Don’t write off Biden

Former VP brings a lot of assets to the race

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM about Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is that its best day will be the day he announces, which is expected to happen on Thursday. Then, as voters scrutinize his record, he will quickly fall from frontrunner to also-ran. Most analysts compare Biden to Rudy Giuliani in April 2007, when he led the Republican presidential field with 32 percent support and a 12-point lead over the second place candidate, then failed to win a single primary in the 2008 race.

This comparison makes intuitive sense. Early poll numbers measure name recognition rather than support, which is why they change so quickly once voters learn more about the candidates. It is also hard to picture the Democratic Party, energized by passionate young socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, nominating an old white man with a long list of apostasies from contemporary liberal dogma.

Activists want to write off Biden because they disagree with him on the issues, but also because his candidacy would be a direct repudiation of their vision for a Democratic Party that embraces socialist economic policies and hardline social justice ideology. Political professionals admire the former vice president but remember his two earlier presidential campaigns, which quickly ended amidst frequent gaffes and weak fundraising.

In reality, Biden has the clearest path to the nomination of any Democrat running. Twitter and the DC Beltway are not proxies for public opinion. Biden’s appeal to moderate Democrats, the perception of electability, and an obvious claim on Barack Obama’s legacy combine to make him the obvious frontrunner. He has real liabilities, but they are far outweighed by these assets.

One of the biggest differences between America’s two political parties is Democrats still have a large group of moderate primary voters. Recent survey research showed that 38 percent of Democratic primary voters identified as “moderate” while only 22 percent saw themselves as “very liberal.” These results are consistent with polling from Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and the Pew Research Center. Despite what Twitter and cable news would have you believe, not all Democratic primary voters are pansexual socialist artists.

Biden’s obvious strength with moderate voters has already given him a significant advantage, scaring off other centrist Democrats like Terry McAuliffe and Michael Bloomberg. Barring an unexpected surge in support for Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, or Tim Ryan, the former vice president will be the only major candidate making an ideological appeal to centrist voters. These voters are already uncomfortable with the trajectory of their party, critical of either hardline social justice ideology or the rebirth of unreconstructed economic populism. They will want a candidate like Joe Biden, who reassures them they are still welcome in the Democratic Party.

Moderate Democrats will form the core of Biden’s coalition, but his ties to Barack Obama and the perception that he can win a general election will help him broaden his base of support. Electability is an under-analyzed aspect of primary voter behavior, especially when a party out of power is choosing their nominee. It isn’t a coincidence that, as politics gets more polarized and vitriolic, opposition parties place a higher premium on electability.

Mitt Romney in 2012 and John Kerry in 2004 both benefited tremendously from the idea that they could win a general election against the hated incumbent. In 2004, George W. Bush had yet to be rehabilitated. Democrats saw him as a bumbling, idiotic warmonger, barely able to speak in sentences and totally controlled by Halliburton and ExxonMobil. In exit polling, electability was more important to Democratic primary voters than whether a candidate shared their values or political positions. John Kerry won the nomination in large part because voters felt his military background would let him criticize the Iraq War without looking too soft to keep America safe from terrorism.

In 2012, Mitt Romney managed to be nominated by a conservative, Southern, evangelical Republican electorate despite being a relatively moderate Northeastern Mormon. Romney’s success was made possible by voters who decided that, while they personally preferred Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, neither of those candidates could defeat Barack Obama in November.

Both Romney and Kerry lost largely for the reasons primary voters were originally leery of them — they were both unlikable and obviously out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Neither of those things is true of Biden.

But he has to hope Democrats, especially the upscale white women who aren’t a natural fit for his style, won’t pay too much attention to the poor track record of “I don’t like him but other people will” voting behavior. Instead, Biden needs to peel off some liberal voters by playing up his ability to win back the white working class in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who backed Barack Obama twice but delivered the Presidency to Donald Trump in 2016.

Biden’s inextricable links to Barack Obama, by far the most popular person in the Democratic Party, will help him win over these skeptical upscale white voters. Serving as Obama’s vice president essentially restarted Biden’s political career. Most voters don’t remember anything about his Senate tenure, but they know he stood with Barack Obama and implemented progressive policies. Biden can credibly argue that, while he and Obama have vastly different personal styles, they share a political agenda he will continue as the next president. This argument appeals to his moderate base, which preferred Obama’s approach to the revolutionary politics of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but it also appeals to more liberal voters who are deeply nostalgic for Barack Obama in the Trump era.

This last strength is where Biden is the most vulnerable. Beto O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg can claim the Obama mantle through imitation rather than association. Biden needs to be prepared to prosecute the case against either of these young, charismatic Democrats and explain how, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, “I knew Barack Obama, I worked with Barack Obama, and you’re no Barack Obama.”

None of these advantages mean Joe Biden is a lock for the Democratic nomination. He will need to run a strong campaign, especially in the first month, when pundits and activists will be waiting to see him fall. If I were advising him, I would recommend against big rallies that risk failing to meet crowd size expectations. Instead, his early campaign schedule should be packed with diners and small house parties, perfect venues for showcasing his likability. The busy calendar will implicitly rebut criticisms that he’s too old to handle the rigors of the presidency, and there will be opportunities for plenty of “spontaneous” moments of folksy virility, like throwing a football back to some children playing on a small town’s green.

There’s a fine line between Biden’s down-to-earth blue-collar persona and the buffoonish Uncle Joe caricature immortalized by The Onion. He needs to show some semblance of message discipline during this campaign, the biggest challenge for a politician who loathes sticking to a script. A few teleprompter speeches on complex foreign policy challenges will be an easy way to boost his gravitas while reminding the audience of his role in Obama’s administration.

Finally, Biden needs to resist the pressure to turn his early campaign into an apology tour. While Anita Hill, the Iraq War, the 1994 crime bill, and a litany of other missteps will haunt his campaign, he gains nothing from protracted apologies. The voters who use these issues as litmus tests will never join his coalition, and talking about past errors only reinforces their salience for voters who disapprove but are willing to overlook Biden’s baggage. When asked about his record, Biden should always pivot back to working with our first African-American president to enact progressive change.

Joe Biden has spent over 40 years in public life. He’s been underestimated for most of them, starting in 1972 when he defeated a two-term senator as a 29-year-old, in a state Nixon carried in the same election by 20 points.

During Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.  A withering column was headlined “The Senator is Overmatched.” Some liberals even asked Biden to step aside because he didn’t have the intellectual heft to defeat Bork. He refused to leave and was a key part of scuttling the nomination.

Throughout his career, Biden has surprised political handicappers, largely because they don’t understand his key strength. Richard Ben Cramer’s magisterial political biography What It Takes summed it up best: “[Biden] was so sure he knew where the people stood. They were like him, he was like them. That’s what he had to show—that he wasn’t some millionaire or a whiz kid from Harvard, come to straighten them out. No, he’d be their voice. He’d stand up for them. Even if it meant picking a fight.”

So much has changed since these words were written, but pundits and twitterati still underestimate how many people believe Joe Biden will fight for them.

Meet the Author
Brian Jencunas is a Massachusetts-based Republican speechwriter and political strategist who has consulted for many successful local, municipal, and statewide political candidates, as well as ballot initiatives and independent expenditure groups.