vision 2020

The Secret to Joe Biden’s (Hypothetical) Electability

The white stuff. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

There are many reasons to fear that Joe Biden will not be a strong general-election candidate. The Democratic front-runner is implicated in many of the biggest policy failures of the present era, from the Iraq War to the 2008 financial crisis to mass incarceration. On Capitol Hill, his fealty to the financial industry was so total, he acquired the moniker “the senator from MBNA.” Meanwhile, the right has successfully turned his family’s garden-variety unscrupulous buckraking into a never-ending news story, and the 78-year-old candidate can no longer reliably speak in complete sentences.

In other words, from one angle, 2020 Biden looks like 2016 Hillary Clinton, if Hillary Clinton were less inspirationally pathbreaking, more corrupt, and a much worse public speaker.

And yet, the polls keep suggesting that Uncle Joe is the Democrats’ best bet for defeating Donald Trump. Although there have been a few exceptions, the vast majority of hypothetical 2020 general-election surveys have found Biden outperforming his top rivals in the Democratic field. The predictive power of such polls this far from Election Day is not stellar. But the strongest arguments for discounting Biden’s standing in them — that he is coasting off high name recognition, or hasn’t been subjected to right-wing attacks — aren’t quite as strong as they used to be. At this point, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are about as nationally renowned as the former vice-president. And although it is absolutely true that Biden has yet to endure the onslaught of GOP attacks that await the Democratic nominee, the impeachment saga has led the right to start firing off some of its anti-Biden ammo in recent weeks. The Republicans’ attacks have put a dent in Joe Biden’s approval rating, which is now underwater. But in polls of a Trump-Biden race, the Democrat tends to clean up among voters who dislike both candidates, a strength that has enabled an increasingly unpopular Biden to preserve his strong general-election numbers.

None of this means that Biden will necessarily be a strong standard-bearer in 2020, let alone that his “electability” advantage is large and certain enough to outweigh his substantive deficiencies. But it is enough to suggest that Biden does possess some genuinely electorally advantageous quality, which may or may not compensate for his myriad liabilities. New political science research published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog offers some insight into what that quality might be.

In the Democratic primary, Biden has proven disproportionately popular with African-American voters. But a new survey from political science scholars at the Universities of Virginia and Montana suggests the former vice-president boasts another source of outsize strength: white voters who resent the political power of African-Americans; or, in the researchers’ more precise phrasing, voters who evince high levels of “white consciousness.” As they write in the Post:

To measure white consciousness, we use the four-item behavioral scale measure below. Alongside each question, in parentheses, we give the percentage of white Democrats whose answers showed high levels of white consciousness.


1. How important is it that whites work together to improve the position of their group? (very important = 19 percent; extremely important = 11 percent)

2. How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites? (very important = 18 percent; extremely important = 13 percent)

3. How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead? (very likely = 12 percent; extremely likely = 8 percent)

4. How likely is it that many whites are not accepted to some colleges because these colleges are admitting minorities instead? (very likely = 11 percent; extremely likely = 9 percent)

Taking these questions together, we conclude that 20 percent of the Democrats in our sample harbor high overall levels of white consciousness … We find that white consciousness is significantly associated with support for Biden. Even after accounting for other factors, Democratic voters with the highest levels of white consciousness rate Biden eight points more positively than those without white consciousness — that’s on average on a 101-point scale. When we include white independents who think of Trump unfavorably in the model, the estimated relationship becomes slightly larger — moving from low to high levels of white consciousness is associated with a nearly 10-point boost in support for Biden.

These findings comport with previously published survey data from MIT’s Election Lab, which found Biden boasting disproportionate support from white voters who scored high on a scale of “racial resentment” (a concept that is related to, but distinct from, “white consciousness”).

Suffice it to say, for a relatively unknown presidential aspirant, it would be difficult to craft a message that appeals with unusual strength to both African-American voters and white independents who believe that white people need to start sticking up for their racial interests before nonwhites take all of the jobs.

But Biden ostensibly doesn’t need to. His idiosyncratic career arc — which took him from leading the charge against “forced busing” as a senator from an overwhelmingly white state, to serving as the first African-American president’s most dutiful supporter — has won him a significant degree of goodwill from both of these constituencies.

All this said, this unique electoral advantage may prove less beneficial than it appears today. For one thing, although Biden has strong support from African-Americans in general, his backing from younger black voters — who, as a group, are less reliable voters but whose turnout rate could tip the balance in critical swing states — appears less robust. For another, it’s far from clear that “white conscious” independents will retain their affinity for Biden once he becomes the standard-bearer of the nonwhite party.

But to the extent that Biden is a strong general-election candidate, it is likely because his long résumé has earned him goodwill from African-Americans and “Why isn’t there a white history month?” voters alike.

The Secret to Joe Biden’s (Hypothetical) Electability