When Joe Biden entered the Democratic presidential race last month, pundits (including me) questioned whether a gaffe-prone 76-year-old symbol of last-century politics could survive in a next-generation campaign.
So far, the old guy is proving us wrong.
Biden has surged to the top of the Democratic field with a well-designed message and an uncharacteristically disciplined campaign. Admittedly, we’re a month from the first debate and eight months from the first balloting. But polls show him winning the support of about 38% of Democratic voters nationwide and in early primary states, well ahead of his nearest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The former vice president’s kickoff speech in Philadelphia last weekend showed why. It was vintage Biden: folksy, garrulous, at once conciliatory and combative — and focused almost entirely on defeating President Trump.
“You want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is?” he said. “Beat Trump.”
With that as his refrain, Biden is putting himself squarely where Democratic voters are. Polls show that most Democrats yearn for a candidate — any candidate — who can credibly promise to unseat the president. Virtues like “has new ideas” and “represents a new generation” rank much lower.
“It’s smart positioning,” Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist who isn’t working for any of the 2020 candidates, told me. “Biden’s a guy they know. They can see him beating Trump. And that’s what matters most.”
There’s a second part to Biden’s message: He promises to undo the angry polarization of the Trump era and restore civility and bipartisanship to American politics. (He doesn’t specify how.)
“I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” he said in Philadelphia. “They say Democrats are so angry that the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it.”
“If the American people want a president to add to our division, lead with a clenched fist … [and] spew hatred, they don’t need me,” he added. “They’ve got President Donald Trump.”
Biden’s talk about making deals with Republicans and his relatively moderate policies may seem out of sync with his party’s apparent turn toward the progressive left, but here too he’s in tune with primary voters.
A Harvard-Harris poll released in March asked Democrats to describe their politics; the most popular label was “Obama Democrat,” well ahead of “progressive.”
In an odd way, Biden, like Trump, is offering voters the politics of nostalgia, only as a mirror image. Biden says he too wants to return the country to a golden age — in his telling, the halcyon days of what he calls “the Obama-Biden administration.” His message boils down to: Make America Normal Again.
Some Democrats disagree, of course. In their view, Biden’s notion of bipartisanship is an anachronistic fantasy. Republicans blocked most of Obama’s initiatives after 2010, including his attempt to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Sanders says merely replacing Trump “isn’t enough” and that the country needs more fundamental change. The core question of the Biden-Sanders debate is clear: restoration or revolution.
Biden’s support is strong across most demographic groups. He has more backing from women than all the female candidates combined, for example.
But it’s strongest among older voters, weakest among the young. That suggests a possible opening for a younger candidate like Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg, someone who can appeal to younger voters seeking change.
Still, Biden’s age and experience carry advantages, beginning with the name recognition that gave him a head start in the polls. Nearly everyone else in the overcrowded Democratic field has to scramble to define themselves in the eyes of the voters.
Biden doesn’t, for good or ill.
Whatever you think of his pitch, it’s authentic. He’s been talking about the same themes — unity, civility, bipartisanship — long before Trump walked down the escalator at Trump Tower and laid siege to the Republican Party. And Biden is a better, more disciplined campaigner than in 2008, when he last ran for president — or in 1988, when he first tried.
All those factors give him, in his third attempt, the best chance at the nomination he’s ever had.
None of this guarantees Biden will win the nomination. Front-runners often fall short. At this point in the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton and Rudolph W. Giuliani led their respective parties’ polls; neither survived the primaries that year.
Biden still needs to flesh out his sketchy policy portfolio with clearer ideas about the economy, climate change, healthcare and other crucial issues. His aides say those are coming soon.
At some point, he’ll have to respond to Sanders’ needling about his past positions, including his 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq. Sanders voted no for that war, as he did nearly every military action in his career.
And Biden needs to remain gaffe-free for longer than he ever has before.
But his unexpectedly strong start has made him the clear front-runner, and serves as a reminder that we pundits aren’t always right — especially once the voters weigh in.