Joe Biden’s lead in the Democratic primary field apparently rests on the three legged stool of long-standing familiarity, appreciation particularly among older African American voters as President Obama’s trusted second, and a perception that he is more electable than other Democrats.
Electability is not actually a testable proposition as the Democrats will have only one nominee who will win or lose. Still, the concept of electability is important to voters and thus worth examining.
Biden’s perceived electability may rest in part on his having been part of a winning national ticket. But as Natalie Jackson pointed out in the Huffington Post, of the nine Vice Presidents who ran without first acceding to the office on the death of the President, only three have won. George H.W. Bush was the most recent Vice President to win, then Richard Nixon, although he lost before he won. Before Nixon, you have to go back to Martin Van Buren to find an example of a Vice President who won election without becoming an incumbent first (Vice Presidents Elected President).
Blue collar appeal – or the avoidance of elitism and its imagery – will certainly be important in the 2020 election, given the states needed for an Electoral College win. Biden has a reputation for appealing to blue collar voters, although the evidence seems largely anecdotal. He grew up in a blue collar family but such roots are not unique in the field. They are shared by at least Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Others grew up in families that were far from wealthy. Several are the children of school teachers or of a single parent who struggled financially. It is not a field of elites.
Here are some other considerations where Biden may not reach parity with others in the field:
A Referendum or a Choice: One of the most fundamental framings of an election is whether it is a referendum on the incumbent or a more lateral choice between the contenders. The Democratic nominee will be the challenger to an unpopular incumbent. Democrats should be advantaged if the election is a referendum on Trump.
Biden may be the best positioned to make the campaign a referendum because he is more moderate, has lower negatives (at least now), and is a comparatively comfortable choice for many.
There is, however, a risk that the electorate is not in the mood for such a referendum election. They may want to know what is next on raising wages, lowering health care costs, making America safer, healing divisions, and changing the way we do politics.
Biden may have answers on all of those issues, but his long record can be a hindrance in saying that he will bring more positive change than the country experienced in the Obama administration. As popular as President Obama is, the demand for change may exceed the nostalgia for him.
A Different Electorate. If the electorate were similar to the 2016 electorate, a return to the Obama years might be enough. The 2018 election saw enough dissatisfaction with Trump, and enough change in turnout patterns with higher Democratic and lower Republican participation, that it is tempting to simply try to carry the 2012 – or 2018 – election forward.
The electorate seems unlikely to be a mere extension of the last two elections, however. The eligible electorate will have more voters of color, especially voters of Hispanic origin, and it will be older, absent a shift in turnout that increases the number of younger people who participate. (Pew: An Early Look at the 2020 Electorate).
The 2020 electorate promises to be larger than the 2016 electorate. The Trump campaign and its allies are already spending millions online to find people who have not voted before or voted irregularly whose participation they can compel. Emotion on the Democratic side likely means higher turnout organically – and presumably Democratic efforts to expand the electorate will eventually match Republican efforts.
Still, an electorate that is more Democratic than 2016 likely depends on turnout, particularly among younger voters who have the most room for turnout growth. It may be that an anti-Trump message will compel turnout, but it would also be useful to have messaging and a candidate who can optimize that young voter participation.
Biden does not appear the best candidate to motivate younger voters. Younger candidates, particularly Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro are speaking to generational change, while Jay Inslee is making climate change – an issue particularly compelling to young voters – central to his campaign, and Elizabeth Warren is speaking to student debt and child care issues, which resonate with younger voters.
Indeed, on the message level, several other candidates seem to have stronger youth appeal than Vice President Biden.
Anti-Partisan Voters. Swing voters by definition are not locked into a party – that is part of what makes them swing voters – and the voters who supported both Obama and Trump fall into this category. Biden seems to be betting that they will like bi-partisanship, and speaks to his historic civility with Republicans.
Many swing (and third party) voters, do not like either political party and are more interested in non-partisanship than bi-partisanship. They are looking less for politicians to “reach across the aisle” (a term they often do not understand) than for leaders to be separate from either party. That is a tougher case for Biden who has lived party politics, than for those like Governors and Mayors who have some separation from the hyper-partisanship of Washington, or those who are newer to politics than Biden is.
Swing voters tend to be younger than average and are disproportionately women. Biden may not be ideally positioned to motivate either young voters or women voters who are mistrustful of politicians of either party. There are white, blue collar, older men who voted for President Obama and for Trump, but not very many and they are unlikely to be the core swing vote, as opposed to younger women without college experience – across ethnic lines – who are low or moderate propensity voters.
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The first test of electability is whether a candidate will be nominated. Biden has the lead right now in most polls, although the size of the lead depends on assumptions about the shape of the electorate. Biden is stronger among older Democrats than younger Democrats, and seems especially strong among older African American voters.
Biden seems for many Democrats to be the safe choice at a time when defeating Trump is Priority One. The problem is that playing it safe may not be the best winning strategy.
The first test for some of the contenders with apparent advantages among younger voters, is whether they can motivate their participation in the early primaries and caucuses. If so, they have more room to overtake Biden. In showing their capacity to attract younger voters, they may also take away his electability argument.