The Surprising Wisdom of Joe Biden’s Candidacy

By the way media pundits and the public talk about presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign, you’d think Biden was struggling to compete with President Trump. He’s not. 


Biden is winning, and as of now he is winning big:

As of July 29, political analysis organization 538’s aggregate of head-to-head polling shows Biden up a massive +8.1% over Trump. Biden’s lead is often dismissed with the same refrain — Hillary led Trump in 2016 and lost nevertheless. This is true. However, in contrast to Biden’s steady lead, Hillary’s lead only briefly reached +8.1%, with considerably smaller leads in the midwestern swing states that ultimately lost her the election. Now, Biden holds +9.7%, +6.6% and +6.8% in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin respectively. If Biden carries these crucial states, his victory is all but assured. In addition to his strength in the rust belt, Biden leads or closely follows in reach-swing states like Florida (+6.2%), North Carolina (+2.3%), Ohio (-0.5%) and Iowa (-1.1%). Finally, his campaign threatens traditional Republican strongholds in Arizona (+3.6%) and even Texas (+0.6%), both of which have only voted for a Democratic presidential candidate once since 1972. Biden has the largest polling lead in decades and there is no indication it will falter. 


Biden is uniquely positioned to combat Trump:

Biden undoubtedly owes a fair deal of his decisive lead to the weaknesses of the Trump administration and campaign. Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd protests have steadily eroded his support. However, we shouldn’t understate the role of both Biden as a candidate and his campaign’s strategy in claiming such a commanding lead.


1) “Sleepy” Joe is a winning strategy
In a 1916 letter, president Woodrow Wilson wrote “never murder a man who is committing suicide.” Trump is in the process of an extended electoral suicide, or perhaps more accurately, an electoral kamikaze which threatens to bring down the Republican Senate majority with him. In the meantime, the Biden campaign has faced unrelenting criticism for its failure to inject Biden into the national view (whether intentionally or not). But hunkering down in his Delaware home may be a streak of strategic brilliance. Why distract the electorate from Trump’s flailing administration?  


By default, elections are a referendum on the incumbent. In the face of an unpopular incumbent, it is in the challenger’s best interest for the election to stay that way. Thrusting Biden into the limelight risks allowing the Trump campaign to reframe the election as anything but a referendum. The Trump campaign realizes a reframing of the election is necessary to prevail in November, as evidenced by their desperate attempts to schedule more than the traditional three presidential debates. Limiting high-profile media coverage to the most important issues like the George Floyd protests allows the Biden campaign to stymie any attempt at reframing the 2020 election.  


Biden is somewhat unique in his ability to pursue such a strategy. His role as Vice President to the popular former President Barack Obama makes him a well known figure in most American households. Unlike lesser known Democratic primary candidates like former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Biden does not need to introduce himself to the electorate — he is a known quantity. Even higher profile democratic primary candidates like Elizabeth Warren only seriously entered the American consciousness in the 2016 election, and would likely have difficulty pursuing a lay-low strategy. 


2) Biden’s moderate image is Teflon to right-wing attacks 
Regardless of whether or not he is actually a moderate, Biden’s reputation as a moderate protects his campaign against Trump’s strongest attacks. Trump’s attempts to brand Biden as a tool of radical leftist revolutionaries fail to land, simply because these smears do not fit voter’s preconceived notions of the former Vice President. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 17% of registered voters view Biden as more liberal than most Democrats. Furthermore, 23% of the electorate describes Biden as moderate, while only 9% says the same of President Trump. Unlike in 2016, where Clinton was viewed as more extreme than Trump, Biden is viewed as more moderate than Trump, despite a policy platform considerably to the left of Clinton’s


And while Biden has made serious concessions to the progressive wing of the Democratic party, he has resisted pressure to adopt widely unpopular policies. In the June 2019 Democratic primary debate, Biden was the only major candidate on stage to oppose entirely decriminalizing illegal border crossings, which a 2019 joint NPR/PBS poll found that Americans oppose 66%-27%. In 2020, Biden joined Democratic leadership, (some of) the left  and the Congressional Black Caucus in proposing alternative reforms to the widely unpopular “Defund the Police” slogan, which is opposed 53%-25% (Note: the policy of defunding itself, while still controversial, is more popular than the slogan). 


Biden’s refusal to adopt fringe leftist policies makes it near impossible for Trump to reframe the election around those unpopular issues. Without the aid of his smears, Trump is helpless in the face of his failing administration. 


3) The electorate has priced-in Biden’s weaknesses
Throughout the 2020 Democratic primary, articles proclaiming Joe Biden’s candidacy was over were a daily occurrence. The former Vice President’s gaffes were far from infrequent, and one can’t fault highly-engaged pundits for thinking each was the death knell of a campaign widely perceived to be expiring. Still, their doomsday prognostications didn’t and don’t match the data. Apart from a brief period in February and early March, Biden held a steady polling lead over the course of the Democratic primary (see figure 1). Biden’s only significant falls in the polls followed (1) Sen. Kamala Harris’s attacks during the first debate in June and (2) his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.


Figure 1: 538’s Democratic Presidential primary polling aggregate

The reality is that being gaffe-prone is part of the Biden package — nothing new to voters. While Harris’ attacks revealed a weakness in Biden’s past as a legislator and Biden’s poor showings in early states threatened to invalidate his perceived electability, Biden’s gaffes changed few minds. Biden supporters, detractors and neutral parties had little reason to change their previous perceptions of Biden’s character, electability, or ideology. 


Somewhat ironically, in the general election, Biden shares the same advantage possessed by Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In the lead-up to the first presidential debate in the 2016 cycle, the media widely anticipated a rout by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And afterwards, post-debate polls and the punditry largely agreed — Clinton had won resoundingly. Still, even in Clinton’s victory, there was an unignorable subtext. One Politico reporter wrote that Trump won “simply for showing up;” in contrast, Clinton was described as “over prepared.” Clinton’s widely known debating-prowess made a strong performance the expectation. In contrast, Trump’s poor debate skills made any remotely informed response worthy of praise. Just like George W. Bush in the 2000 election, Trump reaped the rewards of low expectations. 2020 is no different. Voters don’t expect Biden to be a brilliant incisive debater, and they’re okay with that. 


The Biden gaffes and mediocre debate performances which perpetually occupy the minds of the hyper politically active have little effect on the electorate, and may even provide his candidacy with an armor of lowered expectations. 


4) Biden’s background and policies are uniquely suited for crucial swing states

Due to the nature of the electoral college, a candidate’s appeal with voters in swing states is significantly more important than national appeal. Once a crucial part of the Democrats’ “Blue wall”, the rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Now, Biden nears two-digit polling leads in all three states, and unlike secretary Clinton, these leads only barely trail his national polling (see paragraph 1). In some sense, Biden’s appeal in the midwest is simply a product of his background; he is “Scranton Joe”, a man who grew up in Pennsylvania as the eldest son of a middle-class Irish-Catholic used car salesman. In another way, it is rooted in policy — as Vice President, Biden played a crucial role in engineering the 2009 auto-bailout, effectively saving the heart of the industrial midwest. Alternatively, perhaps Biden simply possesses some intangible cultural quality that plays well in the region. 


In her article A Tale of Two Suburbs, 538 senior politics writer Clare Malone contrasts two historically Democratic Ohio suburbs which diverged in the 2016 election: the upper-class college educated Shaker Heights and the working class union-heavy Parma. The former voted for Clinton in 2016, while Parma voted for Trump, the first time it voted Republican since its incorporation in 1931. 


Parma mayor Tim DeGeeter, a Democrat, asserted that Clinton failed to connect with Parma’s identity as union Democrats. When asked which (if any) Democrats could win back Parma in a federal election, DeGeeter answered immediately: “You know who plays best here — Joe Biden.”


This post is a guest submission by Anders Knospe ’23. He can be reached at anders.h.knospe.23@dartmouth.edu