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Why Is Everyone Sleeping on Joe Biden?

December 12, 2019
Why Is Everyone Sleeping on Joe Biden?
Former US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the First State Democratic Dinner in Dover, Delaware, on March 16, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The entire 2020 Democratic primary campaign has been driven by one indisputable fact and one unquestioned assumption:

  • Joe Biden has led the field by a wide margin, since the moment he got into the race.
  • Everyone assumes—simply as a matter of course—that Joe Biden will not be the nominee.

At some point this fact/analysis pairing is going to crash into reality. When it does, perhaps Joe Biden’s campaign will stumble, or get bogged down, or just plain fall apart. That is definitely a thing that could happen.

But on the other hand, Biden’s support has been durable during half a year of vigorous campaigning. This is the single most overlooked aspect of the cycle.

Probably because it’s been hiding in plain sight.

My general view is that you should always begin from the assumption that there’s at least a 50-50 chance that your own analysis is wrong. So let’s start with why many political professionals assume that Biden can’t win the Democratic nomination.

(1) He’s old. I mean, really old. So old that his eye actually exploded on live television.

Joe Biden's Eye Fills With Blood During CNN Climate Town Hall

In general, old people do not win presidential campaigns. This axiom isn’t like the Second Law of Thermodynamics or anything—sometimes old guys do win. But all things being equal you’d rather have your money on a candidate in the sweet spot of 45 to 55 years old. Or, failing that, a candidate who looks and feels younger.

Or, at the very least, a candidate whose eye does not fill up with blood while onstage in the middle of a campaign.

(2) His electoral track record isn’t great. The last truly competitive race Biden ran, under his own banner, was in 1972. After flipping a Delaware Senate seat held by an incumbent Republican, Biden never drew a serious challenger.

But he ran for president in 1988 and 2008 and flamed out both times.

If you want to flip through the history books to find the last man to win the presidency on his third try, 32 years after his first attempt, I’ll wait.

(3) He’s getting killed on Twitter. I don’t have any fancy data to back this up, but I suspect that a very large part of why people think Biden must be toast is that, alone among the top 2020 candidates, he has no real army of support on Twitter.

Trump has legions of MAGA-bots. There are Bernie Bros and Warrenistas. But Biden barely exists on Twitter, except as a prop to be dunked on.

In a world where Donald Trump rode Twitter to the White House and Bernie Sanders nearly knocked off Hillary Clinton in part by harnessing social-media passion, maybe this means something?

On the other hand, maybe not. Twitter is not the internet. And when you look at the actual internet, Biden does pretty well, drawing more attention than everyone else in the Democratic field.

(4) He’s not where the party is ideologically. This is the biggest of the assumptions because no one really knows where the Democratic party is ideologically.

Here are some things we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence:

  • If elected, the Joe Biden of today would be the most progressive Democratic president in 50 years.
  • But if you arrayed the current field across a spectrum, Biden would be either the most or second-most centrist Democrat in the field.
  • So wherever Biden is with the electorate, he certainly looks out of step with the other candidates.

Which leaves you with one of two possibilities: Either Biden is out of step with the party, or the field is.

(5) The primary map is a challenge. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden would have to face off against a very white, and very progressive, electorate in Iowa and then take his lumps from a favorite son and a favorite daughter in New Hampshire before he could get to South Carolina and Nevada and begin building momentum.

It is entirely possible that Biden could finish fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire. That’s not great, Bob.

And add to all of this the fact that Sanders and Warren have built reliable fundraising operations and the most likely path to the nomination for Biden is a long march that goes well into the spring.

Is it possible he could pull a surprise landslide early, the way John Kerry did in 2004? Sure. But that scenario isn’t appreciably more likely than Biden suffering an early collapse.

Roll all of this together and you can see why so many people assume that Biden simply can’t be the nominee.

And yet . . .

Any objective measure of Biden’s position has to account for the fact that he’s very strong.

(1) He has a base. Where most of the rest of the Democratic field has had boom-bust cycles, only two candidates—Biden and Sanders—have proven to have durable support. For reasons I have never understood, people seem to think Bernie has an unshakeable base while Biden’s supporters are just a group of voters who haven’t abandoned him yet.

Why is that?

(2) The calendar isn’t as bad as it looks. It’s absolutely true that Biden could finish fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire. But this isn’t like Rudy Giuliani saying he’s going to skip Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and then begin his triumphal march to the nomination in Florida. (This is a thing that happened.)

Biden is actually very competitive in the two early states: He’s 5 points out of first place in Iowa and 3 points out of first place in New Hampshire, basically within the margin of error for both.

But when you get to South Carolina and Nevada, Biden is currently leading by 25 points and 9 points. Those are pretty substantial margins in a field this large.

Let’s stipulate that momentum is real and that voters in these contests react to one another. There’s still the question of how much momentum anyone can create in a caucus and a primary where there’s a knot of four major candidates in high double digits, with none of them over 25 percent and no one else even close to the pack.

Is a scenario in which Biden finishes fourth in a tight pack, surviving bad states in a respectable manner, really an extinction-level event for him? Maybe. But I don’t think so. In a multipolar race with muddled early results, Democratic voters won’t really understand the candidates’ strengths until they’re stress-tested in different environments.

And then there’s this: What if Biden were to actually win Iowa? That’s not a high-probability event, but it’s not crazy, either. If we were laying odds, we might say that his chances of winning Iowa were 1-in-20 or 1-in-10. And if that were to happen, he probably runs away with the nomination.

My point here isn’t that Biden winning Iowa is likely—as I said, it’s not—but simply this: Biden is the only candidate with the theoretical ability to short-circuit the race early. And that’s because his position is so much stronger than everyone else’s.

(3) Winning is everything. Back to John Kerry for a moment: Kerry surged to the nomination in 2004 after Democrats recoiled from Howard Dean because of perceived electability problems and in that cycle Democrats were desperate to beat George W. Bush.

By every objective measure we have, Biden is best positioned to beat Trump.

If you want to, you can make the argument that this or that Democratic candidate could eventually beat Trump. There’s polling you might be able to interpret as encouraging.

But in terms of the facts we have before us right now, Biden has given every indication that he is—far and away—the most difficult challenger for Trump. In the entire universe of national matchup polls between Trump and Biden taken since last March, Trump has led Biden exactly twice, once by 4 points and once by 2 points. For almost the entire duration, Biden has led Trump by double-digits. His current lead over the incumbent president, nationally, is 10 points.

This is unheard of in modern politics.

Biden’s relative advantage looks even bigger when you focus on the battleground states, where he is the only Democrat to have a sizable lead over Trump.

It is hard to overstate how significant this is: In a time of peace and prosperity, with the unemployment rate at its lowest ebb in half a century, Biden is positioned to beat an incumbent president by a large popular margin and a significant margin in the Electoral College.

That is not the normal state of affairs in American politics. The fact of it suggests something very powerful at work in Biden’s candidacy.

(4) There is no pivot. Look around the rest of the Democratic field, and you see people pivoting to gain advantage. Beto went every which way but loose. Kamala flipped on Medicare for All. Warren flipped on M4A, too. And then she flipped again to her “transition” plan. Buttigieg also pivoted from presenting himself as a progressive change candidate to a moderate critic of the progressives in the race.

There are only two top-tier Democrats who are running the same race today as they’ll be running in the general election: Biden and Sanders.

But where Sanders is holding on to some positions that are deeply unpopular—such as abolishing private health insurance—Biden is not. Biden started the race with the decision that he would run his general election effort right out of the gate and risk losing the primary in order to win the general.

Again, the fact that he has gotten to this point without having to bend the knee to unpopular progressive policies is another sign of his fundamental strength.

(5) He has not had a good stretch yet. Look at Biden on any given day and I can see how you’d think he was in trouble.

Remember when everyone was goofing on him for “Corn Pop”? Or how weird it was that he’s a toucher? Or the time Kamala Harris tried to cripple his campaign by attacking him for being maybe-kinda racist? Or all the times Biden “stumbled” in the debates? Or the time the president of the United States tried to extort a foreign government into investigating Biden and his son? Or the time his son’s dirty laundry got hung out? Or the time his son was involved in an ongoing paternity suit? Or the time the incumbent president spent millions of dollars attacking Biden in early-state ads in an attempt to knock him out of the race?

And don’t forget his eye exploding.

None of this is to cry for Biden, but merely to point out that of all the Democratic candidates he has gotten—by far—the roughest ride. He’s the most fully vetted and it’s not even close. Everything that could conceivably go wrong for him has gone wrong. All of his weaknesses have been on full display. He’s endured attacks from the progressive media, attacks from his more liberal rivals, and, simultaneously, attacks from Republicans and Trump intent on getting Anyone But Biden as the challenger.

And he’s still leading the field by a wide, consistent margin.

Look: We live in a universe where anything can happen. Donald Trump could win reelection. Buttigieg-Booker could capture 40 states and the District of Columbia. Michael Bloomberg could win a Macron-style third-party bid. The Cowboys could win the NFC East with a 6-10 record.

But the most likely outcome is that the vice president of the last two-term Democratic president—the guy who has led the field by a wide margin since the day he got into the race—will win his party’s nomination and then have a very good shot to beat the incumbent he’s leading by double digits in dozens upon dozens of polls.

We should be open to all sorts of possibilities. But in the meantime, stop sleeping on Joe Biden.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.