From the start of the Democratic primary, many Democratic voters prioritized electability, with plenty believing that Joe Biden was the most electable Democratic candidate in a general election against President Trump. Not everyone bought that argument: Some argued that Trump would easily caricature Biden and make him less popular with voters. Even FiveThirtyEight was skeptical of Biden’s electability argument.
Sure, Biden was well-known and perceived as moderate, not to mention experienced. But it was hard to evaluate the accuracy of Democratic primary voters’ sense of Biden’s electability. There was the possibility that Democrats were just scaring themselves into backing a white, moderate and male candidate in reaction to Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.
What the deluge of final polls can tell us | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
But it is increasingly looking like Democractic primary voters might have been right about Biden’s electability argument. In the face of relentless attacks from the Trump campaign, Biden hasn’t dipped in the polls; in fact, he’s actually become better liked, and has built a formidable favorability advantage over Trump.
One way we can see this is if we compare the results of presidential polls asking voters to choose between Biden and Trump with generic ballot polls that ask voters whether they support a Democrat or Republican for Congress. Initially, Trump led on this metric, performing better than the generic Republican congressional candidate by approximately 3 percentage points earlier in 2020, but Biden’s popularity has steadily ticked upward since mid-April. And since August, Biden has led Trump on this metric (although Trump has ticked up in October).
Even though Democrats have long led on the generic ballot — they have a nearly 8 point advantage, on average — Biden is not just ahead because voters prefer Democrats. He’s ahead because voters support Biden more than they support the average Democrat running for Congress.1
In fact, when asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward Biden, voters have either remained positive or split. That is a big contrast with 2016, when voters had consistently negative attitudes toward Clinton (and Trump).
One possible reason Biden might have a popularity edge? General election voters still perceive Biden as relatively moderate, and historically, more moderate presidential candidates generally do better in general elections. They generate less opposition when it comes to voter turnout and are perceived as less extreme by swing voters — though that advantage is declining. In fact, Trump benefited from this dynamic in 2016, when he was perceived as more moderate than most Republican candidates. (Although when we compare the current cycle to 2016, there is the separate question of gender, which is difficult to entangle but shouldn’t be discounted as a possible factor.)
Further testament to Biden’s strength as a general election candidate, though, is the fact that he continues to do better than Democratic primary runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders in head-to-head matchups against Trump. He held a consistent advantage during the primaries and that has continued in hypothetical polls afterward. Republicans have still been trying to tie Biden to “socialists” and “the radical left,” by linking him to Sanders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. But if Republicans’ plan was to run against Biden largely the same way that they would have against Sanders, it has not worked.
Additionally, Biden’s supposed lack of enthusiasm among small donors never really materialized. Despite struggling with online donations in the primary, Biden is now raising 1,000 times as much online per day as he was last year. He’s also outraising Trump, which suggests that maybe in fundraising, partisanship matters more than excitement around the nominee or even ideology. Likewise, voter turnout estimates remain very high. So despite concerns around young voter turnout in the primary, voters may not need a younger or more liberal candidate to be inclined to participate.
So if Biden wins, those who argued that his “electability advantage” was unreal or was based on a voter misunderstanding may need to revisit those takes. Sometimes the conventional wisdom, even among voters, is right.