intelligencer chats

Does the Biden ‘Enthusiasm Gap’ Matter?

A lot of Democrats feel just fine about him. Photo: Carolyn Van Houtenages/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Joe Biden closed out the Democratic primary strong, but his candidacy never sparked a great deal of fervor among voters — at least, on the surface. I spoke with political columnists Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore to evaluate whether a lack of passionate Biden support matters for his chances in November.

Ben: A common observation during the Democratic primary was that while Bernie Sanders commandeered a whole movement of voters — a large portion of them young — many Joe Biden supporters were more motivated by the nebulous concept of “electability,” and weren’t all that fired up about the guy. A recent ABC News–Washington Post Poll seemed to substantiate those concerns, at least to some degree, showing that 74 percent of prospective Biden voters are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86 percent of Trump’s voters. How much does this kind of thing matter?

Ed: It’s overrated in importance, always. Any “enthusiasm” beyond that which is necessary to get a voter to the polls is pretty much wasted, unless it is somehow communicated to others. Or to put it another way, you don’t get extra votes for being psyched out of your skull about your candidate. And for Biden, it may be relatively unnecessary, since the election will be largely a referendum on Trump.

Jon: I think positive enthusiasm is a valuable and even necessary thing to have when your base lacks an external motivation. It often matters for Democrats when they hold the presidency. It was a problem in 2016. But Trump is pretty good at generating Democratic turnout, and I think 2018 showed that Democratic candidate traits aren’t necessary to drive big Democratic turnout in the Trump era.

Ed: As Jon and I are both always pointing out, Biden is trouncing Trump among voters who are meh about both of them. Trump really needs more enthusiasm than Biden.

Ben: Could the usual markers of enthusiasm, like huge crowds and a loud online presence, mask Biden’s appeal to some extent? In the primaries, we saw that he, not Bernie, was the one generating legions of new voters. But they were older and suburban, not necessarily such a visible movement.

Jon: People have used the presence of a few thousand people on Twitter who will flame anybody who criticizes their candidate as a proxy for enthusiasm, which might be a bad metric.

Ed: “Biden Twitter Terrifies Opponents” would be a pretty good Onion headline.

Ben: No comment.

Ed: My theory all along about 2020 is that any Democrat is going to benefit from bad, bad memories of overconfidence in 2016. A lot of otherwise marginal voters are likely to show up to keep Trump from a second term. No one, and I do mean literally no one, will assume her or his neighbor will take care of it for them. The Biden campaign should make its symbol a wooden stake, with the slogan: “Make sure this time!”

Ben: I think people look at the last several elections and see a pattern where a candidate who was perceived as a compromise pick by the party — your Mitt Romneys, your John Kerrys, etc. — might poll well for a while, but ultimately falls short, due at least in part to a lack of fervor. Is this time different simply because of the uniqueness of the man in the Oval Office?

Ed: I don’t know that being the compromise pick is what made Romney and Kerry lose.

Jon: I think the problems both those candidates had were that the incumbent was popular enough to win. Romney would have beat Jimmy Carter in 1980; Kerry would have beat Bush in 1992.

Ed: True. Both Bush ’04 and Obama ’12 had job approval ratings above 50. Trump hasn’t come close to that so far. He’s at 44-45 now, and that’s with his “rallying effect” still fading.

Jon: I think there is an important enthusiasm question. Normally, the campaign, and especially the convention, plays an important role in unifying the party and focusing low-propensity voters on the election. It’s not clear how much of a campaign we’ll have, and if conventions will have anything like the normal role. So it’s somewhat up in the air how much this will matter. Is it something that organically happens as the election draws nearer, or do events like the convention really drive voter engagement? (More precisely, at what point on the scale from 1 to 2 will we be?)

Ed: The conventions usually cancel each other out, which could indicate they are bright shiny objects for swing voters rather than generators of enthusiasm.

Jon: Right, I’m talking about low-propensity partisans, not swing voters

Ed: To be sure, if we had “normal” conventions this year, which seems very unlikely, they might have been like a field mass at the launching of one of the Holy Crusades. I mean, seriously psychotic levels of firing up the troops.

Ben: As Ed has noted, Biden is doing better among old voters than Hillary Clinton. However, he may be having some problems with the young. People under 40, who went for Bernie in huge numbers, generally range from tepid to straight-up contemptuous toward him. To what extent should Biden be concerned about that cohort right now?

Ed: If you had to choose age cohorts, old folks are much more likely to vote without beating on them with big sticks, though the pandemic could change that somewhat. Biden needs to do lots of Zoom rallies with cool new musical acts like Fleetwood Mac. They’ve got this upbeat song called “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow!”

Ben: Haha.

Jon: Old people probably make up their minds sooner, too, so doing unusually well with them seems more like money in the bank, while doing surprisingly bad with the young is easier to fix. But Biden probably won’t get into safe territory until he can expand that lead with young voters.

Ed: We’ll also get to find out if Biden’s strength among African-American voters in the primaries is transferable to a general election — or if Obama-level black turnout is gone for good, or at least until there is another black nominee.

Ben: Yes. Older black voters, in particular, seemed to have no lack of enthusiasm for Biden. But that’s a group not particularly well-represented in media narratives.

Jon: Persuasion is an issue with many nonwhite voters. It’s not just turnout.

Ed: Maybe with Latinos. I’m not buying the Kanye Vote just yet. Or whatever we are supposed to call the alleged appeal of Trump among African-American men.

One other factor to mention here: The ground rules for voting this fall are likely going to be determined by state-by-state guerrilla warfare, which could make turnout expectations more variable than might otherwise be the case. I don’t think the Democratic agitation for nationwide universal access to mail ballots is going anywhere, though most of the battleground states are already pretty far down that path.

Does the Biden ‘Enthusiasm Gap’ Matter?