messaging, and rationale for becoming Trump’s general-election opponent. But it’s also worth taking a good initial look at how, mechanically, his campaign plans to win his party’s nod.
The threshold question about Biden 2020 was nicely captured by Nate Silver:
He’s somewhere in between being a traditional, next-in-line front-runner, with the polling and party support to match, and a factional candidate, where the faction is the old guard of more moderate, working-class Democrats. Factional candidates sometimes can win their nominations, but it’s a harder road to navigate, especially given a Democratic nomination process where delegates are awarded in a highly proportional fashion and a plurality of support is not necessarily sufficient to avert a contested convention.
Obviously, Biden would prefer to go into the voting phase of the nomination contest as a consensus “unity” candidate who will win almost automatically if no one else catches fire, using his high positive name ID, his support among name-brand party stalwarts, and his fundraising prowess to glide past a divided field in the early states (with the possible exception of New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders is very strong), then consolidate his victory in March when others are running out of money and time. To cite just one scenario, he could quite possibly end the campaigns of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker if he beats them among African-Americans in South Carolina, demonstrating his breadth of support demographically and geographically. And if none of his self-styled “centrist” rivals (e.g., Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and John Hickenlooper) score an early breakthrough, it’s hard to see any of them competing with Biden for long. Indeed, Iowa could be a graveyard for all of those candidacies. And a Biden candidacy that’s perceived by voters as unifying would also be well-positioned to wear down Bernie Sanders, who in turn could do Biden a great favor by squeezing out potential progressive alternatives like Elizabeth Warren.
But can Biden maintain the “unity candidate” mantle? The avalanche of criticism Biden has received in recent months for the “baggage” he brings into the contest — his age, his extensive list of heresies against progressive orthodoxy (from his anti-busing position in the 1970s to his support for the Iraq War), and his discomforting “handsiness” with women — has called into question his ability to remain what I have called “a sort of intraparty Coalition of National Salvation option who could serve as a bridge between the Clinton-Obama era of Democratic politics and the presumably more progressive future.”
Still, all this flak, which accurately reflects elite progressive disdain for Biden, has had approximately zero effect on his standing in public opinion. He’s not simply leading in the polls: He has remarkably positive favorability ratios among Democrats (75/14 in the latest tracking poll from Morning Consult), with a diverse base of support that lacks just one component: the young voters least likely to participate in caucuses and primaries (viz, in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses, 64 percent of participants were 45 or older).
So Team Biden is probably justified in launching his candidacy with what it has described as a “show of force” that’s light on policy and heavy on memories of Joe’s partnership with Barack, even though it makes those who remember the 2016 Jeb Bush campaign cringe with anticipatory embarrassment. At this point Biden can run as a unity/consensus candidate who is the best bet to beat Trump, until something happens that calls that strategy into question. And if that does happen, he can always fall back on the option of running as the factional candidate of Democrats who fear a lefty nominee would play right into Republican plans to depict their party as having lurched off into socialist extremism.
That could transpire if the huge Democratic field is quickly winnowed down to its two currently dominant old white men, Biden and Sanders. The two candidates don’t need some shocking upset to stay alive, and they’re generally best positioned for a long and expensive slog through the March primaries that could decide it all. The odds of that scenario producing an ideologically polarizing contest similar to that which afflicted Democrats in 2016 are high, but Biden has reason to think he could prevail and then unite his party against the existential threat of a second Trump term. Perhaps if the nomination fight becomes a de facto retroactive referendum on the “centrist” Clinton-Obama heritage that Biden represents, the 44th president could be convinced to get off the sidelines and support his old chum.
So there really are two plausible paths forward for Biden, which gives him more strategic flexibility than candidates who have to gamble on elbowing past each other for attention, and can’t afford to undershoot expectations anywhere. Still, as Silver points out, Biden cannot afford any major mistakes:
If you’re Hillary Clinton and you start out with 60 percent or 65 percent of the vote, you can lose quite a bit of that support and still come out ahead. But if you’re Biden and you start out with 25 percent or 30 percent, there’s much less margin for error. Is Biden’s floor higher than everyone else’s ceiling? Maybe, but it’s not hard to imagine Sanders or Buttigieg or O’Rourke or Klobuchar or pretty much anyone else cobbling together 20 percent or 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, winning the state and sending the race on an entirely different trajectory — or Harris or Booker causing problems for Biden in South Carolina.
One plausible scenario is Sanders upsetting Biden in Iowa and then beating him badly in New Hampshire (where Sanders trounced Clinton in 2016). At that point Biden would be looking down the barrel of the historical fact that in the last four decades only Bill Clinton has been able to win the nomination while losing the first two states (and that exception is mitigated by the fact that Tom Harkin’s 1992 candidacy took Iowa off the table). Another possibility is that all that progressive criticism, which so far hasn’t affected Biden’s standing, will finally sink in among rank-and-file Democrats, reducing his lead over the field and forcing him into a factional candidacy that’s far more perilous. And for all any of us know, a particular candidate could indeed catch fire and capture the imagination of primary voters, making Biden look (as I recently suggested) like the north end of a southbound dinosaur.
All in all, Biden’s path to the nomination will require a sure-footedness that some see in this veteran of the political wars, while others noting his proclivity for gaffes think is lacking. An early stumble or two and Biden could be devoured by his hungry rivals like a fat old sheep who doesn’t see an approaching pack of wolves. If he survives all that, he probably is ready to take on the king of wolves in the White House.