It’s no secret that as the 2020 Democratic primary evolves, the possibility that Donald Trump could win reelection (at least in the Electoral College) overshadows all other considerations like Dracula’s tower loomed over its small Transylvanian village. To put it bluntly, an awful lot of Democrats can’t stay focused on which candidate has the best universal health-care proposal because they wake up screaming in the night at the thought of a second Trump inauguration. Calling these Democrats paranoid misses the point: Their fears are a tangible political asset to anyone who can harness them.
And that’s why “electability” has already become so central to the nomination contest, and could become even more important as a possible second Trump term grows nearer without impeachment, a silver-bullet scandal, or a lightning bolt from heaven pushing the incumbent far away from victory. Typically, voters are loath to admit they are so superficial as to join the pundits in valuing horse-race viability more than policy stances, experience, “values,” or sheer likability. Not this year, as Bill Galston points out:
Democrats consistently say that they are more interested in finding a candidate who can beat President Trump than they are a candidate with whom they agree on the issues. In the most recent Gallup survey, electability beats issue agreement, 58 percent to 39 percent; CNN puts it at 61-30, and Economist/YouGov at 66-34.
That sentiment, which is almost certainly stronger than the numbers show, is likely to increase over time as ephemeral concerns melt before the indelibly searing memory of Election Night 2016 with its shocking, almost unimaginable outcome. And that’s probably all you need to know to understand the relative durability of Joe Biden’s early polling lead despite the battering he has taken for months now from rivals, progressive critics, and the political media generally.
But to determine the staying power of Biden’s perceived electability advantage, it’s useful to break it down in terms of whence it comes and where it might be challenged. Here are some of the assumptions buttressing the “Joe’s a Winner” conviction:
Biden does well in 2020 trial heats against Trump
This is perhaps the most pervasive and yet most questionable of arguments: General election polls show Biden performing better than any other Democratic candidate against the incumbent. Specifically, the RealClearPolitics polling averages show Biden with an 8.4 percent lead over Trump; Sanders is doing second-best with a much less comfortable lead of 4.6 percent. Even more graphically, the latest ABC–Washington Post survey showed Trump with a record-high approval rating and either leading or within the margin of error against all Democrats other than Biden — who led Trump by ten points. If, like the sizable majority of Democratic voters, you care more about beating Trump than about whatever sketchy thing Biden said about school desegregation 40 years ago, wouldn’t that be persuasive to you?
Probably so, but it might not be wise. General election trial heats early in a presidential cycle are a notoriously poor way to predict actual elections, as Perry Bacon Jr. explained last month:
FiveThirtyEight analyzed general election polls from 1944 to 2012 that tested the eventual nominees and were conducted in the last two months of the year before the election (so for 2012, that would be November and December of 2011). On average, these polls missed the final result by 11 percentage points.
Bill Galston cites an especially egregious example of this pattern: Fritz Mondale, who eventually lost 49 states against Ronald Reagan in 1984, was running 12 points ahead of the Gipper in early 1983. (Galston would definitely remember that, as Mondale’s issues director!)
And lest one object that the relative strength of a party’s candidates can reliably be deduced from early general-election polls, it’s important to understand that general elections are dynamic events in which previously unexplored candidate weaknesses are exposed and exploited. And there’s reason to suspect that Biden, like Hillary Clinton in 2016, might lose some of his luster in a vicious months-long contest with Trump. As my colleague Eric Levitz noted earlier this year, one simulation of a Trump-Biden race showed the Democrat rapidly losing steam when hit with predictable attack lines. So it’s far too early to put much stock in head-to-head general-election polls.
Biden is seen as the right type of candidate
The former veep benefits a lot from one of the most deeply rooted (if hardly incontrovertible) tenets of American politics: the assumption that candidates deemed “moderate” do better than “liberals/progressives” or “conservatives.” That is often posited as particularly important for Democrats given the relatively large bloc of moderates in their own ranks.
While clearly a candidate perceived as “mainstream” is likely to perform better than alternatives who are perceived as “extreme,” these are very fluid terms. As his supporters often point out, self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders tends to campaign on particular proposals (e.g., Medicare for All, free college) that are very popular. And sometimes “moderates” really don’t (viz. their regular temptation to pursue “bipartisanship” via “courageous reforms” of extremely popular entitlement programs).
Today’s unusually intense partisan polarization provides another challenge to the “moderates rule” hypothesis, as the number of swing voters steadily goes down and the value of voter mobilization (in which ideological and “identity” candidates tend to excel) accordingly goes up.
The real topper for those who push back at the idea of moderate electability is the example of Hillary Clinton, who was universally perceived as more moderate than Bernie Sanders in 2016. Fat lot of good that did her when the deal went down.
Biden is attractive to white working-class men
While there’s no question that the loss of voters from this demographic (as compared to past Democratic nominees) was a key factor in Trump’s ability to eke out an Electoral College win by carrying three previously Democratic Rust Belt states, there are two problems with assuming this is a huge argument for Biden.
For one thing, there’s a large element of “fighting the last war” in this perspective. Maybe Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (and the white working-class voters of these states) will again be crucial, but perhaps in 2020 it will all boil down to Florida or Arizona or North Carolina.
Just as importantly, Biden’s strength among these voters in these places is largely hypothetical. You may recall that in the 2008 primaries, it appeared Hillary Clinton had an overwhelming natural appeal to white working-class men in the very states where Trump absolutely trounced her in 2016. Is it possible, say, that white working-class women are a better target for Democrats in 2020? Is it absolutely clear that Joe Biden would be a more attractive candidate to them than Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar? Not really.
Biden is not trying to shatter any glass ceilings
Mentioning two women who are running against Biden brings to mind one of the most widely shared yet totally unsubstantiated assumptions about 2020 electability: a woman will struggle to beat Donald Trump. To an amazing extent, a lot of Democratic voters — perhaps especially Democratic women — are convinced that Clinton’s gender was crucial to her 2016 loss. And they fear that “America’s not ready” for a woman to serve as president.
And so this essentially sexist assumption is projected into the future by voters and opinion leaders who are not themselves sexist but still figure swing voters are far too piggy for Democrats to take that risk. The strong contrary evidence from the 2018 midterms that Democratic women (and for that matter, people of color) did better relatively than white men is struggling for acceptance in a party still transfixed by Clinton’s loss. But there may soon be a backlash to the backlash, as I suggested a while ago:
The reality is that Clinton comfortably won the popular vote and lost the election due to an improbable Electoral College inside straight that Trump likely cannot pull off twice. And her loss was certainly close enough that factors other than her gender — her failure to invest resources in key states she lost, the Comey letter, a general lassitude among liberal voters who had no idea Trump could win — may have been decisive.
At a minimum progressive activists and media observers should fight the sexist assumptions afflicting candidates like Elizabeth Warren instead of promoting or surrendering to them.
I think we can be confident that candidates like Warren — and Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar — will be making that argument regularly, and winning some converts.
Biden is a known quantity
The importance of risk-aversion in the implicit case for the former veep’s electability should not be underestimated. Given the incredibly high stakes of the 2020 election, why take a chance on some unproven national candidate? Biden’s been in high federal office longer than half the electorate has been alive. He’s seen it all, done it all, and survived more mistakes and gaffes than most candidates will ever commit in three lifetimes.
But the mistakes and gaffes haven’t necessarily stopped, which is why that first Democratic candidate debate in Miami may have done more to undermine Biden’s perceived electability than anyone quite realizes, as I tried to explain at the time:
He brought three basic vulnerabilities into this phase of the 2020 campaign: (1) his age (which most of his supporters may not really comprehend) and the associated impression that he’s not up to job and perhaps is just living in the past; (2) his possible complacency as the early front-runner; and (3) his heavy dependence on African-American voters for his current lead, and his clear vulnerability on his record on racially sensitive issues. All of these vulnerabilities were exposed in the Miami debate, and his rivals along with Biden critics in the activist community and the news media may now smell blood in the water in ways that could compound the damage.
As Galston notes, a post-debate Iowa poll showed 41 percent of Democratic debate viewers thought Biden’s performance was worse than expected. And Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter finds evidence that his electability advantage is taking some serious hits:
The most recent Washington Post/ABC, CNN and Quinnipiac polls (all taken in the wake of the first Democratic debate), find Biden ahead by 27-30 points on this question of who is best suited to defeat Trump. That’s the good news for Biden. The bad news is that a majority of Democrats DON’T see him as the strongest candidate to take on Trump. For now, a fractured, multi-candidate field helps Biden since none of the other candidates have been able to consolidate the other 50+ percent of the vote. But, how long will that be the case? And, how durable is that 40+ percent he currently holds?
The Quinnipiac survey shows some cracks in Biden’s ‘electability’ firewall. Back in April, a majority of Democrats — 56 percent, picked Biden as the strongest to face Trump. But, today, that support has shrunk to 42 percent.
As the nomination contest grinds on, the convergence between perceptions of electability and candidate preferences we’ve seen in the past is likely to reemerge. So Biden cannot count on his current advantage as any sort of safety net. He’s going to have to remind Democrats of the qualities that made him the front-runner to begin with, and avoid the stumbles and bad luck that made him lose the first two times he ran for president.