In all the recent brouhaha about Joe Biden’s uninterrupted popularity among Democratic voters (in contrast to his unpopularity in the fever swamps of the Twitter Left), a crucial detail about the nature of his support occasionally gets lost. Yes, he’s popular among black and white voters, and male and female voters, and to a considerable extent among voters all across the ideological spectrum. But the heart of his base is most definitely his fellow geezers, in sharp contrast with that other mid-septuagenarian, Bernie Sanders, who now as in 2016 is a Pied Piper with a very young following.
Ron Brownstein nicely lays out the data on Biden’s appeal to “mature” voters, to use the old AARP euphemism:
Firehouse Strategies, a Republican consulting firm, has joined with Optimus, a data-analytics company, to poll the three key early Democratic-primary states. The surveys they released in early May showed a stark age divide. In Iowa, they found that among Democrats ages 18 to 35, Biden drew just 17 percent, placing third behind Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. But Biden opened a narrow lead over Sanders with voters ages 35 to 55, and then spiked to 41 percent among those 55 and older, four times the support of his nearest rival, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Similarly, in New Hampshire, the surveys found Biden drawing just 22 percent among those ages 18 to 35 and trailing Sanders. But Biden again pulled narrowly ahead among middle-aged voters and soared to 39 percent among those older than 55, once more about four times the support of his closest rival, Sanders.
South Carolina, which has a large African American population, was Biden’s best state in the early polling: He led among all three age groups. But even there, Biden’s support grew from 34 percent among voters under 35 to 46 percent among those ages 35 to 55 to 52 percent among the oldest generation.
Brownstein also notes a Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania showing Biden and Sanders roughly even among voters under 50, but Biden beating him among voters over 50 by an astonishing 47-4 margin.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the same stark generational differences were front and center in Hillary Clinton’s battle with Bernie Sanders in 2016. That began in Iowa when Bernie won under-30 caucus participants by an 84-14 margin while HRC won seniors by a 69-26 margin. (Seniors are more likely to vote, which is one key reason Clinton eventually won the nomination.) If Biden can maintain anything like Clinton’s strength in that age demographic, and nothing strange happens that boosts youth turnout through the roof, he will definitely have staying power.
But there’s a potential Biden problem that is best illustrated by comparing 2008 and 2016 exit-poll data from South Carolina — a particularly key state for Biden — from Edison Research prepared for Brownstein’s piece. In 2016, HRC trounced Sanders among African-American women over 45 in the Palmetto State by a 92-7 margin. But in 2008, in the same demographic in the same state, HRC lost to Obama 82-15. Going from a 67-point deficit to an 85-point advantage among black women in a majority-black state obviously had a lot to do with her big win in South Carolina, and you can assume similar dynamics were at play in other southern states with similar demographic profiles of Democratic primary voters.
Why is this relevant to Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign? It shows that race can, and in Clinton’s case definitely did, trump both age and gender. Neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker is likely to have the historic appeal of Obama to black voters — but if either of them has a burst of national support or begins to look particularly “electable” against Trump, it could produce a breakout beginning in South Carolina and real trouble for Joe Biden. Harris is a particular threat because her home state, California, will hold its primary just a few days after South Carolina’s.
Where Biden ultimately lands along the vast spectrum of support from older black women between Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 performances could determine whether he remains the front-runner once voters begin voting. If he doesn’t lose a big chunk of his original senior support to a candidate or candidates with a superior racial/ethnic or gender appeal, he might be able to ride the superior propensity to vote, ideological moderation, and electability concerns of old folks right through to the nomination. Then he would have to cope with the problem that 74-year-old Donald Trump could pose as the youth candidate.