Written on June 10, 2019, as part of a project I was thinking about doing for all the significant Democratic candidates. I thought the better of that, but decided to publish this in response to a friend’s question about Biden’s electability. — dc
Former Vice President and U.S. Senator Joe Biden led opinion polls among Democratic voters long before he officially joined the already crowded field in late April. For most political observers, he’s the default frontrunner and with the best odds of winning the nomination. But is his path to victory as clear as his early lead?
Who is Joe Biden?
He became famous — and popular — as Barack Obama’s running mate, Vice President, and friend. Pre-Obama, he was a long-time Senator from Delaware who was mostly known for five things: 1. Being a competent neoliberal lawmaker; 2. Blowing a clear shot at the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination via a plagiarism scandal; 3. Representing the interests of the finance industry (a virtual requirement for a politician from Delaware); 4. His outrageously poor treatment of witness Anita Hill as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings; and 5. Declining to challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 nomination, in part because of the death of his promising adult son, Beau.
Since leaving office, Biden has made more headlines for his inappropriate touching and treatment of women than for any policy proposals, etc.
Biden has a good back story for a politician. He came from blue collar roots in scrappy Scranton, Pa. Shortly after becoming one of the youngest Senators in American history, a tractor-trailer hit his wife’s car, killing her and their infant daughter, and severely injuring their two sons. Biden considered resigning, but remained in the Senate, commuting by train to Delaware every day. His second wife, Jill, is a doctor and a political asset.
- Name recognition
- Leads in all Democratic preference polls
- Broad support from big donors and the institutional party establishment
- Political experience in Washington and the White House
- Nostalgia for the Obama Era
- Reputation as a “mainstream” or “moderate” Democrat
- Perceived ability to attract independent voters in the General
- Nonthreatening white male grandfather image
- Can be an effective, telegenic speaker
- Has generally been a competent debate presence
- Left wing of the party currently split between two primary competitors plus multiple lower-tier challengers
- “Creepy Joe” persona, particularly among women
- Younger voters aren’t interested
- If elected, Biden (76) would be the oldest President ever inaugurated
- Ties to the financial establishment
- “Moderate” stances (abortion, health care, economic policy, etc.) falling out of favor within a party moving left
- History of gaffes and campaign fiascoes
- Record of sexism (Anita Hill) and support for justice policies now considered failures by many Democrats
- Biden leads an overcrowded “Moderate White Guy” lane in the primaries that also includes Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Michael Bennet, Gov. Steve Bullock, Rep. John Delaney, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Seth Boulton, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Rep. Tim Ryan and Rep. Eric Swalwell
- Biden’s statement about “Republican epiphany” was a bid for bi-partisan generosity, but Democrats in general aren’t buying it
Biden’s Opening Situation
The media’s centrist frontrunner mantle bolsters his image as “someone who could unite the party and the country” against Trump, but there is no indication as yet that Biden’s broad support is also deep. With the party trending left, younger and more diverse, a vaguely liberal establishment septuagenarian white man is a turnoff.
And perhaps most importantly, Biden’s history of squandering his presidential chances looms large in the background of his “frontrunner” campaign. With voters becoming more familiar with the other candidates, is the Biden project capable of surviving the scrutiny that will soon be headed his way?
Biden’s Path to Victory: Early Knockout
This one is fairly straight forward: Biden needs to collect enough convention delegates to win by Early Knockout on March 3. Given the unprecedented value of 2020’s Super Tuesday “national primary,” it’s certainly a strong and viable Path. Yet given Biden’s circumstances, personality and opposition, it’s also an exceedingly fragile scenario.
How it works
If Biden fails to pacify his female critics quickly, he will leak supporters through the summer and fall, lose his presumptive frontrunner status, and suffer the media backlash that falls upon all “desperate former frontrunners.” This means the Biden campaign must:
- Re-establish his credentials as a “changed man” when it comes to his 20th century attitudes toward women. This could take the place of some prominent feminist endorsements, a media “listening tour,” and more managed media appearances alongside his wife, Jill. The goal is not specifically to attract women to his candidacy, but to prevent “MeToo” topics from swamping his message.
- Focus on holding the center and portraying himself as a wise, kind and noble statesman during televised debates and a limited schedule of public appearances. Not campaigning heavily is a risk, but at Biden’s age, and with Biden’s personality and record, putting him on an exhausting campaign itinerary would be inviting gaffes he cannot afford.
- Avoid taking clear policy positions on controversial topics and compensate by a message that talks about uniting the country and defeating Trump
- Campaign for knockout wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina
- Do nothing that would encourage either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to drop out of the race. Biden’s Early Knockout Strategy requires Warren and Sanders splitting the left vote.
- Pick up the supporters of the “Moderate White Guy” lane as they exit, adding anywhere from 4 to 25 percent of the Democratic electorate.
What it risks
Everything. With Biden running as a The Unifying Elder Statesman Who Can Beat Trump, he sabotages his own message if he fights back against his fellow Democrats once Operation Knock Joe Off The Top Of The Poll begins later this summer. In military terms, Joe Biden is the Maginot Line in 1940: Looks great on paper, but it’s a fixed-position defense against a modern enemy that’s free to maneuver — or bypass him entirely.
The one predictable thing in a Presidential campaign is that candidates will face unexpected challenges. Biden has done nothing to convince me that he’ll be skilled at responding to such crises against Democrats, much less Trump.