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Joe Biden’s Silent Majority

Despite decades of bad positions and months of bad press, the former vice president still leads the 2020 field.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

A week ago, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign looked like it was dead on arrival. Accusations of unwanted touching brought forth by several women had become a major issue. Biden was lampooned by Saturday Night Live and by his potential 2020 adversary, President Donald Trump. The conclusion, reached again and again across the liberal commentariat, seemed obvious: Biden’s nascent presidential campaign was in big trouble. Biden and his defenders were lambasted in The Nation as having “learned the wrong lessons from the worst perpetrators such as Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh.” The Guardian’s David Smith, meanwhile, mused that “some presidential campaigns take time to hit their stride while others hit the ground running. But Joe Biden appears to be hobbling even before he reaches the starting blocks.”

The last several months have seen a number of stories examining Biden’s record on everything from student loans and banking, to school busing. The former vice president’s unapologetically “old-fashioned” attitude toward women and their personal space drew attention to other past examples of retrograde behavior, including the then-senator’s shameful treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas. “Experience”—the attribute many expected would be a cornerstone of Biden’s presidential run—increasingly looked like a liability as more people examined his long and problematic career. The now-conventional wisdom (advanced, I admit, by myself, as well as others) was that the idea of “Biden 2020” had benefited from the 76-year-old’s two years out of a bruising political arena. Once voters had a chance to look at his record, however, they wouldn’t like what they saw, and Biden’s lead in early presidential opinion polls would evaporate.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, Biden has held on to his sizable lead over other Democrats eyeing the presidential primary (and remember, Biden still hasn’t formally declared that he’s running). A Morning Consult poll released Monday found Biden still leading the Democratic field with a nine-point advantage over second-place Bernie Sanders. Politico, meanwhile, reported that “party gatekeepers” in key primary states still had Biden’s back. The former vice president has perhaps been written off by left-leaning media or left Twitter, but not, it appears, by plenty of other Democrats.

One explanation offered up for the disparity between the narrative about Biden on the left and his actual standing among Democratic voters is that social media has warped perceptions of the party’s base. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, working off of research by the centrist Hidden Tribes Project, found that “the outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse, and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online.” These Democrats described in the Times were significantly less likely to have attended a protest in the past year and significantly more likely to view so-called “political correctness” with suspicion. “Over all,” reported Cohn and Quealy, “around half of Democratic-leaning voters consider themselves ‘moderate’ or ‘conservative,’ not liberal. Around 40 percent are not white.”

The party’s progressive base, they contend, is overrepresented on Twitter and Facebook. “Roughly a quarter of Democrats count as ideologically consistent progressives, who toe the party line or something further to the left on just about every issue. Only a portion of them, perhaps 1 in 10 Democrats over all, might identify as Democratic socialists, based on recent polls,” Cohn and Quealy wrote.

This large, diverse base helps explain, in Cohn and Quealy’s view, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s ability to hold on to his job after it was discovered that he was pictured wearing blackface in his medical school yearbook, and also Biden’s persistent lead, despite a number of damaging stories about his behavior and past political positions.

“The relative moderation of Democrats who are not sharing their political thoughts on social media, and therefore of Democrats as a whole, makes it less surprising that Virginia Democrats tolerated Mr. Northam’s yearbook page. It makes it easier to imagine how Joe Biden might not merely survive questions about whether he touched women in ways that made them feel uncomfortable, but might even emerge essentially unscathed.”

Moreover, as the Times reads it, moderate voters are also skeptical of the party’s progressive wing and more trusting of proven politicians, like Biden.

Biden’s strategy, it seems, will be to court these voters. Although he has yet to formally announce his candidacy, in public appearances he has dismissed complaints that he is not progressive enough. Recently asked about his claim that he had “the most progressive record of anybody running,” Biden snapped back. “I’m not sure when everybody else came out and said they’re for gay marriage,” he said. “I’m not sure when everybody came out and talked about a lot of the things I’ve talked about, but my point is the definition of a progressive now seems to be changing. That is, ‘are you a socialist?’ That’s a real progressive.” Biden’s comments elicited eyerolls at the time, but they play very well to the group of Democrats highlighted by Cohn and Quigley.

Biden’s response to recent allegations also can be read as playing to these voters. Speaking to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Friday, Biden made light of the stories of his uninvited touching, joking twice that he had “permission” to hug the male, electrical workers’ union president Lonnie Stephenson. Asked by reporters about the women’s allegations, Biden once again was dismissive, and emphatically so. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand more,” he said. “I’m not sorry for any of my intentions. I’m not sorry for anything that I’ve ever done. I’ve never been disrespectful, intentionally, to a man or a woman. That’s not the reputation I’ve had since high school, for God’s sake.”

These comments were portrayed by many as a classic Biden gaffe. “If Joe Biden was hoping on Friday to move past the controversy over his unwelcome physical contact with women, he did not succeed,” Politico reported. But Biden’s defense of his actions also served to remind Democratic primary voters that he was unbowed by pressure from the left. Given the polling released on Monday, it doesn’t seem that they minded anyway. 

Most of the other candidates considered in the “establishment” wing of the Democratic primary have spent the early stages of the primary attempting to court progressives. Cory Booker has released an ambitious plan to fight the racial wealth gap, while Kamala Harris has pushed a $12,500 raise for teachers. Nearly all have embraced some form of single-payer health care. Biden has stayed out of this race to pump out policy papers, instead presenting himself as a steward of the very-much-capital-D-capital-P Democratic Party, rather than a firebrand.  

Biden may also differ from these other establishment candidates in explicitly drawing on voters’ nostalgia for Barack Obama. The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter has argued that these Democrats seek “a restoration of the way things were pre-Trump,” in contrast to the Sanders wing, which “wants a revolution.” Biden’s pitch will highlight his popularity as Obama’s Vice President and will, in its own way, resemble Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message—except Biden is looking back to America circa 2014, and not something pre-Civil Rights era.

The theory that Biden is a weak candidate may still ultimately prevail. His attempt to keep his powder dry and sit out the early stages of a rough-and-tumble primary cycle has failed to completely silence his critics. But, so far, at least, the damage has not been as extensive as some predicted. Still, given the enormous trove of positions Biden has taken in his career, it’s possible that he will ultimately fall under their obvious burden, a death by a thousand cuts, rather than a knockout.

This, of course, should serve as a caution for Democrats come the general election. Donald Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton in part because, by November 2016, she was as unpopular as he was. Given Biden’s role in everything from segregation to the student loan crisis, it’s easy to imagine this anointed frontrunner also limping to the finish line. But it’s also getting easier to imagine him dealing with months of negative stories from both the right and left—and still claiming the Democratic nomination.