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Whoa, Joe

The former VP is leading all the primary polls. But the numbers mask serious liabilities.
May 28, 2019
Whoa, Joe
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democrats, if not their progressive fellow travelers, are riding a wave of Bidenmania. Benefiting from name recognition, a long-running (and endearing) meme, and nostalgia for the bygone Obama administration, the former vice president enjoys a commanding 17-point lead over his nearest Democratic competitor (according to the RealClearPolitics average).

But what’s exciting for those hoping to retake the White House in 2020 are national and state-level matchup polls showing Biden absolutely routing the incumbent president. The most recent Fox News survey has Biden with an 11 point margin over Trump.

The picture is even more dramatic at the state level. In Pennsylvania, a Quinnipiac poll has Biden crushing Trump 53-42. Biden even holds a four-point lead among white voters in the state.

The former vice president isn’t only winning in states where he’s a familiar face. An Emerson poll of Texas voters—Texas!—has Biden leading Trump 50-49. A recent poll in Arizona (which Trump won handily in 2016), shows Biden with a comfortable five point lead.

If the top priority for Democrats is to unseat the president—if they believe their rhetoric about the damage a second Trump term could do—there’s a compelling practical case to be made for Joe Biden.

Biden is a known quantity, which is important for challenging an incumbent president with celebrity status.

To the extent that Biden has skeletons in his closet, they’re reminders of a less progressive Democratic Party: support for a now-controversial crime bill, insensitive questions for Clarence Thomas accuser Anita Hill, a pattern of creepy (but not necessarily sexual) intrusions on women’s space.

Ironically—if Biden can make it through the primary gauntlet—these offenses against woke orthodoxy might help him in the general election. Presumed GOP nominee Donald Trump will undoubtedly attempt to paint his Democratic opposition as politically correct socialists. Those barbs lose a bit of their sting with trusty Uncle Joe at the top of the ticket.

However, as Democrats tally the benefits of nominating Joe Biden, they should also account for its costs.

For starters, he would be 78 in 2021, making him the oldest president in U.S. history. His gaffes—which range from asking a disabled politician to stand to vaguely racist comments about convenience store workers—are legendary, and would provide a steady stream of unforced errors for cable television and social media to exploit. The verbal miscues that might have once been endearing could be transformed into a narrative of a past-his-prime dinosaur.

But more important, Biden’s flashes of anger and intemperance would make it more challenging to contrast him with Trump’s bullying insult comic routine.

When a protester disrupted one of his 2016 campaign rallies, the future president notoriously remarked “you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher folks … I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”

You could call a remark like that disturbing, even deplorable. It’s also harder to denounce when your own candidate said of Trump, “the press always asks me don’t I wish I were debating him? … No, I wish I were in high school, I could take him behind the gym. That’s what I wish.”

And what about his much-promised appeal to working class whites? Biden might hold a commanding lead in Pennsylvania at this early stage of the campaign, but his economic message hasn’t exactly taken the roof off.

As Trip Gabriel of the New York Times reported, the former vice president disappointed some working class Democrats by pulling his punches at an Iowa rally. “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on man! … They’re not competition for us.”

Whether Biden is correct about the threat China poses economically, you have to ask what he’s offering the stereotypical “forgotten man” that goes beyond what Trump is already promising with more zeal and (apparent) conviction.

It certainly isn’t a compelling message on cultural hot-buttons like immigration or “political correctness.” In his dispatch from Youngstown, Gabriel reported that “palpable hostility toward newer waves of immigrants is routine.” A local Democratic party official remarked of Trump: “he’s allowing these workers to say, ‘I don’t have a good job because of these immigrants… That’s not true. But [Trump’s] got a voice.”

There is little chance that a Democratic nominee who describes the president’s immigration policy as one that “literally rip[s] babies from the arms of their mothers and fathers” or launches his campaign by specifically attacking the president’s response to the Charlottesville riots will be able to play to white grievance politics as effectively as Trump.

A bet on Biden is in many ways an attempt at a 2016 redo. Flip Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin back to blue, and Hillary Clinton is the president. It’s easy to imagine Biden making last minute visits to Scranton, Saginaw, and Sheboygan, and winning those 78,000 marginal voters. It’s a seductive fantasy, but it’s one that Democrats needn’t rush to indulge.

Political analyst Ron Brownstein recently noted that “over the past five presidential elections, non-college-educated whites declined from 54 percent of the total vote in 2000 to 44 percent in 2016.” Furthermore, “over that period, whites with at least a four-year college degree grew slightly as a share of the voting pool, from 27 percent to 30 percent of the vote, while minorities jumped from just under one-fifth of voters to more than one-fourth.” Brownstein calls “the long-term erosion of blue-collar whites as a share of the national vote unmistakable and irreversible.”

You see where this is heading. Why attempt to win back a dwindling voter bloc when other swing voters are more reachable? Democrats crushed Republicans among white college educated women in 2018 in congressional races, increasing their share from 49 percent to 59 percent. A Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar at the top of the ticket might play to this strength, and keep the campaign message focused on issues that matter to the once-reliable Republican voter who is now up for grabs.

There are other reasons why a moderate female candidate might be the best play for Democrats in 2020. For one thing, you can’t fight the president’s fire with fire. Ice, however, might work. Think back to what might have been the low point for Donald Trump in the GOP primary debates. He had recently attacked Carly Fiorina’s appearance. “Look at that face! … Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”

Fiorina did not respond with anger, or by descending to Trump’s level (as Rubio did). Her response was icy, and brutally effective. Trump has never looked so small on the public stage before or since.


In the Atlantic, Brownstein suggested that Democrats might not need to “focus obsessively on [Rust Belt] states if they could tip some of the diverse and growing Sun Belt states where [working-class] whites are a smaller share of the vote, such as North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.”

And it wouldn’t necessarily need to be a trade-off. “Democrats could certainly win back Pennsylvania in 2020, and likely Michigan too, without appreciable gains among working-class whites if they’re able to increase turnout among minorities and improve their margins among white-collar white voters.”

A Biden candidacy gives the illusion of safety, but beneath the surface it’s a dangerous proposition. His regional profile and his occasionally brash manner suggest he might succeed where Hillary Clinton failed. And maybe Trump is so unpopular that almost anyone could beat him. But Biden would also risk centering the campaign on a dwindling voter bloc and a set of issues where the Democratic message appears defensive.

It might be smarter for Democrats in 2020 to play to their strengths instead of trying to cover their weaknesses.

Christian Vanderbrouk

Christian Vanderbrouk is a writer in New York City. He previously served eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: .