Right now, Democrats are inevitably grappling with in a lot of glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty mixed feelings about the 2020 elections. They have harpooned their White Whale — even if he hasn’t yet conceded and may never do so. On the other hand, Joe Biden didn’t win by the margins national and state polls predicted, and down-ballot performance was at best mixed and at worst disastrous. Democrats lost quite a few House seats and didn’t flip the Senate (though they still could in January). The predicted bonanza of state legislative takeovers that was supposed to make redistricting look less daunting than it has in the past simply did not happen. All these disappointments cannot be attributed to Biden, but given the narrow presidential win and the prevalence of straight-ticket voting, his campaign cannot be absolved of responsibility, either.
Since Biden’s perceived “electability” was without question a huge part of his appeal to the Democratic primary voters who elevated him over a big field of diverse and talented rivals, you have to wonder, Was Uncle Joe really the most electable Democrat? Would someone else have done better?
There’s no way to know for sure, and a lot of the evidence we have about partisanship suggests that all the Democratic presidential candidates might have wound up as “generic Democrats” by the time voters voted. But it’s worth looking at what Biden did and did not accomplish, as Ron Brownstein has already sought to do:
During the Democratic primaries, Biden’s unique selling proposition was his contention that he was better positioned than any of his rivals to win back voters in the heavily white and working-class communities that keyed Trump’s victory last time, especially across the Rust Belt.
On that front, the evidence suggests Biden sort of, kind of delivered—but only barely. Biden didn’t make big gains: For instance, he and Harris spent the day before the election campaigning in the heavily white, blue-collar Beaver and Luzerne Counties, in Pennsylvania, yet lost them by about the same margins as Clinton did. Biden did not loosen Trump’s iron grip over the suburban blue-collar counties around Tampa and Orlando, in Florida, and the president posted towering margins in rural, heavily blue-collar counties across the Sun Belt battlefields, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Still, Biden’s modest improvements over Clinton in places like Erie and Scranton, in Pennsylvania; the Green Bay area, in Wisconsin; and Macomb County, outside Detroit, helped him recapture the big three “blue wall” states that Trump dislodged in 2016.
But Biden clearly did not mobilize minority voters generally and performed poorly among the Latino voters in particular who delivered Florida and Texas to Trump while voting for Republican U.S. House candidates. And some analysts believe Biden (like Hillary Clinton in 2016) reduced down-ballot gains by treating Trump as an aberration from Republican orthodoxy rather than its nasty culmination.
You have to wonder if Bernie Sanders, who formed such a connection with Latino voters in the primaries, might have done better there, while making criticisms of Trump more strictly partisan. On the other hand, would a self-identified socialist have done better in South Florida than a candidate clearly damaged by claims that he was a puppet of people like Sanders? Was the terrible performance of the Democratic ticket in the Rio Grande Valley the product of long-term Democratic negligence rather than anything the presidential candidate did or didn’t do? And would Bernie really have done as well as Biden in upper-income suburbs?
You could go through similarly inconclusive exercises with other Democratic alternatives. Kamala Harris clearly electrified a lot of Black and Asian American women as the vice-presidential nominee. Might she have done even more at the top of the ticket? Possibly. Though her poor poll numbers among Black voters in the run-up to the primaries suggest otherwise. Could Elizabeth Warren have torn Trump limb from limb in the debates and left him bleeding on the cusp of the election? Sure. But Biden more than held his own in those debates, and there’s no real evidence that they mattered. Yes, Mike Bloomberg could have tried to drown Republicans with his limitless financial reserves. But in the end, Biden (and other defeated Democrats like record fund-raiser Jaime Harrison) had more than enough money to do whatever he wanted to do — and as with Clinton in 2016, it didn’t seem to matter.
It’s probably useful to ask why Democratic primary voters were so sure about Biden’s electability in the first place. It wasn’t because they were transfixed by polls; he retained his reputation even when his campaign wasn’t doing that well. It probably wasn’t a purely ideological matter either, since fellow centrists like Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Harris were never thought of as particularly electable. One prominent study back in 2019 suggested it was all about Biden’s personality. And in that respect, Uncle Joe probably delivered: His decency and steadiness during a general election campaign dominated by COVID-19 and a raging Donald Trump were most likely crucial assets.
If Biden was indeed the most electable candidate Democrats could have run, what does that say about the party’s appeal as of November 2020? Nothing terribly good. Brownstein thinks Biden was the best available bridge between the party’s blue-collar Rust Belt past and its more diverse Sun Belt future. They can try to do it all over again in 2024 with Biden or someone else, or seek to accelerate the advent of the Democratic Party of the future. Perhaps Kamala Harris — after serving as Joe’s trusty surrogate and help-meet — will manage to do both.