Speculation is rife that former Vice President Joe Biden could be days or maybe even hours away from jumping into the Democratic presidential contest.
On Tuesday, he gave a big speech to the International Association of Firefighters—a group with which he has long maintained strong ties—where he was greeted with chants urging him to run (he urged the crowd to save its energy for a few weeks).
He has reportedly been staffing up in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The Biden family is reportedly on board with a presidential campaign.
But if Biden runs, can he actually win?
Polling shows him as the top choice of voters within the field right now, but a ton of political prognosticators think he’s simply too centrist to win in today’s super-woke and Democratic Socialists of America-dominated Democratic Party.
Some, too, think Biden is “yesterday’s news,” or too old and that the Democratic Party needs to be putting forward a younger, fresher face to defeat President Trump in 2020.
These arguments make sense, but dig a little deeper and it’s easy to see how Biden could get the nomination anyway—if he makes a run and gives 100 percent effort to it.
First, let’s recognize that name ID really is important in politics. If people don’t know your name, you’re going to have to do a lot of seriously outrageous stuff to get them to know your name, or you’re going to have to spend a lot of money to achieve the same result. In today’s version of American politics, probably, you’ll have to do both.
While Elizabeth Warren is well-known in progressive circles, and Kamala Harris gets a lot of media attention, the fact is, the only two actual or prospective candidates in the field with an automatic, built-in name ID advantage are Biden and Bernie Sanders—which is likely at least half the reason they’re the only two candidates polling above 20 percent in the Real Clear Politics average.
Sure, either or both can be defeated. But just as we saw with Trump in 2016, it’s tough for candidates with lesser name ID—and Trump entered the race with 99.2 percent name recognition—to move up against political “big beasts” like this. Likely the reason that former President Obama could when running against Hillary Clinton in 2008 was because he actually did have big name ID in the first place—remember his 2004 Democratic Convention speech or his TV time with Oprah? Those things mattered.
Obama is the second reason why Biden could win. It’s become a long-running joke in political-consultant circles how every Democratic candidate wants to replicate the Obama coalition, but how even when Obama endorses a candidate and goes on the campaign trail, he cannot seem to deliver a win.
Maybe Biden will be another one of those disappointed candidates, but that’s doubtful. Obama voters—particularly in the “black-brown” coalition Obama assembled—likely associate Biden and his legacy more closely with the guy they put in the White House than anyone else in the field.
Presumably, Biden would also benefit from Obama’s explicit or tacit support.
And on top of this Biden has the ability to grab at voters who otherwise might take a look at Sanders, or who might even have voted for Trump in truly open primaries or caucuses in 2016. We’re talking blue-collar, white working-class voters who used to align more with Democrats but have shifted right. They view Trump as being okay for the working man but see a lot of coastal elite “not doing anything for me” attitudes and policies coming from some of the other big names in the Democratic Party.
There may not be many left of them to vote in Democratic contests, but every vote counts and Biden has always been kind of a patron saint of this crowd. For them, his scandals involving racially or ethnically tinged rhetoric (see: comments regarding Indian-Americans and 7-11s) or long-past opposition to public school busing might actually be a feature, not a bug.
And given his association with Obama, and the demonstrated penchant that Democratic voters have for giving Democrats a pass for past racial transgressions, they might not cost him anything with Democratic voters who aren’t already in the Sanders camp anyway. (As an aside, there’s also data that weirdly suggests Sanders could be more of a draw than Biden for more conservative voters, and Biden could be more of a draw for leftier voters than Sanders, for what that’s worth).
It’s also worth remembering that regardless of how conservatives and pundits may see them, not that many Democratic voters actually think of themselves as great big lefties. According to CNN data, about a quarter of 2016 Democratic primary voters were Independents or Republicans. Two in five call themselves “moderate” or “conservative.” And only a quarter call themselves “very liberal.” Biden’s perceived centrism probably helps more than it hurts.
But of course, there’s this bottom line fact: As much as everyone who is a political activist or an ideologically driven political opiner wants to deny it, the truth is, voters do not actually vote on policy. As documented by Christian Lenz in Follow The Leader, voters actually rarely support candidates whose issue positions accord with their own. They are actually quite likely to pick a politician-avatar, and then—you guessed it—follow the leader. If you don’t believe me, or Lenz, go look at polling of self-described Republicans on topics like trade or foreign policy over recent years.
Thus, it matters far more if voters find Biden likable and relatable, “like me” and/or a plausible champion for them personally than whether he’s “centrist,” “lefty,” or any other description one might come up with.
And Biden is that. Yes, he’s kind of like your crazy uncle (OK, he’s totally like your crazy uncle). But he’s not the crazy uncle who needs meds (that’s the kind of crazy uncle a lot of Americans would say Sanders and Trump, respectively, are). He’s the crazy uncle who engages in super-soaker water pistol fights with the kids. He is informally known as the “President of Ice Cream” and gets very excited about chocolate chip. He says inappropriate but funny and accurate stuff like “this is a big f*cking deal” regarding the signature of Obamacare (love it or hate it, it was, in fact, a big f*cking deal).
Is Biden old? Yes. But so is Trump. So is Sanders. So is Bill Weld. So frankly is Elizabeth Warren (she may look young, but she’s actually 69!).
American life expectancy isn’t what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Plenty of Americans—including Democrats—haven’t retired the second they became eligible to do so. Age 75 used to be nursing home territory, and making it to 80 years old used to seem like something akin to a miracle.
Things are different now.
Younger voters may indeed decide they want a millennial or someone close to that generation governing them.
But older voters are the ones who turn up in really large numbers and are bankable. Maybe they’ll look at Biden, think of their own aches and pains and decide he can’t do the job because, hell, they need a nap at 3 p.m. every day. But a good number of them will probably recognize he was no spring chicken when he served as veep, either, and probably most of them will think that worked just fine. Besides, after several years of Trump—old though he may be, a government-inexperienced outsider he was—Democratic voters could easily decide that this time, it is more important to nominate someone who knows what he’s doing from many, many, many years doing it—and can deliver change, and laugh at himself, too, even if he’s not quite perfect, per se.
If Biden doesn’t win, it will be because, like Jeb Bush in 2016, he entered the field with sky-high expectations and simply couldn’t deliver on the campaign trail. It will be imperative that he puts together a top-notch staff, and has all his supporters well-organized and active on every conceivable level straight out of the gate. He will also need a helping hand from Obama.
But a lot of voters may look at Biden and think “that’s a guy who can beat Trump at his own game” in terms of grabbing media attention and being willing to behave outlandishly in order to make a point. Remember his VP debate against Paul Ryan? His behavior seemed bonkers at the time, but it worked—and it was an early version of some of the same behavior Trump deployed in 2016 that also worked.
Biden can win this, if he makes smart choices in the next two weeks and commits 110 percent. The only question now is, will he?