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How Joe Biden Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Joe Biden has officially entered the 2020 presidential race. His case to win the 2020 Democratic nomination is fairly simple: As Barack Obama’s two-term vice president, he’s the most familiar brand in the field. He’s ahead in the polls (it’s emphatically not a tie for the lead with Bernie Sanders; Biden’s polling is quite a bit better). He’s also the best-performing Democrat in polls against President Trump, and he gains a lot of support from Democrats on the basis of his perceived electability. And while he might not be the most liberal Democrat, that isn’t necessarily a disadvantage; roughly half of voters in the Democratic primary identify as moderate or conservative,1 which could be a plus in a field where many candidates are running to the left.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Biden’s path to the nomination is easy. Not by a long shot. But before we start to poke holes in Biden’s candidacy, let’s ruminate on his advantages a little longer. There’s a case to be made that the media — in seeking out shiny new objects like Pete Buttigieg, and in ignoring the preferences of older, more working-class and more moderate Democrats who still make up a large part of the Democratic base — is overlooking the obvious front-runner in Biden. Arguably, in fact, media elites have the same blind spots for Biden that they had for Trump. There aren’t likely to be a lot of Biden voters in most journalists’ social circles, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.

The case for why Biden is the front-runner

Former vice presidents usually win their party nominations when they seek them. Let’s start with his credentials: Biden was vice president until about two years ago. And as Biden might put it, that’s a Big Fucking Deal. Of the nine previous cases in which a current or former vice president sought his party’s nomination since World War II (not counting cases such as Lyndon Johnson’s where the vice president had ascended to the presidency beforehand), he won it six times:

Vice presidents usually win their party’s nomination

Former vice presidents who sought their party’s nomination since World War II

Candidate VP Years Year Nomination Sought Early Polling Avg.* Won nomination?
Alben Barkley 1949-53 1952
Richard Nixon 1953-61 1960
Richard Nixon 1953-61 1968
Hubert Humphrey 1965-69 1968
Hubert Humphrey 1965-69 1972 24%
Walter Mondale 1977-81 1984 34
George H.W. Bush 1981-89 1988 37
Dan Quayle 1989-93 2000 7
Al Gore 1993-2001 2000 54
Joe Biden 2009-17 2020 28 TBD

* Polling averages aren’t calculated for years before 1972. Early polling averages for past election cycles use polls conducted in January through June of the year before the primaries. Biden’s average includes the most recent poll from each polling firm in FiveThirtyEight’s polling database since Beto O’Rourke’s entry into the race on March 14. Vice presidents who ascended to the presidency before seeking another term aren’t included.

Source: polls

Sure, you could nitpick at this. Most former vice presidents sought the presidential nomination at the first possible opportunity; Biden waited four years, and candidates who waited — small sample size warning — don’t have the same track record. And Biden’s polling is somewhere in between the vice presidents who failed to win the nomination (such as Dan Quayle in 2000) and the ones who achieved it (such as Walter Mondale in 1984). But for a lot of Democrats, among whom Obama is still extremely popular, the vice presidency will go a long way toward answering questions about Biden’s electability, fitness for the office, and policy positions.

Biden is leading in the polls, and it isn’t that close. Speaking of that polling: While Biden’s polling isn’t spectacular, it’s stronger than anyone else’s in the field by some margin. In recent surveys,2 he’s averaged 28 percent in national polls (ahead of Sanders’s 20 percent) and 25 percent in Iowa polls (better than Sanders’s 18 percent). And while New Hampshire is a potential liability for Biden in Sanders’s backyard, South Carolina — populated with moderate Democrats and African Americans — is a potential strength.

Biden is outpolling Bernie

Most recent poll from each polling firm in FiveThirtyEight’s polling database since Beto O’Rourke’s entry into the race on March 14*

National
Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
Ipsos 4/17 – 4/23 24% 15%
Morning Consult 4/15 – 4/21 30 24
Change Research 4/12 – 4/15 21 20
Monmouth University 4/11 – 4/15 27 20
USC Dornsife/LA Times 3/15 – 4/15 27 16
Emerson College 4/11 – 4/14 24 29
HarrisX 4/5 – 4/6 36 19
Quinnipiac University 3/21 – 3/25 29 19
McLaughlin & Associates 3/20 – 3/24 28 17
Fox News 3/17 – 3/20 31 23
CNN/SSRS 3/14 – 3/17 28 20
Average 28 20
Iowa
Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
Gravis Marketing 4/17 – 4/18 19% 19%
Monmouth University 4/4 – 4/9 27 16
David Binder Research 3/21 – 3/24 25 17
Emerson College 3/21 – 3/24 25 24
Public Policy Polling 3/14 – 3/15 29 15
Average 25 18
New Hampshire
Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
University of New Hampshire 4/10 – 4/18 18% 30%
Saint Anselm College 4/3 – 4/8 23 16
South Carolina
Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
Change Research 3/31 – 4/4 32% 14%
Nevada
Pollster Dates Biden Sanders
Emerson College 3/28 – 3/30 26% 23%

* Where the pollster conducted versions of the poll with and without Joe Biden, the version with Biden is used.

Source: Polls

Maybe it seems as though I’m casting Biden’s polling in a pretty friendly light given that I just wrote an article about how Sanders’s polling wasn’t all that impressive. But there’s a gap between where Sanders is polling and where Biden is, and empirically, it’s a relevant one. Based on historical data, we estimate that candidates with high name recognition who are polling at 20 percent (Sanders) in early national polls can expect to win their nominations about 15 percent of the time, other factors held equal. But candidates who are polling at 28 percent (Biden) win their nominations something more like 35 percent of the time, or roughly twice as often.

It’s also possible that Biden will get a bounce in his polls after his announcement, as Sanders did and as Kamala Harris did and as Beto O’Rourke sorta did. Perhaps that doesn’t matter much since announcement bounces tend to fade (as Sanders’s and Harris’s did). But we should note that the comparison between Biden and Sanders isn’t strictly apples-to-apples. Biden has been leading Sanders even as an unannounced candidate while Sanders has been actively campaigning.

Biden’s support is pretty robust. Biden’s support isn’t just name recognition either. He has the highest favorable ratings in the field and relatively low unfavorable ratings — in recent early-state and national polls, an average of 74 percent of Democrats said they viewed him favorably, compared with 15 percent who said they viewed him unfavorably. His ratio of favorable ratings to unfavorable ratings is 4.8, which essentially ties him for second-best in the field with Harris and puts him only slightly behind the leading candidate, Buttigieg.

Biden’s favorability ratings are near the top of the pack

Average of favorability ratings among Democratic voters in recent national, Iowa and New Hampshire polls

Morning Consult: U.S. Monmouth: Iowa Saint Anselm: N.H. Average
Candidate Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Fav. Unfav. Ratio
Buttigieg 38% 9% 45% 9% 42% 6% 42% 8% 5.2
Biden 75 14 78 14 70 18 74 15 4.8
Harris 49 12 61 13 54 10 55 12 4.7
Booker 44 12 54 16 56 11 51 13 3.9
O’Rourke 47 11 60 13 46 17 51 14 3.7
Sanders 75 16 67 26 67 25 70 22 3.1
Klobuchar 28 13 51 10 31 13 37 12 3.1
Castro 28 12 36 9 24 8 29 10 3.0
Inslee 17 7 26 5 10 6 18 6 2.9
Warren 55 19 67 20 58 30 60 23 2.6
Hickenlooper 16 9 32 8 15 10 21 9 2.3
Delaney 14 9 31 12 17 7 21 9 2.2
Gillibrand 32 14 37 17 33 18 34 16 2.1
Gabbard 16 11 29 13 16 13 20 12 1.6

Only candidates whose favorability was asked about in all three polls are included in the table.

Morning Consult poll was conducted April 15-21, Monmouth University poll conducted April 4-9 and Saint Anselm College conducted April 3-8.

Sources: Polls

Whether this will last is anyone’s guess, but in talking with the Biden campaign, they think their candidate’s strengths are fairly self-evident — that voters perceive Biden as authentic, as experienced, as concerned with the middle class, as fighting for Obama’s legacy — and that these personal qualities will be more important and enduring to voters than Biden’s policy positions. Plus, he already survived one early challenge intact; so far, a series of accusations by women about inappropriate touching has hurt Biden’s numbers only at the margins.

Biden is viewed as electable, and that matters to Democrats. But perhaps Biden’s biggest strength — although it can also be read as a bearish signal, as I’ll explain later on — is the perception that he can beat Trump. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of California, for instance, 35 percent of Democratic voters said he had the best chance of beating Trump — more than the 26 percent who put Biden as their first choice. Only one other candidate, O’Rourke, polled higher on electability than on first-choice support (and O’Rourke’s difference was within the margin of error).

This gets into some uncomfortable territory for Democrats. Only about 25 percent of voters in the Democratic primary electorate are straight white men.3 But the two leading candidates in the polls are straight white men. Democrats care a lot about electability this election cycle, and sizable minorities of Democratic voters have said that they worry about whether nominating a woman or a gay candidate would reduce their chances of beating Trump. But there’s a fine line between saying “vote for me because I’m the most electable candidate” and “vote for me because I’m a safe white guy,” which is why Biden will have to be careful in how he speaks about electability.

Biden can also point toward concrete evidence of his electability in the form of head-to-head polls showing him performing well against Trump. On average in polls conducted since Sanders’s announcement on Feb. 19, Biden leads Trump by 7.1 points, whereas Sanders leads Trump by 3.5 points. Meanwhile, the other Democrats who have been polled frequently are roughly tied against Trump.4

Biden fares better than others in polls against Trump

Head-to-head matchups against Trump in national polls since Feb. 19, 2019

Pollster Biden Sanders Warren Harris O’Rourke Booker Buttigieg
Change Research +5 +4 +2 +1 +1
Civiqs +0 +1 -2 -1 -1 -2
D-CYFOR +11 +9 +3 +2 +3
Emerson +6 +3 -3 +1 +2 -3
Fox News +7 +3 -2 -2
HarrisX +9 +3 -4 -6 -4 -7 -9
Morning Consult +8
PPP +13 +8 +6 +7 +6 +7 +4
Rasmussen Reports +5 -3
Average +7.1 +3.5 +0.0 +0.3 +0.8 +0.3 -2.7

The most recent poll from each polling firm is used for each matchup, dating back to polls from when Bernie Sanders officially entered the race (Feb. 19). Where a pollster included versions of a poll with and without Howard Schultz, we list the version without Schultz.

Sources: Polls

But are these head-to-head polls actually a meaningful signal? To a first approximation, I’d say “no.” For one thing, presidential polls simply aren’t very accurate a year-and-a-half before a general election. (Even half a year out is marginal, for that matter.) For another, candidates with low name recognition tend to poll poorly in early, head-to-head matchups, so while the polls are somewhat interesting to look at for Biden and Sanders, they really don’t say very much about the lesser-known Democrats. For a third, Biden may have benefited from the fact that he hasn’t officially been running for the nomination and therefore has been somewhat above the fray. Sanders’s numbers with general election voters declined after he announced his candidacy, and Biden’s conceivably could too. For the time being, however, the polls give the Biden campaign a good talking point.

If some of the Biden campaign’s justifications for its electability argument are flimsy, others have some basis in reality. Other factors held equal, more moderate candidates tend to perform better in presidential elections, and Biden’s appeal to working-class white voters and African Americans could conceivably reduce or even reverse the Electoral College disadvantage that cost Hillary Clinton the presidency.

Biden’s “lane” is relatively clear. Although I wouldn’t go overboard with this, since “lanes” in the Democratic primary are still blurry, Biden faces relatively little competition for some of his base voters. In 2016, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate was in the baby boom generation or older and identified as moderate or conservative. Another 14 percent of Democrats were baby boomers or older and identified as “liberal” but not “very liberal.” Candidates such as O’Rourke and Amy Klobuchar will try to compete for those voters, but other candidates who might have done so — such as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown5, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — declined to run for president. Democrats obviously did not clear the field for Biden — that so many candidates are running is a bearish indicator for him. But he did clear his own orbit, at least.

Biden also has some big liabilities

While there are several reasons to think Biden is not as strong as he appears in the polls, there are other critiques that I don’t find as convincing. So let me run through those quickly, just so you know I’m not ignoring them. They are:

  • First, I’m not convinced that Biden’s positions on long-ago controversies such as school busing are liable to hurt him much. Although it’s not quite the same thing, we’ve found that voters tend to apply a high discount rate to presidential scandals; a new scandal can hurt a candidate, but older ones tend to be priced into his stock. It’s reasonable to infer that the same is true of issue stances, especially in the case of Biden, when Democrats have eight years of more recent data in the form of his tenure as Obama’s vice president. And Biden’s not really trying to out-woke or out-liberal other Democrats anyway; his voters are older and more moderate.
  • Second, the initial evidence from polls seems to be that Democrats are fairly indifferent toward accusations that Biden touched women inappropriately. I don’t want to totally dismiss this as a risk factor for Biden; there could be other accusations later that Democrats view differently, and party activists may care about the accusations even if rank-and-file Democrats don’t. Nonetheless, Biden is helped by the fact that (i) his base is older and less progressive and therefore less likely to view this sort of conduct as inappropriate and (ii) voters feel like they know him given his eight years as vice president.
  • Third, while it’s worth noting that Biden’s previous presidential campaigns, in 1988 and 2008, flopped, the boilerplate criticism that he’s a “bad candidate” also strangely ignores his mostly controversy-free performances as a vice presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012 (and as a surrogate for Clinton in 2016). Plenty of politicians have learning curves as candidates, and although Biden will make his share of gaffes, I’m not sure that he’s necessarily more at risk of them than other, less-experienced candidates.

But there are several areas of real concern for Biden.

He’s really old for a presidential candidate. Biden is currently 76 and would be 78 upon taking the oath of office; the same age that Trump would be at the end of his second term. (Sanders is 77, so he has some of the same problems, of course.) And while there isn’t any hard-and-fast medical rule about how old is too old to run for president, 62 percent of general election voters (!) said they’d have reservations about voting for someone older than 75 in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, far more than the share who said they’d have reservations about a woman, an African American, or a gay or lesbian president. While you could argue that age is priced into voters’ assessments of Biden, there hasn’t really been a news cycle devoted to the age of the candidates yet, although there probably will be at some point.

Despite Biden’s credentials as Obama’s heir apparent, his party support may be lukewarm. Traditionally, former vice presidents are strong in a “Party Decides” model of the race in which party leaders and party activists have a lot of influence — or at least, are good leading indicators — over who rank-and-file voters eventually pick. In Biden’s case, however, the reception from the Democratic Party establishment has been mixed. He has some endorsements, including from the only Democratic senator (California’s Dianne Feinstein) and governor (Cuomo) to have endorsed a candidate from outside of their home states so far. But he isn’t racking up dozens of them, as Clinton already had at this point in the cycle in 2016 or Al Gore did in 2000. Nor, obviously, has Biden cleared the field of other candidates as Clinton and Gore did. And while Biden enjoys some support from former Obama staffers and donors, he by no means monopolizes it, with some ex-Obamaworld people having gravitated toward candidates such as O’Rourke and Buttigieg. (Obama himself is not expected to endorse a candidate anytime soon.) Party activists in the early states are also lukewarm on Biden and in some cases are actively opposed to him, based on surveys and interviews with them.

All of this makes Biden difficult to assess. He’s somewhere in between being a traditional, next-in-line front-runner, with the polling and party support to match, and a factional candidate, where the faction is the old guard of more moderate, working-class Democrats. Factional candidates sometimes can win their nominations, but it’s a harder road to navigate, especially given a Democratic nomination process where delegates are awarded in a highly proportional fashion and a plurality of support is not necessarily sufficient to avert a contested convention.

“Electability” could be inflating Biden’s numbers. In the California poll I mentioned earlier, Biden was the first choice of 26 percent of voters, but 35 percent of voters thought he was the most electable. The flip side to this is that only 13 percent of voters said they thought Biden had the best policy ideas. The same share of voters, 13 percent, thought Elizabeth Warren had the best policy ideas. But only 4 percent thought she had the best chance to beat Trump. And only 7 percent of voters had her as their first choice.

In essence, voters are averaging out how electable they see the candidates with how they see them on the issues. We shouldn’t necessarily expect that formula to change. Democrats really want to beat Trump, and they think electability is important.

But we could see assessments of the candidates’ electability even out as lesser-known candidates become more familiar to voters, perform well in the debates and eventually start winning primaries and caucuses. In 2008, for instance, electability was initially a huge advantage for Hillary Clinton, but that perception eroded after Obama won endorsements from trusted leaders, began to perform as well or better than Clinton in head-to-head polls against Republicans, and won Iowa, a general-election swing state that largely consists of white, working-class voters. That helped Obama gain ground in the polls against Clinton; voters no longer felt like they had to make a tradeoff between beating John McCain and picking the candidate they really liked.

It’s easy enough to imagine a similar process taking place this time around for Warren or Harris or Buttigieg, as voters grow more comfortable with how a woman or black or gay candidate would perform in the general election. Women candidates also performed extremely well in Democratic congressional primaries last year, so there’s a chance that several of the male candidates lose ground to women as perceptions of electability evolve beyond voters’ initial, gender-driven priors.

Harris and Cory Booker are likely to erode Biden’s support among black voters. Recent polling has shown Biden performing strongly among African American voters. Morning Consult has had him with around 40 percent of the black vote in its recent national surveys, for instance, and Quinnipiac had him at 44 percent in its national poll last month. Biden has also been performing well in polls of South Carolina, where about 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is black.

This is a real asset for Biden. Black voters — especially older black voters — tend to be more moderate than white Democrats, so they fit fairly naturally into his constituency. His tenure as Obama’s vice president undoubtedly also gives him credibility with black voters. Nonetheless, there are two major black candidates in the race, and Harris and Booker probably stand to gain ground with black voters as they become better-known, not unlike how it took some time for Obama to win over black voters in 2008. The Biden campaign also said they expect some erosion, although it thinks that Biden could hold 25 percent to 30 percent of the black vote even once it occurs. That’s a fairly reasonable expectation, but it does mean that Biden’s overall numbers would decline a little bit from where they are now.6

His media coverage will probably be unfriendly. The conventional wisdom about Biden has already been wrong at least once. His winning chances plummeted in betting markets after New York magazine published an account from Lucy Flores that Biden made her feel “uneasy, gross, and confused” when he allegedly kissed her on the back of her head at a campaign event of hers in 2014. But they later rebounded once a variety of polling showed that Democratic voters hadn’t changed their perceptions of Biden by much. So it’s possible that the media is underestimating how robust Biden’s support might turn out to be.

Media coverage could nonetheless be a problem for Biden. Within the mainstream media, the story of Biden winning the nomination will be seen as boring and anticlimactic. That tends not to lead to favorable coverage. Meanwhile, some left-aligned media outlets may prefer candidates who are some combination of more leftist, more wonkish, more reflective of the party’s diversity, and more adept on social media.

If Biden is framed as being out of touch with today’s Democratic Party and that narrative is repeated across a variety of outlets, it could begin to resonate with voters who don’t buy it initially. If he’s seen as a gaffe-prone candidate, then minor missteps on the campaign trail could be blown up into big fumbles. Biden might not have the sort of openly antagonistic relationship with the media that Hillary Clinton did — but he could have similar sorts of problems with it gradually sapping his favorability ratings.

Two theories for how Biden can wage his campaign. Neither are sure to work.

As I mentioned earlier, Biden is unusual in that he embodies some aspects of a traditional, odds-on front-runner (good credentials, a claim to being the party’s natural successor, reasonably strong polling) and some of a factional candidate (lukewarm support from party elites, inability to clear the field, much stronger support with some demographic groups than others). That’s a challenge for him, because each of those archetypes involve different strategies.

As a front-runner, Biden would seek to build consensus by not being too combative with other candidates, playing it safe on policy, spending time before different Democratic constituencies (e.g., unions, black evangelicals) and seeking endorsements among these groups, putting a lot of time and effort into fundraising, and projecting forward to the general election by emphasizing his strengths against Trump. In essence, he’d go into a risk-averse, “prevent defense” mode. The goal would be to win Iowa and/or South Carolina, at which point the field would winnow and Biden could use his fairly broad favorability to appeal to the rest of the party and glide to the nomination. In this strategy, Biden is probably perfectly happy to have Sanders in the mix, since Sanders as a factional candidate soaks up support from candidates who might otherwise leapfrog Biden. Not to mention, Biden is probably a favorite against Sanders in a two-candidate race.

The problem with a prevent-defense strategy is that you tend to lose a few yards on every play even if you avoid giving up a long pass. And it’s not clear whether Biden’s position is robust enough to withstand this. If you’re Hillary Clinton and you start out with 60 percent or 65 percent of the vote, you can lose quite a bit of that support and still come out ahead. But if you’re Biden and you start out with 25 percent or 30 percent, there’s much less margin for error. Is Biden’s floor higher than everyone else’s ceiling? Maybe, but it’s not hard to imagine Sanders or Buttigieg or O’Rourke or Klobuchar or pretty much anyone else cobbling together 20 percent or 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, winning the state and sending the race on an entirely different trajectory — or Harris or Booker causing problems for Biden in South Carolina.

Alternatively, Biden could adopt a more combative and defiant approach, leaning into his differences with the rest of the field, not playing it safe in his public appearances and perhaps even pushing back against the “identity politics” of the left. The idea would be to prop up his floor — to ensure that he won the 25 percent of Democrats who are older moderates — at the cost of lowering his ceiling. But this would also entail risk. He’d be resigning himself to being a factional candidate, and like Sanders, Biden could have trouble building consensus later on once the had field winnowed, even if he’d won some early states.

So those are two deeply challenging paths to the nomination. Still, both are plausible, and having two paths isn’t so bad in a field in which a lot of candidates don’t seem to have any path at all.

From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. According to the 2016 version of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

  2. The most recent poll from each firm since Beto O’Rourke entered the race

  3. According to CCES.

  4. Or slightly behind in Buttigieg’s case.

  5. Although, Brown could also have competed for very liberal voters. Maybe he should have run!

  6. For instance, if Biden goes from 40 percent of the black vote to 25 percent, that would reduce his overall share of the Democratic electorate by 3 percentage points given the black voters are about 20 percent of the electorate.

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

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