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Progressives should worry more about the odds that Joe Biden will win

Liberals are assuming the former vice president will fade on his own, a trap Republicans fell for with Trump.

Joe Biden speaks at the Senate in 2008. Scott Ferrell/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Joe Biden has a large and fairly consistent lead in early polling for the Democratic Party primary. According to Morning Consult’s polling, he’s also the stated second choice of Bernie Sanders’s supporters, Kamala Harris’s supporters, and Beto O’Rourke’s supporters. Elizabeth Warren is in fifth place according to this poll, and her supporters’ second choice is Sanders — but their third choice is Biden.

But despite his polling lead, it’s commonplace among progressives to act as if Biden’s early strength is nothing but a consequence of name recognition and that he will inevitably fall by the wayside once actual campaigning gets underway.

And he certainly might. Huge swaths of Biden’s record are out of step with the views of progressive activists, from his early opposition to school desegregation measures to his record as a fighter in the war on drugs to his loyalty to the credit card industry to his support for the invasion of Iraq.

But progressive activists may not have as firm a grasp on the Democratic Party electorate as a casual follower of the news might think. People who spend a lot of time online reading and posting about politics (some Vox readers, say) will find themselves immersed in a discourse that tends to implicitly portray the 2020 nomination as a battle between Sanders and a group of contemporary mainstream Democrats — Harris, Warren, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, etc. Biden is essentially an afterthought, with neither a chorus of cheerleaders nor a set of intense detractors who are visibly worried about him winning the nomination.

This risks a version of the mistake Republican Party insiders made in 2016, when they banked on Trump falling by the wayside. Consequently, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, etc., focussed their energy on attacking each other. Biden’s frontrunner status is underwhelming for a variety of reasons, but he really is in first place in the polls, and there’s nothing inevitable about him falling by the wayside. For him to lose, someone has to take him on and beat him.

Joe Biden’s record is not very progressive

Biden spent his formative years in politics during an era of conservative dominance. First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden built his career as a senator from Delaware, a swing state at the time, through considerable crossover appeal to voters who backed Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush before coming around to Bill Clinton.

His record fundamentally reflects those origins, and it’s why progressives today do not want him to win the nomination.

He was a tough-on-crime drug fighter who, at one point, voted to let states overturn Roe v. Wade and spent years as a critic of school desegregation efforts. He not only voted for Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut but years later would vote for a GOP-sponsored Balanced Budget Amendment. And though probably his single most notable action as vice president was leading the charge toward the Obama administration’s belated embrace of LGBT marriage equality, as a senator he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.

By the 21st century, Delaware was a more solidly liberal state, and Biden’s record had become pretty conventionally liberal. But he did have a few noteworthy breaks with the base like being a leading sponsor of an industry-friendly bankruptcy reform bill in 2005 (Delaware was, at the time, home to a major credit card company) and acting as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to lend a bipartisan imprimatur to the legislation authorizing war in Iraq.

All things considered, there was very little in his record to recommend him as a major progressive leader, and it’s hardly a big surprise that he ended up finishing a dismal fifth in the 2008 Iowa Caucus — behind not just Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but also John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

Obama selected him as his running mate to balance the ticket with a more conservative partner. As vice president, Biden’s deeper personal relationships on Capitol Hill made him repeatedly a useful emissary during bipartisan negotiations. But he was not particularly known as a champion of progressive causes inside the administration.

During his quasi-apology for his tendency toward touching women inappropriately at photo ops, Biden acknowledged that “social norms have changed” since he was a younger politician.

But more broadly, American politics has changed. Biden has kinda sorta changed with it, but he’s been a laggard rather than a leader in that change, and progressives have good reason to want another standard-bearer — either someone like Sanders who espoused progressive ideas back in the 1980s when they were unfashionable or else one of the many candidates from younger generations who simply don’t have their roots in the long Nixon-Reagan-Bush era of GOP hegemony.

Biden has a pretty good chance of winning

Talking to themselves online, however, progressives tend to reach consensus not only that Biden shouldn’t be the nominee but also that he won’t be.

But as Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy detailed in a New York Times story on Tuesday, social media can be misleading in this regard.

Social media users are substantially younger, better-educated, and more politically engaged than rank-and-file Democrats. Only 29 percent of them define themselves as moderate or conservative, compared to 53 percent of Democrats who do not post online about politics.

CNN’s Harry Enten rightly emphasizes that, in particular, the rank-and-file membership of the Democratic Party is quite a bit older than you might think. In the Trump era, Democrats are the party of the young in the sense that Trump is popular with senior citizens and deeply unpopular with young people. But 56 percent of Democratic voters in 2018 were over the age of 50, while just 29 percent were below 40. There is a huge age gradient in current polling, with Biden faring far better with older Democrats than younger ones.

And, crucially, it would be a mistake for progressives to just assume that Biden’s advantage will fade away when more information becomes available. For one thing, as Cohn and Quealy note, the majority of Democrats who don’t post about politics on social media also say they don’t follow the news that closely.

Unflattering details about Biden’s record like his support for Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich or a giveaway to credit card companies aren’t things less-informed Democrats are likely to be made aware of unless it becomes a specific point of emphasis in someone’s campaign. A broad, hazy sense that Biden is a more moderate option won’t do him in for the simple reason that, as Gallup found last December, most rank-and-file Democrats say they favor a more moderate party.

Similarly, dedicated followers of Crooked Media personalities’ Twitter feeds will have noticed that Team Obama is very open to a range of voices in the party, but a less-attentive voter is just going to think of Biden as the second-in-command to the popular former president.

Biden appears to have an unambitious agenda

Obama, of course, is extremely popular among both rank-and-file Democrats and the vast majority of the party’s elected officials. But for most progressives, admiring what Obama achieved in office doesn’t mean complacency about the need for further change.

Indeed, Obama himself has long been an advocate of going further than his own administration’s achievements. In a 2015 interview with Vox, he called for a much more aggressive government role in regulating health care prices. Two years later, as he was about to leave office, he did another interview with Vox where he reiterated his support for adding a strong public option to Affordable Care Act exchanges and conceded the abstract case on the merits for Medicare-for-all, explaining that “if I was starting from scratch, I would have supported a single-payer system because it’s easier for people to understand and manage.”

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, he again praised Medicare-for-all. During his second term he pushed for (and failed to achieve) significant public investments in child care and early childhood education. Other members of his administration, similarly, see no contradiction between pride in their work and desire to go further. John Kerry, a key architect of the Paris climate accord as secretary of state, praised the Green New Deal plan this week. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is running for president on Medicare-for-all and an ambitious immigration reform agenda.

Biden, by contrast, has spent the past few years laying the groundwork for a presidential run while generally avoiding ambitious policy commitments. He’s associated himself, instead, with a rather modest agenda focused on higher minimum wage, free community college, and some worker-friendly tweaks to labor law.

These are not bad ideas by any means. But they suggest the mind of a politician who continues to be fundamentally more conservative than Obama at a time when progressives are hoping to drive the country forward in key areas. And yet he very well could win — especially if his rivals don’t take him seriously.

Biden’s lead is not just name recognition

Biden’s near-universal name recognition as a former vice president is, of course, a tremendous asset compared to several other candidates in the field. But it’s critical to understand that while name ID is an advantage, his lead is not just about name recognition.

A good chart by CNN’s Harry Enten shows Biden is clearly outperforming what you’d expect based on name recognition alone. The two other best-known candidates are underperforming.

By the same token, Biden is in first place in a new poll of California Democrats, well ahead of both Sanders and of a senator from the state, Kamala Harris — something that should cause doubt that she will automatically gain ground compared to Biden once she becomes as well known nationally as she is in her home state.

Today is still a long way from the first caucus in Iowa, and of course things can change a lot between now and then. At this point in the 2008 cycle, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton had big leads and at this point in the 2016 cycle Trump wasn’t even in the race (Jeb Bush had a small lead). But Mitt Romney led early in 2012 and Clinton led early in 2016, and they both won.

One big story from the 2016 GOP primary is that political junkies who paid a lot of attention to elite conservative opinion just kept assuming that Trump would fade. In part because of that, rival campaigns mostly attacked each other trying to position themselves for Trump’s inevitable collapse. But it turned out that Trump’s basic message — hard-right on identity issues, a bit heterodox on economics — was closer to the views of rank-and-file Republicans even though it was unpopular with GOP thought leaders.

Biden could be in a similar position this time around. He starts off with a lead, and no individual campaign has a clear interest in attacking him, thanks to his association with Obama. His more moderate brand of politics is out of step with the ideas of the most vocal Democrats, but there is a large cohort of older, more working-class Democrats who are open to the idea of a moderate nominee. If progressives don’t want that to happen, they’re going to have to put in the work to stop it.

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