Believe it or not, there are still a few Democrats left in the United States Senate who are not running for president. And among those sitting on the sidelines, they see a lot to like in a politician who hasn’t joined the field: Joe Biden.
“If he were in the race, he would I think have a lot of support, and he’s someone I’d think very seriously about supporting,” Pennsylvania Democratic senator Bob Casey tells National Review. “I don’t know a vice president who was more effective, who had greater responsibility.”
Wisconsin Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin, who won reelection by eleven points in her crucial swing state last November, also has praise for him: “The last few times [Biden has] been in Wisconsin, just focusing on respecting the dignity of hard work and economic opportunity, he’s really knocked it out of the park.”
“As have many other Democratic candidates,” she quickly adds.
“Joe Biden’s been a wonderful public servant,” says Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator who was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate.
But for every elected Democratic official who likes Biden, you can find scores of pundits who will tell you that he is overrated as a potential primary candidate. “If he declares for the presidency, Biden will face a Democratic electorate that has moved on from his brand of politics,” according to one Huffington Post writer.
Is Biden too old, too corporatist, too conservative for today’s Democratic party? Trying predict the future is a fool’s errand, but it’s safe to say that he has had a very good 2019 so far, and that his path to the nomination remains very realistic.
During the first week of March, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg announced he wouldn’t seek the Democratic nomination. His absence would help Biden consolidate self-described moderate Democrats. Around the same time, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown announced he wouldn’t run, and that could help Biden add more union members to his coalition. Brown’s absence would also bolster the claim that Biden has the best shot of winning back Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the three Rust Belt states that narrowly decided the 2016 election. Brown publicly warned MSNBC viewers during a March 13 appearance that 2020 hopefuls who are lurching leftward aren’t thinking about the general election.
The candidate Biden would be running against in the “moderate” lane is Amy Klobuchar, who launched her campaign on February 10. The Minnesota senator is thought by some to have underappreciated strength in the neighboring state of Iowa, but she was sitting at 3 percent in an Iowa poll conducted March 3–6 for the Des Moines Register and CNN. The good news for Klobuchar is that people are still talking about her: She was the subject of the best article published so far about the 2020 Democratic primary. The bad news? That article, by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, was a devastating piece on the senator’s alleged abusive behavior toward her staff, which ranged from berating her employees to throwing objects at them.
And what about the crowded “progressive” lane? All of those candidates have expressed support for the Green New Deal, but they have fought over whether private health insurance should be abolished and whether existing border fencing should be torn down. Kamala Harris, who could be the most formidable opponent in a head-to-head race against Biden, had a particularly bad stumble on “Medicare for all.” Elizabeth Warren is still trying to recover from her DNA test. The leading candidate in this group is socialist Bernie Sanders, who has drawn impressive crowds and put up impressive fundraising numbers — and would be Biden’s ideal foil in 2020.
The Des Moines Register poll mentioned above found Biden leading Sanders 27 percent to 25 percent in Iowa, with all other candidates in the single digits. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight observes that the Iowa poll, when adjusted for name recognition, “doesn’t really change much at all.” It’s early, but CNN’s Harry Enten points out that the “leader in the Iowa caucuses polls at this point have won the nomination 7 of 14 times.”
Perhaps the best sign for Biden’s prospects could be seen in a March 15 article by Politico’s Gabby Orr, who reported that “behind closed doors, [President Trump] has fixated on Biden, while top aides have tried to assure their boss that the former vice president is doomed” in an increasingly left-wing party. As he proved in 2016, Trump has a better intuitive grasp of electoral politics than most political aides and pundits.
Talk of Biden’s being out of step with today’s Democratic party on this or that issue ignores what Democratic voters are actually saying. The Iowa poll found that 70 percent of likely caucus-goers say Joe Biden’s political views are “about right,” while 14 percent say Biden is “too conservative.” Only 48 percent say Bernie Sanders’s views are “about right,” while 44 percent say Sanders is “too liberal.” The same poll found that 49 percent of voters fully back “Medicare for all,” while 35 percent only support taking steps toward it — the kind of half measure Biden will likely favor — and 11 percent oppose it outright.
There are a lot of Democratic voters who don’t see some impassable divide between Biden and Sanders. “The Joe Biden–Bernie Sanders duopoly was interesting to me in that their supporters’ second choice was each other, primarily,” J. Ann Selzer, the pollster who conducted the Iowa survey, tells National Review. Biden’s campaign to move America’s health-care system to the left of Obamacare and more than double the federal minimum wage — from $7.25 to $15 — would have been seen as quite liberal the day before yesterday.
Those who argue that Biden is too out of touch with today’s Democratic party also fail to take into account that the Democratic nominee doesn’t really need a majority of the party to win the nomination — not at the beginning, at least. He or she likely needs to win two out of the first three marquee contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. In a large field, winning those early states might require only one-third of the electorate, as Trump proved in 2016. With two early wins, voters would very likely fall in line, just as they did for Trump and Clinton in 2016, Obama and McCain in 2008, Kerry in 2004, Bush in 2000, and Dole in 1996.
Mitt Romney is the only candidate in nearly three decades who (kind of) broke this rule: He was declared the winner of Iowa on Caucus Night (and the headlines are what counts when it comes to building momentum) but later fell behind Santorum by 34 votes in the final tally; several precincts were never counted. The last major-party nominee who didn’t win either Iowa or New Hampshire was Bill Clinton in 1992, when Iowa senator Tom Harkin took his home state off the map and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts won New Hampshire.
Can Biden win two of the three early states? He’s a couple of points ahead of Sanders in early Iowa polling and a few points behind Sanders in New Hampshire polling. In South Carolina, Biden led Sanders by 16 points in a recent Emerson poll — 37 percent to 21 percent — with all other candidates in single digits. In 2016, shortly after Sanders scored a 22-point win over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, the Vermont socialist was crushed by Clinton in South Carolina by 47 points. The 77-year-old Sanders takes the age issue off the table for 76-year-old Biden, but Sanders’s weakness among African-American voters is the real reason he would be Biden’s ideal foil.
Some have suggested that Biden’s record on busing in the 1970s would badly damage him among African-American voters. But there is perhaps no better example of the disconnect between some progressive pundits and actual Democratic voters than the discussion of this issue.
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote in a March column that Biden’s rhetoric in the 1970s about busing “was on the same wavelength” as the vicious segregationist George Wallace’s had been. “The real problem with busing,” Biden said at the time, was that “you take people who aren’t racist, people who are good citizens, who believe in equal education and opportunity, and you stunt their children’s intellectual growth by busing them to an inferior school . . . and you’re going to fill them with hatred.”
The same day as that column appeared, McClatchy reporter Katie Glueck published an article titled: “In a shifting party, Biden maintains strength with SC’s black Democrats.” The piece was filled with comments from African-American voters optimistic about a Biden candidacy, along with pastors and politicians testifying to his strength as a candidate. “If Biden gets in the race, everybody else would be running for second place,” South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, told Jonathan Martin and Astead Herndon of the New York Times in January.
Can any candidate attack Biden’s position on busing in the 1970s without taking the position today that some children currently attending safe and successful suburban schools should be bused to dangerous and failing urban schools? It’s hard to believe that any Democratic candidate who could win the presidency in 2020 will run on that platform. It would be good, of course, if Democratic candidates supported policies to allow children attending dangerous and failing schools to attend safe and successful schools. But then those candidates would be conservative Republicans who back school-choice programs, not liberal Democrats beholden to teachers’ unions.
Is it easy to see a different Democratic candidate, such as Kamala Harris, carrying Iowa and South Carolina and capturing the nomination? Of course. Bernie Sanders is an equally serious candidate, and no one should count out the rest of the field, either.
Navigating an energized progressive base will be no simple task for Biden. For example, Biden is a longtime supporter of the Hyde amendment, a ban on federal funding of elective abortions, unlike recent Democratic presidential nominees. Tim Kaine was tripped up in 2016 trying to reconcile his support for the ban with Hillary Clinton’s opposition, but today he says: “I don’t think it’s a litmus [test]. I think it’s a very important issue to people of all different stripes. . . . That one is going to be hashed out, along with so many others, during the primary process and then during the general.”
Will Biden flip-flop on the issue? Or will he continue to oppose the progressive Democratic base? Both options, on this matter and others, carry political risks. Biden will face plenty of obstacles once he enters the race, but none appear so large right now that he could not make it to the general election.
This article appears as “Back to Biden?” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.