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Bulletpoint: How To Tell When Biden Has Committed A Real Gaffe

This is Silver Bulletpoints — see the previous Bulletpoint here.

It’s usually been smart to be skeptical when someone alleges that a new campaign trail incident or another daily controversy will cause voters to turn away from Joe Biden. While he has seen his numbers decline from his post-announcement peak, he retains the hallmarks of a traditional front-runner, and it remains the case that the media may be prone to underestimating Biden because his supporters are not the sorts that journalists routinely encounter in their social circles.

So I’d like to propose a two-pronged test to detect when an ostensible Biden misstep could matter:

  1. The misstep ought to be viewed as such by the median voter in the Democratic primaries and not just by the most liberal or the wokest ones.
  2. The misstep should be something that the media would call a misstep if it happened to another candidate, so it’s not just trading on Biden’s reputation for being gaffe-prone.

By these standards, Biden’s bragging about his working relationship with his segregationist (and racist) former colleague in the Senate, James Eastland of Mississippi, could be a problem for him. Although there hasn’t yet been polling on this, all sorts of Democrats are highly concerned about racial justice. That of course includes black Democrats, who are a big part of Biden’s base. And while this part is more subjective, my sense is that using Eastland as an example and Biden’s phrasing (“he never called me ‘boy’”) would be a story no matter which candidate made the remarks.

That doesn’t mean Biden will fall 5 points in the polls overnight or something, and some surrogates are already defending his remarks. But like the Hyde Amendment controversy, this is an example of the sort of mistake that could contribute to a gradual erosion in Biden’s support.

Check out the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections, including all the Democratic primary polls.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.