Depending on who you listen to, you might hear one of two very different narratives about former Vice President Joe Biden. One says he’s a strong candidate: He leads President Trump in most early polls, his folksy demeanor will win back working-class white voters, and he’s moderate enough to attract ex-Republicans in the suburbs. The other says he’s a weak one: He’s gaffe-prone, his fundraising has been anemic and he’s been absent from the public eye during the coronavirus pandemic.
In reality, it’s hard to tell whether a candidate is strong or weak without knowing how he actually performs in the election. But one thing we can do is place Biden in the context of Democrats’ previous presidential nominees. So we picked four easily quantifiable, objective barometers of electoral prowess — primary performance, favorability, endorsements and fundraising — and calculated them for the past seven nonincumbent Democratic presidential nominees: Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Then we checked how Biden measures up.
Let’s start with the most elemental metric of all — the share of the popular vote each nominee received in the primaries. (This is a useful proxy for how united Democratic voters were behind the candidate heading into the general election.) To keep things fair, let’s look at what percentage of the national vote each candidate had received at the time that he or she became the presumptive Democratic nominee1 to see who crossed the finish line in the best position (otherwise, the numbers for past candidates would be inflated by all the contests they won unopposed). We also excluded caucuses from these calculations, since caucus states often did not release popular-vote totals.
|Candidate||Year||Share of Primary Popular Vote|
With 42 percent of the primary popular vote won so far, Biden ranks toward the bottom of the list of recent Democratic nominees. Only Mondale, who’d won 38 percent of the popular vote when he became the presumptive nominee, went to the general election with a smaller share of the primary vote — not a great place to be in considering that Mondale got crushed in November 1984. Of course, Biden also faced a historically large field of opponents, whereas Gore and Hillary Clinton — the Democrats with the strongest primary performances — faced only one serious rival, making it easier for them to capture primary majorities. (That said, the fact that they were largely able to clear the field and Biden was not suggests something about the perceived strength of each of those candidates.) Notably, though, Gore and Clinton also lost their general elections (although they did win the popular vote), so this may not be a very telling metric.
However, just because many Democrats voted for someone else in the primary doesn’t mean they won’t come around to the nominee by the convention. Shortly before the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions, both Obama and Hillary Clinton were viewed favorably by an overwhelming majority of Democrats — far more than the share who voted for them in the primary. According to national polls by Quinnipiac University, 77 percent of Democrats in 2008 had a positive opinion of Obama compared to only 10 percent with an unfavorable view, and Democrats in 2016 had a strongly positive opinion of Clinton, 81 percent favorable to 12 percent unfavorable. In other words, it’s a bit premature at this point to say that Biden has an intraparty problem.
Of course, the Democrats are only a fraction of the electorate that passes judgment on nominees in November, so it’s also worth asking what the American public as a whole thought about the nominee at this point in the campaign. (Popularity can change, of course, but this will give us a sense of where Biden is starting relative to his predecessors.) Let’s compare the eight candidates’ favorable and unfavorable ratings in national polls conducted the month after they became the presumptive nominee.
|Candidate||Year||Favorable||Unfavorable||share with Opinion||Net Favorability|
In terms of net favorability (favorable rating minus unfavorable rating), Biden is right in the middle of the pack — about the same share of Americans like him as dislike him. But Biden is also one of the best-known Democratic nominees of the last 36 years. In total, 91 percent of Americans have some opinion of him, positive or negative, basically tying him with Obama on that measure and trailing the leader among recent nominees, Hillary Clinton.
This is important because it means people would have to change their minds about Biden to meaningfully affect his approval rating. In other words, there aren’t a lot of people left on whom he could make a favorable first impression — but on the other hand, nor is there a lot of room for his opponents to define him. That was the danger Dukakis faced in 1988, when he became the presumptive nominee with a fantastic +28 net favorability rating — but only 67 percent of Americans had formed an opinion of him. By November, CBS News/New York Times polling was giving him a negative net favorability rating.
Among recent Democratic presidential nominees, Obama in 2008 was in the most enviable position in terms of likeability: 93 percent of Americans had an opinion of him, and that opinion was overwhelmingly positive (a +20 net favorability rating). Hillary Clinton was in the worst position: Almost everyone in the country had an opinion of her, and they really disliked her (a -15 net favorability rating). Biden is well known but has a net favorability rating in between the two, so it’s hard to be either optimistic or pessimistic about his candidacy.
Another way to assess a candidate’s strength is to see how much support he or she had with party leaders at this point in the race. To grade each nominee on this dimension, we counted up the number of endorsements he or she had received from sitting governors, U.S. senators and U.S. representatives before sewing up the nomination. To account for the fact that some endorsements are more valuable than others, we combined them into a single metric: “endorsement points.” We weighted the endorsements the same way we did in 2016: A governor’s endorsement is worth 10 endorsement points, a senator’s is worth 5 and a representative’s is worth 1.
Again, Biden’s intraparty support is underwhelming: He has the second-fewest endorsement points among modern Democratic nominees — just barely ahead of Kerry. Eventual presidents like Obama and Bill Clinton did a better job convincing their colleagues to endorse them; however, the Democrats with the most endorsement points were once again Hillary Clinton and Gore, and it didn’t do them much good.
Finally, let’s compare the candidates’ finances. Their cash on hand at the time they became the presumptive nominee2 tells us how much money they started the general election with; the amount they raised from individual contributions hints at their fundraising ability. To control for the fact that the candidates all kicked off their campaigns and became the presumptive nominee on different dates, we converted their individual contributions into a rate — amount raised per 30 days — so we could compare how fast they raised money over the course of the campaign. And, of course, all numbers are adjusted for inflation.
|Candidate||Year||Cash on Hand||Individual Contributions per 30 Days|
Biden is raising money at a decent pace by the standards of past Democratic nominees, but it’s important to consider how modern fundraising is easier than ever. Even adjusted for inflation, more recent nominees raised money at far faster clips and had much more cash in their coffers than nominees from earlier cycles. The proliferation of the internet now means that candidates can raise money from anyone, anywhere in the country, at any time, instead of having to rely on personally glad-handing elite donors. These days, small donors giving through services like ActBlue have become the dominant source of Democratic campaign cash.
So it’s hardly surprising that Biden has more cash on hand than Mondale and Dukakis, and no one should be citing the fact that he’s outraised Bill Clinton as a reason that he’ll outperform Clinton electorally. In fact, by modern standards, Biden has been a comparatively weak fundraiser, raising nearly $5 million less per month than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He also has less than two-thirds of what Kerry had in the bank going into the 2004 general election. That said, no one should feel bad about failing to match Obama’s extraordinary fundraising numbers. Thanks to his strength with grassroots donors, he raised (after adjusting for inflation) $22.8 million a month during the 2008 primary and entered the general election with a whopping $85.9 million on hand.
OK! Now that we’ve graded Biden on four fronts, how does his report card look overall? These yardsticks, at least, suggest that he is indeed a weak Democratic presidential nominee by historical standards; he’s below average on everything except fundraising, and even that comes with a big asterisk attached.
But at the same time, how good are these yardsticks, really? They don’t seem strongly correlated with general-election success. Bill Clinton ranks fourth, seventh, third and sixth in them; Obama ranks fifth, second, fourth and first. How a candidate starts the general-election campaign simply isn’t as important as how he finishes it. So even if Biden starts the general election on the weaker side, there’s plenty of time for that to change, and history will ultimately judge him for one thing: whether he beats Trump in November.
CORRECTION (April 28, 2020, 10:55 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only Hillary Clinton ranked ahead of Joe Biden in the share of U.S. adults who had an opinion of recent Democratic nominees. Biden was behind both Clinton and Barack Obama.