Joe Biden is yet again on the verge of announcing a presidential run. Despite twice falling far short of the Democratic nomination, in 1988 and 2008, the 76-year-old Biden is convinced not only that he can win it, but that he’s the best candidate to beat the president. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the former vice president “has told allies he is skeptical the other Democrats eyeing the White House can defeat President Trump” and that he may make a formal announcement in a matter of weeks. “If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it,” Biden reportedly told a Democratic supporter in private. “But I don’t see the candidate who can clearly do what has to be done to win.”
It’s easy to glean what he believes needs to be done to win: appeal to working-class whites, particularly in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. “We can’t possibly in my view win the presidency unless we can begin to reclaim those white working-class voters that used to vote for us,” he said while campaigning in the lead-up to November’s midterm elections. Some in the party, including Biden himself, believe that the brash son of Scranton who famously rode the train to work is the kind of Democrat who can connect with disaffected voters, return the Midwest to the Democrats, and topple Trump.
But these Democrats are exaggerating Biden’s appeal, underestimating the strength of his potential primary opponents, and promoting a dangerously myopic view of the electoral landscape. By fixating on the Rust Belt states that narrowly cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, they’re neglecting the much broader swath of core Democratic voters who can deliver a victory against a historically weak president.
Trump’s appeal to working-class white voters has been obsessed over since his 2016 upset, but he merely benefitted a growing trend: The GOP has polled increasingly well with non-college-educated white voters for the past decade. “Whites who did not attend college were evenly split between the two parties in Pew surveys conducted from 1992 to 2008,” the authors of Identity Crisis, the definitive account of the 2016 election, wrote. “But by 2015, white voters who had a high school degree or less were 24 percentage points more Republican than Democratic (57%-33%).”
The Clinton campaign’s overconfidence that the “blue wall” would hold has been justly criticized, given that just 80,000 voters across Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin cost her the election. But there’s little evidence that the campaign’s midwestern ground game, and specifically its decision not to campaign in Wisconsin, made the difference. Instead a general lack of electoral enthusiasm, Clinton’s baggage (both overstated and deserved), and the Comey letter proved to be more decisive. Yes, Trump won a record share of the white-working class vote, but the same group of voters made up a quarter of Clinton’s coalition.
Despite the political class’ fixation on economic anxiety, the authors of Identity Crisis found that it was an isolated, partisan phenomenon: Republicans earning more than $100,000 a year were more concerned about the economy than Democrats earning less than $20,000. Instead, cultural anxiety was more decisive. “Economic anxiety had been decreasing, not increasing, in the eight years before 2016 and any impact it had was muted or at least not particularly distinctive compared to earlier elections,” John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck wrote. “When economic anxiety was refracted through social identities, however, the combination was potent. The important sentiment was not ‘I might lose my job’ but, in essence, ‘People in my group are losing jobs to that other group.’ Instead of a pure economic anxiety, what mattered was ‘racialized economics.’”
The argument for Biden is that his blue-collar bona fides and tough talk will win back these voters. “If you look at Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the labor folks who voted for Trump, they love him,” former Delaware governor Jack Markell told the Times about Biden. “He has a connection with these people.” But it’s unclear how Biden’s political approach will appeal to voters motivated by cultural anxiety and “racialized economics.” It’s possible that the kind of economic platform that Biden is expected to pitch—one that stops short of Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism, but nevertheless focuses directly on workers—could be effective here. But there’s nothing about Biden, outside of his identity as an old white man who reps Scranton, that suggests that he can be the only messenger who will be effective in making a dent in Trump’s non-college-educated white base.
For one thing, as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley notes, “in 2018, Democrats flipped eight House districts that Obama won in 2012 but that Trump won in 2016; of those districts, which are in Biden’s ostensible wheelhouse, five were won by non-white male candidates.” Senators in the Biden mode, like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly—both of whom Biden campaigned for—got walloped. Midterm voting suggests that the blue wall is being rebuilt by a diverse array of candidates, some similar to Biden (like Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb) and some not (like Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib). There are strong signs that Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are poised to return to the Democratic fold in 2020, though Ohio, where Republicans expanded their hold on state government, may be lost for good.
It’s true that Biden is very popular, leading the potential Democratic field by as many as 20 points. But there’s reason to believe that his support is inflated. His significant advantage in name recognition will shrink as the primaries take shape, and the scrutiny of his record will intensify. By sitting out the 2016 primary, Biden’s record largely remained unexamined, thereby preserving his image as an affable, everyman vice president. But there are plenty of blemishes, including his shameful role during the Anita Hill hearings and his role in passing the 1994 crime bill—the virtues of which he continues to extol. He also hasn’t proven to be an effective presidential candidate: His 1988 campaign was derailed by plagiarism accusations, and he dropped out of the 2008 race after getting just 4 percent in the Iowa caucuses.
The notion that Biden is the only Democrat who can beat Trump vastly overstates the president’s strength as a candidate. Trump has never even flirted with 50 percent approval during his two years in office, and the blue wave in the November midterms showed just how deeply he is loathed by a majority of the electorate. It’s likely that any Democratic nominee will be favored to defeat him. But it would be both strategically foolish, and politically disastrous, for the Democrats to nominate a candidate who sought primarily to appeal to tens of thousands of midwestern voters rather than the many millions who are already eager to help the party take down the president.