Two weeks ago, Joe Biden held a commanding lead in polls of his party’s 2020 primary, with roughly one-third of Democratic voters naming the former vice-president as their preferred standard-bearer. Since then, several women have come forward with stories of Biden touching them — without permission — in ways that struck them as inappropriate and uncomfortable. Uncle Joe’s wandering hands became a national news story. The president of the United States shared a video of Biden stroking his own shoulders. Meanwhile, major progressive commentators and news outlets raked through Biden’s record, drawing attention to his complicity in the failure of desegregation, the rise of mass incarceration, the war in Iraq, the student-loan crisis, and efforts to restrict reproductive rights
Now, after being forced to release a non-apology in which he promised that, going forward, he would give fewer unsolicited back rubs and kisses, Biden’s standing in the polls has … remained exactly the same.
This isn’t terribly surprising. Biden has respectable levels of support among most Democratic constituencies. But his base is older voters (who are less likely to take offense at his handsiness or crimes against progressive orthodoxy) and moderate Democrats who pay relatively little attention to the news (who are less likely to even know about Uncle Joe’s latest controversies). What’s more, the Democratic electorate writ large is in an ideologically flexible mood this cycle: Recent polls suggest that more than 60 percent of Democrats believe it is more important for their party to nominate a candidate who is likely to perform well against Donald Trump than one who’s likely to support their policy preferences on most issues.
And there is some basis for seeing Biden as blue America’s safest bet for evicting the Donald from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In polls of hypothetical 2020 races between Trump and Democratic candidates, Biden consistently outperforms his co-partisans. The former vice-president’s average lead over Trump in such polls is a remarkable 8.7 percent. If Biden keeps posting those kinds of numbers — and doesn’t give Democrats any other cause for doubting his electability — it’s quite possible that a plurality of primary voters will be ready and willing to forgive Uncle Joe’s every past (and future) sin.
By the same token, if Biden were to lose the glow of electability, Democrats might suddenly see the old man’s baggage in a harsher light.
Data For Progress (DFP) appears to understand this. While most of Biden’s progressive critics have focused their fire on his record, a new memo from the progressive think-tank aims squarely at Biden’s “electability” bonafides.
Specifically, DFP designed a survey to test whether Biden’s advantage over Trump is sturdy enough to survive negative attacks. For its first round of polling, they presented voters with a hypothetical Biden-Trump match-up, and asked whether they would back the Democrat, the Republican, “someone else,” or “not vote.” In this framing, DFP found Biden enjoying a lead — albeit, an aberrantly miniscule one of 39.4 to 39.2 percent (or 50.1-49.9 percent, among voters who were willing to pick one of the two major party candidates).
DFP then presented voters with a series of negative statements about both Trump and Biden. It alerted respondents to the former Delaware senator’s support for rolling back bankruptcy protections for working families, and the regressive nature of Trump’s tax cuts. The pollsters then described Biden’s support for the Iraq War, Trump’s mindless withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, and finally, Biden’s backing of a crime bill that led to the long-term incarceration of many nonviolent offenders, and Trump’s ongoing insistence that the (exonerated) Central Park Five should have been given the death penalty.
After sharing this information with voters, DFP asked them how concerning they found each aspect of the candidates’ records. For every pair of negative statements, more voters were alarmed by Trump’s baggage than by Biden’s (i.e., 43 percent were concerned by Biden’s support for the crime bill, while 57 percent were concerned by the fact that our president believes several African-American men should be executed for a crime that they did not commit). Nevertheless, Trump’s initial supporters proved more loyal than Biden’s. After hearing all of the negative statements, one in eight of Biden’s initial backers switched their preference to either Trump, someone else, or staying at home. As a result, Trump opened up a 39.4 to 34.2 percent lead (or 53.5 to 46.5 percent, among that subset of voters who were willing to pick between the two major party candidates).
Notably, Biden’s greatest liability in this survey was his support for bankruptcy reforms that aided credit companies at the expense of distressed consumers — an aspect of his record that has not yet featured prominently in mass media.
You should take the findings of any one poll with a grain of salt — let alone, a survey prepared by an ideologically-motivated outfit that produces results conducive to said outfit’s ideological goals. Data For Progress has earned a degree of trust: It does not disguise its agenda, and regularly publishes poll results that are unkind to its own policy recommendations. There’s no reason to believe that it jerry-rigged its sample. But it did ostensibly draw an unusually unfavorable one for the Democratic Party. Part of the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that DFP provided respondents with the option of “someone else,” while most other pollsters don’t offer such an out. But the gap between Biden’s initial lead here (0.2 percent) and his Biden’s average lead in 2020 hypotheticals (8.7) is quite large.
Separately, even if we stipulate that this survey’s findings are accurate, and predictive of how the electorate will respond to negative attacks on Biden in 2020, it still wouldn’t actually establish that Uncle Joe isn’t Team Blue’s most electable candidate. We can’t know his relative electability without seeing how negative statements about Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Co. impact their share of the vote in head-to-head match-ups with Trump. It’s possible that what Data For Progress has really discovered here is that Trump’s base is rock-solid, while much of the apparent support for a Democratic alternative is actually soft, and will dissipate the moment any of Team Blue’s standard-bearers are subjected to scrutiny.
All of this said, DFP’s interpretation of its results is also quite plausible. In 2016, the Trump campaign put significant energy into spotlighting aspects of Hillary Clinton’s record that young, nonwhite Democrats might find alienating. And disappointing turnout among those constituencies in key states were one of the many factors that enabled Trump’s victory. So, it’s at least conceivable that Biden’s own liabilities with millenials and African-Americans would prove similarly costly — and thus, that when Democratic primary voters look past those blotches in Uncle Joe’s record, they are actually being the opposite of pragmatic.