At this writing, the contest for the Democratic nomination has narrowed to a two-man race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with Biden now the clear favorite to be the nominee. Either man would be a historically unprecedented choice in multiple ways. In Biden’s case, that cuts to the heart of his candidacy.
Consider the central theory of the Biden campaign. Biden is the quintessential “old warhorse” candidate, a guy who has been a prominent figure in his party forever but who never excited anybody enough to get to the top before now. He first ran for president 32 years ago; he was first elected to the Senate 48 years ago. Democrats had a variety of other, more exciting options (the radical Sanders included), but the fear of Trump, the prospect of throwing away their shot on Bernie, and perhaps the flight-to-safety effect of the coronavirus have all conspired to swiftly consolidate the non-socialist vote behind Biden.
A safe-port-in-a-storm candidacy, running as an alternative to a chaotic incumbent: Where have we heard this before? Several times, in fact, and all of them lost. Five incumbents have been defeated since the first really modern campaign in 1896. Four of the five were trying to keep the White House in the hands of the same party for a third, fourth, or fifth term. All five lost to aspirational candidates rather than “safe” old warhorses.
In 1992, George H. W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. Bush himself was the ultimate safe candidate, famously experienced and even-keeled and trusted by the voters in the foreign-policy crises that dominated his term, but uninspiring to his party’s base. The third-party candidacy of H. Ross Perot gave a home to conservative and center-right voters disaffected with Bush after twelve years of Republican control of the White House, and a recession convinced many people that Bush was too detached from domestic and economic policy, creating an opening.
Bill Clinton, however, was anything but a safe, generic choice. He was a small-state governor, untested on the national stage. His personal baggage (the womanizing, the draft, the pot smoking) was already a major issue. He ran as a “New Democrat” offering a break with party orthodoxy on issues such as the death penalty. He was the candidate of youth, glamour, cool, and a forward-looking enthusiasm that never stopped thinking about tomorrow.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. Carter was beset by crises: high unemployment, runaway inflation, hostages in Iran, Soviet expansionism on the march. Reagan projected strength and a return to old-fashioned American values, but he was not the don’t-rock-the-boat choice compared with primary rivals such as Bush, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole. Reagan had lost in the 1976 primaries largely due to concern that his brand of “bold colors” conservatism was unelectable, a view underlined by the disastrous Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964. Open worries that Reagan was a risky choice dogged him all the way to November. Republicans gambled that the time was right for Reagan, and were rewarded. But he was not the safe choice.
In 1976, Gerald Ford lost to Carter amid a poor economy and the hangover from Watergate and Vietnam. Ford also faced the natural headwind of trying to hold the White House for the same party for a third term, without having ever won election himself. Carter positioned himself ideologically as a middle-of-the-road Democrat acceptable to Northern liberals and Southern conservatives, and he ran as a reaction to the Nixon scandals, promising a government that would never lie to the voters. Carter, however, was also a fresh face rather than an old, familiar one: a 52-year-old former Georgia governor who was totally unknown on the national stage until the eve of the Iowa caucuses. His status as a “born-again” Christian and the first true son of the Deep South to take the presidency enabled him to sweep the Southern states that had supported Nixon. Carter carried every state in the South or Southern border states except Virginia. Like Clinton, Carter was something new.
In 1932, Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hoover was running amid the collapse of the economy into the Great Depression, the fiasco of his administration’s chasing the “Bonus Army” of World War I veterans off the Mall with firehoses and bayonets, and the challenge of his party holding the White House for a fourth consecutive term. Democrats turned to a relatively fresh face: the sunny, optimistic, 50-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, first elected governor of New York four years earlier. FDR was not a complete novelty on the national stage, but as a 38-year-old, he had been the vice presidential candidate on the 1920 ticket that lost by the largest popular-vote margin in American history. He was also physically handicapped by polio. FDR had served in the Navy Department and was a safer, more unifying choice than the Democrats’ 1924 nominee (a Southerner) and 1928 nominee (a Catholic), but he had much more in common with the Joe Biden of 1988 than the Joe Biden of 2020. He was running on a “New Deal” of getting America moving again, not on calming the waters.
In 1912, William Howard Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson. Taft faced similar problems to those of Bush, Ford, and Hoover: His party had been in power for 16 years, and it split asunder when his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, ran third-party. Also, Taft was — again, like Bush, Ford, and Hoover — a safe, stolid, unexciting moderate Republican. As for the 55-year-old Wilson, he was a new animal in American politics — a professor, the only Ph.D. president — and had been in office as governor of New Jersey for only two years. He succeeded where the multi-time candidate William Jennings Bryan had failed in 1896, 1900, and 1908.
If we look further back at earlier incumbent losses — Benjamin Harrison to Grover Cleveland in 1892, Cleveland to Harrison in 1888, Martin Van Buren to William Henry Harrison in 1840, John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson in 1828, John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 — we see a lot of rematches, but nothing that looks like Biden’s effort to oust a too-exciting incumbent with a fixture of official Washington. Henry Clay tried that against Andrew Jackson in 1832 and failed miserably. Probably the most Biden-like contestant to win the presidency was James Buchanan in 1856, a 65-year-old perennial candidate who had served in so many offices that he was sometimes referred to as the “Old Public Functionary,” and who ran at a time when the nation was visibly sliding toward civil war. Yet Buchanan’s opponent was not an incumbent but a young political novice representing a brand-new political party, and he ran at a time when his own party held the White House and a former president was running third-party. He still got only 45 percent of the vote.
By contrast, parties looking to unseat an incumbent have settled before on Biden-style “old warhorse” candidates, and lost. John Kerry in 2004, Bob Dole in 1996, and Walter Mondale in 1984 are the classic examples of this type of campaign. Adlai Stevenson in 1956 and Tom Dewey in 1948 were rerun candidates who lost to an incumbent, as was Bryan in 1900. John McCain in 2008 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968 were both old warhorses who failed to hold the White House a third time for their parties. The most encouraging parallels for Biden in modern elections would be the two former vice presidents to win the big job: George H. W. Bush in 1988 and Richard Nixon in 1968. The 1988 election, however, was a choice for continuity.
Nixon is the one example of a familiar face campaigning on an end to chaos. He urged a “Silent Majority” to trust him to handle Vietnam, race riots, campus protests, and assassinations. But even Nixon won in a three-way race (with a Democratic governor splitting his party’s vote) against a party trying to hold the White House for a third time after the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, withdrew in defeat from his own party primaries. Like Clinton, Nixon still got only 43 percent of the popular vote.
Can Biden be the national unifying force that no prior candidate of his type was? Will that be enough to offset the continuing disaffection of the Sanders wing and the obvious lack of enthusiasm that a Biden campaign generates among younger voters and activists? In the age of Donald Trump, nothing is impossible, but in their search for electability, Democrats appear to be casting their lot with a type of candidate that has no real precedent for actually getting elected.