This week in Detroit, 20 Democratic candidates will face off in the party’s second round of presidential-primary debates. Despite what was widely considered a shaky performance in the first debate last month, former vice president Joe Biden continues to maintain a healthy lead in the race.
But is Biden really the best bet for Democrats who care much more about getting Donald Trump out of the Oval Office than they do about getting their preferred progressive into it?
If you’re inclined to put much stock in public-opinion polls this far out from an election, then a few recent surveys suggest he might be. A new Quinnipiac poll of Ohio — a crucial swing state where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a margin of about eight points in 2016 — showed Biden as the only Democratic candidate leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup, 50–42 percent. The same poll had Trump tied with California senator Kamala Harris and South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg, and running just a point ahead of Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Among Ohio Democrats and Democratic-leaning independent voters, meanwhile, Biden had a significant edge on his primary competitors, with 31-percent support compared to 14 percent for Sanders and Harris and 13 percent for Warren. Biden led the field in every demographic category but one: voters describing themselves as “very liberal,” 25 percent of whom prefer Harris, followed by Sanders at 21 percent, Warren at 18, and Biden at 16. His lead shrunk a bit among white voters with college degrees, who preferred him by only five points to both Harris and Warren. But he dominated among Democratic and Democratic-leaning black voters and moderates in the Buckeye State.
So far this year, that has been a trend in Biden’s favor across a number of state polls, most recently in South Carolina, where Monmouth found Biden crushing his competitors among black voters, with 51-percent support. The next closest candidate, Harris, came in at just 12 percent.
“Black Democrats tend to be more moderate than white primary voters,” Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray noted when the poll was released last week. “Biden is the best known candidate currently occupying that lane.”
That might be the simplest way to explain not only why Biden continues to lead among African Americans — despite his competitors’ efforts to portray him as worse than ineffective on race issues — but also why he leads the primary field at large in every major poll. In a sea of politicians competing to offer voters the most expansive slate of progressive policies, Biden is the only viable candidate even attempting to appear moderate.
It isn’t so much that Biden has offered particularly compelling policies or that he’s done much to excite primary voters apart from constantly invoking President Obama’s name. It’s that he’s the only viable candidate around to fill the “not a progressive” lane. His appeal is less about him and more about the fact that a plurality of Democratic voters either genuinely prefers moderate policies or believes a moderate candidate has the best chance of beating Trump.
Coupled with the reality that early polls certainly aren’t set in stone, that should make Biden nervous. “These numbers are fun, but I wouldn’t put money on anything,” Lydia Saad, a senior Gallup research director, told the New Yorker’s Peter Slevin in a piece published Monday. “Historically, among Democrats, if you had to bet at this point, you’d do a better job betting against, [rather] than for, the front-runner.”
“One problem is that so little is known about so many of the Democratic candidates,” Slevin notes. “Another is that so few people are paying close attention. And then there is the fact that a Presidential campaign is a bruising, billion-dollar proving ground.”
In the latest issue of Time magazine, Washington correspondent Philip Elliott has a piece called “Why Joe Biden’s Campaign is Struggling,” in which he argues that Biden “looks like the shakiest front runner in years.” Elliott notes that, although Biden still leads every poll, his support has been slashed in half since he entered the race in late April, and his campaign thus far has appeared indecisive and at times even incoherent.
“As the Democrats debate where to take the party in the future, Biden can seem stuck in the past: while rivals expressed support for paying slavery reparations to African Americans, Biden was talking about working across ideological lines with avowed segregationists,” Elliott writes. “A 76-year-old man who joined the Senate during the Nixon Administration increasingly seems out of step in a primary dominated by questions of race, gender and inequality.”
In short, Biden is far from a shoo-in. But the former vice president might perhaps take comfort from the example of the man he’s desperate for a shot to beat. From the moment Donald Trump entered the GOP presidential primary in the summer of 2015, the businessman benefited from the fact that he had managed to consolidate a plurality of primary voters, while the majority of Republicans who opposed him consistently split their support among a variety of more-conservative options. Biden may well be benefiting from a similar phenomenon here, as a plurality of more-moderate Democrats back him and primary voters who favor more liberal policies divide unevenly among the several more-progressive candidates.
Biden’s rivals will use their time on the debate stage to try and consolidate support in that progressive lane. Biden should use his time to try and provide voters a rationale for his campaign beyond his being the only viable moderate in the room.