Joe Biden never thought he’d have to do this. Positioned, as he was, as the affable veep to an immensely popular president, the veteran of three previous bids for the Democratic nomination assumed a presidential primary was just a way to garner free media until the main event, the general election. But, since declaring his candidacy at what was, in American political terms, the eleventh hour, Biden’s campaign has been marked more by the sheer number of gaffes delivered than by any soaring rhetoric or roaring crowd of supporters. So far, his defining moment was not the unveiling of a visionary policy or a particularly poignant exchange with a supporter, but rather, by a debate face-off with Kamala Harris, in which the California senator attacked Biden’s documented record of opposing court-ordered busing as a means to integrate public schools.
And yet, through it all, Biden has held on to a commanding lead in most opinion polls.
But that lead may be illusory. There’s a growing sense that Biden is something of a starter nominee, a candidate that voters can glom onto while they search for someone who better suits their values. “I did not meet one Biden voter who was in any way, shape or form excited about voting for Biden,” Patrick Murray, who heads the Monmouth University Polling Institute (which recently released a poll giving Biden a significant lead in Iowa) told The New York Times. “They feel that they have to vote for Joe Biden as the centrist candidate, to keep somebody from the left who they feel is unelectable from getting the nomination.” JoAnn Hardy, who heads the Cerro Gordo County Democrats, concurred, telling the Times, “He’s doing OK, but I think a lot of his initial strength was name recognition. As the voters get to meet the other candidates, he may be surpassed soon. I would not be surprised.”
It’s an important, if still-emerging shift. At the start of primary season, “electability” was seen as the key attribute voters wanted in a presidential candidate. But as the election has heated up—and as voters begin to know more about the candidates—its importance appears to be dimming. And candidates who voters are actually excited about are rising. That’s good news for Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but it may be a bad omen for Biden.
Biden has made the “electability” case explicitly, arguing that defeating Donald Trump should come first and everything else—like, you know, the stuff he would do as president—second. While other candidates have issued white paper after white paper, the former vice president has harped on the necessity of voting for the candidate who has the best chance at defeating the incumbent next November—a candidate who, at least as the early polls tell it, just happens to have the name Joe Biden.
It’s an explicit “play it safe” approach and one aimed at Democrats who are concerned big policy ideas will alienate general election voters. “This is do-or-die, and Joe Biden is the best candidate to go against Trump in November,” Dick Harpootlian, a state senator in South Carolina told Vanity Fair in May. “Would Joe Biden be running if he thought any of these other folks could beat Donald Trump? No way. We can’t risk this thing with someone who has not done this before, who is unchallenged, who is untested. There is something to be said for two old white guys going at it,” Harpootlian, who is himself white, said. “The African Americans in the State Senate with me are going to be with him overwhelmingly. Because this is a pragmatic year. This isn’t a battle of ideologies or identity or Medicare for All or a Green New Whatever. It’s all about who can stop this juvenile narcissist from getting a second term.”
The frontrunner’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, made a revealing pass at this argument earlier this week, telling New Hampshire voters “You know you may like another candidate better but you have to look at who’s going to win…. So yes, you know, your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is, but you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election, and maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘Okay, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.”
This is not exactly the stuff of which inspiring campaigns are made. It’s condescending at best—existential policy imperatives like climate change and health care are hardly trivial, regardless of who occupies the White House—but it also contains an air of menace. Biden and his supporters are trying to create a binary choice: Vote for Joe and beat Trump, or don’t vote for Joe and lose. But most early polling has suggested that any candidate with near-universal name recognition—something that would automatically follow a major party presidential nomination—would lead Trump in a head-to-head competition.
If voters are transitioning away from electability, that would be good news for Sanders and Warren, in particular. Both candidates have used policy as the backbone of their campaigns, and both have large and deeply loyal bases. Recent polling puts Warren and Sanders in the top tier of Democratic candidates; though they still trail Biden in most opinion polls, each have significant advantages should his campaign falter. Sanders, in particular, has gained momentum in recent weeks, releasing a flurry of policy proposals, including a $16 trillion plan to fight climate change and remake the country’s energy infrastructure.
Most polling shows Sanders and Warren each defeating Trump in a general election matchup. Biden and his surrogates have gone to great lengths to make the argument that he is the only candidate who is guaranteed to beat the president in such a contest, but like most election-year promises, there are caveats. The fact is, nothing succeeds like success. Despite what Jill Biden said, whomever Democratic voters like the best, whomever gets the most voters to the polls on election day, that will be the candidate with a very good chance of defeating Trump. Deep down, most voters know this; now, it seems, the people who purport to know what most voters know may finally be waking up to this, too. That’s probably better for just about everyone’s future, except maybe Joe Biden’s.