The Biden Divide

Now that Joe Biden has entered the 2020 presidential contest — ending the least suspenseful build-up to a campaign launch in recent memory — we might take this opportunity to look at how his candidacy will serve as a lightening rod for the Democratic electorate as it begins the process of sorting out how to run against Donald Trump. Biden is not someone you would normally think of as a divisive figure. Loquacious and avuncular, he can be easy to like. Many years ago, I was working with his staff to arrange for him to speak on my campus when one afternoon my office phone rang. “Professor!,” said the loud, engaging voice on the other end. “It’s Joe Biden! How are you?” Senators do not make their own speaking arrangements, or spend time chatting with strangers they don’t plan to ask for money. I found the exchange endearing.

Yet as we begin a campaign season that will determine how much democracy will be left after the Trump interregnum, Biden’s candidacy serves as the fault line between past and future with Democrats left to decide which of these two directions best informs the present. In the lead-up to Biden’s announcement, I have engaged with people whose political acumen I deeply respect who fall passionately and unambiguously on both sides of the Biden divide — those who believe he is the only realistic vehicle for saving the republic and those who believe he is a anachronism who cannot lead in the twenty-first century.

The arguments mirror each other and are based in a competing set of claims that turn on a single, critical and unknowable question: is the emerging electorate large enough, strong enough and mobilized enough to take power in 2020?

I will try to do justice to both arguments. The Pro-Joe camp makes the following claims:

  • Biden is the most experienced candidate. This is no time for amateurs.
  • He will take the case directly to Trump. No one is better at standing up to a bully.
  • Biden is your favorite uncle, the relative you look forward to seeing at Thanksgiving. It’s hard not to like him.
  • He will play in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the states that gave Trump the presidency — because he has natural appeal to older white, working class Rust Belt voters.
  • Older white, working class Rust Belt voters will vote for Trump again if Democrats nominate someone who isn’t white, male and straight or who is a self-described socialist, which pretty much covers the remaining viable candidates.
  • Speaking of socialists, Trump is eager to use the “socialism” label to disqualify his opponent. That won’t work with Biden.
  • Biden has the Obama imprimatur. Voters will be comforted by a return to the familiar after the chaos of the Trump years.
  • Ideological purity is a luxury we can’t afford right now. The world is on fire. Let’s put it out and worry about climate change and health care for all after the election.
  • Progressive Democrats may be disappointed but they will vote for Biden in the general election because the alternative is so awful. However, independent voters might support Trump despite their distaste for him if Democrats nominate anyone else.
  • For these reasons, it is simply too risky to nominate anyone other than Joe Biden.

The Hell-No-Not-Joe camp responds as follows:

  • Biden is a flawed candidate who couldn’t win a presidential nomination in the twentieth century, when his ideas and attitudes were a better match to the electorate. There is a reason why he lost twice — he just needs to look in the mirror to find it.
  • He will make the election about Trump — and that plays into Trump’s hands.
  • Biden is the kind of creepy uncle you tolerate at Thanksgiving but you’re relieved when he leaves. Don’t believe me? Ask someone under 40.
  • Democrats lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin because Hillary couldn’t motivate base voters in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee. Neither does Biden — and he doesn’t appeal to the emerging electorate in the Sun Belt.
  • Younger voters and women, especially women of color, helped put Democrats over the top in last year’s midterms and they should be respected. Biden’s ham-fisted eleventh-hour non-apology to Anita Hill and his trial balloon about running as a ticket with Stacey Abrams were patronizing. Worse, he doesn’t realize it.
  • Trump will call any Democratic nominee a socialist, so they might as well nominate the real deal. It will only increase enthusiasm among voters under 40.
  • The Obama era is over. Voters are looking to move forward after the chaos of the Trump years.
  • What is a campaign if not a contest of ideas? The world is on fire. If we don’t address climate change and social justice right now we will never get a mandate to do something about it.
  • There is no guarantee that the emerging electorate will turn out for Biden in the general election just because the alternative is so awful. This was the argument for Hillary’s candidacy and look how that turned out. However, independent voters might support an exciting fresh face if you define independent voters more broadly than white working class men in the Midwest.
  • For these reasons, it is simply too risky to nominate Joe Biden.

You may notice a generational and gender divide running through these arguments, along with a sincere difference of opinion about the substantive direction the Democratic Party should take. Although I am neither the right age or gender I do side with the anti-Biden camp on the substantive argument, and despite my personal affection for Biden feel he neither appreciates nor can rise to this very large moment. I also believe there are few truly undecided voters — people have largely staked out their ground — so motivation to vote and protecting the vote will be more important than persuasion. I am ready to assert that the emerging electorate will be large enough next year to carry an election if they are sufficiently engaged and enfranchised. But I recognize that, like those on the other side of the argument, it is only an assertion. Either side could be wrong.

So there is a lot here to sort out, and early polling says that Democrats have a long way to go before they do. Well over half the respondents in an ABC News-Washington Post survey released last Sunday did not support any candidate. Biden topped the poll with a stunning 13% of the vote (Sanders was second with 9%). Add leaners and he made it all the way up to 30% (Sanders was at 20%), making Biden only a slightly more formidable early frontrunner than Jeb Bush was in 2016 — strong enough that he doesn’t have to put an exclamation point after his first name to remind people to get excited about him, but disconcerting for somebody everyone knows. Surveys reflecting his post-announcement polling “bump” show little more than temporary consolidation of this soft support, with Democratic voters divided between prioritizing a candidate who backs issues they care about and prioritizing a candidate who they believe can defeat Trump. This means that if Biden is going to get the nomination he is going to have to earn it by expanding his appeal. At this very early stage, the future direction of the Democratic Party and quite possibly the republic remains open for debate.