Joe Biden’s Electability Problem

Biden

I like Joe Biden. I think he would make a good president. And if given the opportunity to vote for him, I would proudly do so. I have one problem though with the general wisdom around Joe Biden’s candidacy; namely, that he is the most “electable” of the 17 Democrats still running for president. While it is impossible for any person to know with certainty which candidate would be in the best position to defeat Trump a year from now, I do not believe Democrats’ best chance of defeating Trump lies with Joe Biden. Here’s why.

Past is Prologue

This is not the first time Joe Biden has run for president. This is actually his fourth time. Here are the results of his prior three attempts:

  • 1984 – tied for 7th place with 1 delegate (or 0.03% of the vote)
  • 1988 – 4th place with 2 delegates (or 0.05% of the vote)
  • 2008 – 7th place (behind Dennis Kucinich) with 64,000 votes (or < .01% of all votes cast)

Joe Biden has demonstrated in three prior contests—2 in his 40s and one 1 in his 60s—that he does not run strong presidential campaigns. It is curious that many think Joe Biden is going to suddenly develop the previously-missing skills to successfully run for president now that he is in his late 70s.

Past Trends Continue

Moreover, we are seeing in 2019 a repeat of what has happened to Biden in past presidential elections—i.e., he enters the race with great fanfare and then slowly fades away. While Biden continues to hold an edge in most national polls, it is worth nothing what is happening to his numbers in the two states where the campaigns are most active and voters are paying the closest attention. The most recent polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show Biden running in 4th place and 3rd place, respectively. In this shared “wisdom” that Joe Biden is the most electable candidate, no one has yet explained how a candidate with a history of badly losing presidential elections is the most electable. It simply does not compute.

Problems Raising Money

Another factor that often lends itself to electability is a candidate’s ability to raise money. In this area, Joe Biden again demonstrates a shortcoming. At a time when his fundraising should be ramping up, Joe Biden raised $6.8 million less in the most recent fundraising quarter than the prior quarter. And despite focusing his fundraising on large-dollar donors, Biden has less than $9 million cash-on-hand. To put this in some context, Joe Biden’s campaign has about one-quarter of the money as Bernie Sanders ($33 million); about one-third of the money of Elizabeth Warren ($26 million); less than half the money of Pete Buttigieg ($19 million); and even less money than the “is-she-still-running” Kamala Harris ($10.5 million). Again, we see Joe Biden lagging behind his Democratic opponents in major indicators of electability.

Name Recognition is Cheap

Biden’s early popularity in national polls is easy to understand. There are two reasons for it: (1) he has nearly universal name recognition, and (2) there is the perception that he is the most electable candidate. The second of these factors is quickly dissipating, as evidenced in the numbers above as well as the not-so-quiet rumblings of establishment Democrats, including Michael Bloomberg’s recent showing of no-confidence in his moderate ally. Biden’s name recognition though remains strong, but just how important is that?

Name recognition, by itself, is a commodity that rarely, if ever, gets a presidential contender past Iowa. Just ask failed presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani and 2008 Hillary Clinton. Or one can ask our last three Democratic presidents who each came out of complete obscurity to capture the nomination and presidency (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama). The fact is, whichever person eventually wins the nomination and goes up against Trump in 2020 will have universal name recognition. While having this quality early is convenient to a candidate in a crowded primary field, it is a nearly useless quality in a general election.

Polls Show the Top Democrats Are About Equally Electable

We can begin to gauge Biden’s electability because there are polls on this stuff. Below is a poll that came out this week from Politico showing Democratic candidate’s head-to-head matchups against Trump in a nationwide contest.

Biden Poll

What this poll shows is that while Biden beats Trump nationally by 4 points, Bernie Sanders defeats Trump by 5 and Warren does so by 6. Biden supporters will likely, and fairly, argue that we don’t win these elections nationally, we win them in key states. To that, however, I would say that a 6-point national win provides what is essentially a mathematical guarantee of an electoral college victory. Additionally, if Biden is only able to win nationally by 4 points (just a single point better than Hillary), why would we assume dramatic shifts in key swing states? Again, the pro-Biden arguments do not add up.

Ignoring the Quality of Candidates in Comparison to One Another

One of my all-time favorite observations about electoral politics is the fact that wherever Rudy Giuliani campaigned for president in 2008, his numbers dropped. The more people learned about him, the less they liked him. One by one, Giuliani systematically pulled resources from every early state, leaving Iowa, then New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then Nevada, and then deciding he would make his mighty stand in Florida. There, Rudy Giuliani spent gobs of money only to come in an embarrassing third place with 14% of the vote.

This is a reminder that not all candidates are equal. Some do great on the stump. Others do not. Presidential campaigns are grueling endeavors. In Warren and Buttigieg we are seeing candidates running smart, disciplined campaigns that are showing a slow, steady, upward trajectory. That is important. Candidates like this give themselves a much greater chance of fairing well in a general election.

On the other hand, candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Joe Biden—whose numbers get worse the more they campaign—make winning a general election unnecessarily difficult. As we watch Biden operate his campaign, one is not instilled with much confidence. He is keeping a low profile, which means he is only making news when he has a gaffe (e.g., “Play the radio, make sure the television—the, excuse me—make sure you have the record player on at night … make sure the kids hear words.”). And even though Sanders and Warren are also in their 70s, they manage to campaign with vigor. Biden though, when you do see him, seems tired—playing directly into the “sleepy Joe” persona Trump is trying to create. Biden’s poor debate performance—which tend to start off okay and then take a dive an hour in—are a further indication he has stamina issues. I have real concerns that a man who debated Sarah Palin to a draw 11 years ago will get steamrolled by Donald Trump in his now lessened state.

All of this leads me to the question of, “Even though Biden has a slight edge in key battleground states, can he maintain that edge over a 12-month period when he will be under intense scrutiny?” My conclusion is no, he cannot. All indicators are that his numbers will slip. I propose we marshal our resources behind a candidate who shows potential for electoral growth. Despite many opportunities, Biden has not shown he has this critical skill.

The “Enthusiasm Gap”

Anyone watching the presidential race or looking at the polls understands that Joe Biden is not stirring in his voters the level of enthusiasm of the other candidates. A poll taken in September showed that while the number of Elizabeth Warren’s supporters labeling themselves as “enthusiastic” about her candidacy had doubled, Joe Biden’s level of enthusiastic support among his own supporters had dropped by 30% over the prior 5 months.

We can also see this anecdotally. A couple weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story with this devastating headline: “No one Shows up to Joe Biden Debate-Watch Party in Philly. Does that Matter?” The article then detailed the three Biden-debate watch parties in Pennsylvania’s largest city, where attendance ranged from 2 to 7 people (including the hosts).

There is the depressing, but accurate, political adage of: “Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line.” As critical as it is that every Democrat turn out to vote for ANY person who wins the party’s nomination against Trump, it is undeniable that many Democrats will not do so unless they feel “enthusiastic” about the party’s nominee. We see some of the Democratic candidates driving such enthusiasm. Biden is not one of them.

VP Not Going to Save Biden

We often hear Biden supporters argue that as long as they add a Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, electoral victory is a lock because such a selection would effectively overcome Biden’s political liabilities—e.g., his age; his troublesome voting record in the Senate; his defense of arcane Senate rules; and his propensity to make gaffes (e.g., his cringe-worthy “Poor kids are just as bright as white kids.”). This is wishful thinking though. People vote for the top of the ticket. Moreover, if it takes a great VP selection to make someone electable, serious questions need to be raised regarding their underlying level of electability.

Conclusion

Even though I assess Biden to be among the least electable of the top and second-tier Democrats in this race, I concede my analysis may be wrong. All of us could be wrong. That is why I am urging all voters in the Democratic primary to simply vote for the person he or she believes would be the best president, and stop trying to base one’s vote on making a prediction of electability that no one can be sure of. Further, even if Biden had a 5% greater chance of beating Trump than your preferred candidate, is gaining that 5% edge worth giving up on a candidate you think would make a great president to gain a president you believe would be an adequate president? Probably not. As the cliché goes, vote your heart in the primary, and your head in the general. And whether you agree with my analysis, please vote.

 

 

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