If there’s one thing we learned from the 2016 election, it’s that none of the old rules seemed to apply, which is why nearly everyone (me included) got the election so wrong.
And yet, here’s an old rule for you that I’m pretty sure still applies: Joe Biden’s breakout national polls following his announcement, in which he’s seen crushing runner-up Bernie Sanders and everyone else in the field, probably means both more and less than you might think.
My guess is that much of Biden’s early appeal — which comes in spite of the return of the Anita Hill story and of the Biden handsiness issue — is about the chance for a do-over, a mulligan, an opportunity to replay the 2016 election but without Hillary Clinton’s (however much was unearned) baggage. Was Biden the real Obama heir apparent, which Obama and most other Democrats seemed to have missed? Biden thinks so. And just watch his opening ad — it’s not an Obama endorsement, but it might as well be — in which he couldn’t make the connection more clearly.
But with 20 Democrats in the race and a recovered Michael Bennet set to make it 21, that’s a lot of people who don’t seem to think Biden will hold up. Nate Silver says history (or at least the historical data) shows that well-known candidates who are polling in the mid-30s at this stage of the race have about a 50-50 chance of winning the primary. So, Biden is clearly the front-runner, but I’m not counting too much on history at this point. The field is not just fluid, it’s a flood plain, and I doubt if many people are ready to bet Biden vs. the field.
In this field, you’ve got new, you’ve got old, you’ve got gender diversity, you’ve got racial diversity, you’ve got LGBTQ diversity, you’ve got so much on offer that we need to at least go through a couple of debates before we put too much stock in anything. Biden is not leading on the issues. He’s leading because people think he can win. If his campaign doesn’t reflect that — and we know about his first two shots at the presidency — Biden will falter.
Amy Walter, of the Cook Political Report, has a very smart take on the Democratic race to this point, which I’d take a few steps farther. She says we are seeing those in the Restoration movement — led by Biden, and including most of the other candidates — cast against the Revolutionaries, of which you can count Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the leaders.
If it comes down to restoration vs. revolution — and it might very well — restoration can mean many different things. Biden’s restoration doesn’t seem to have much in common with Beto’s or Mayor Pete’s or Kamala Harris’s or any of the New, or at least newly introduced, Democrats. Biden wants us to take us back to the day before Trump was elected, but restoration can also mean restoring the Kennedy-Bill- Clinton-Obama take that running as a young forward-looking candidate is how Democrats are elected president. I remember when Biden tried that.
The most important concern for most Democrats, independents or any kind of anti-Trumpist is not so much ideology, but that Trump be removed, whether by impeachment or by a good old-fashioned election. For Biden, it’s about Pennsylvania (where he was born), Michigan and Wisconsin, and winning back the white working class vote by challenging Trump’s faux populism. If 2016 is the guide, he’d need about 80,000 of them in those three states, which all went Republican. Trump is clearly worried about Biden’s appeal there, which is why Biden is suddenly playing a key role on the Trump twitter roll.
We saw when Trump was worried about Warren and how he hurt her with the Pocahontas taunts and how, in what was considered to be a large mistake, she took the bait and released a DNA test to show that she had some, if very little, Indian blood. It looked desperate, and her numbers have taken a long while to start moving up again. Now we see that Trump is worried about Biden, whom he calls Sleepy Joe. Whatever else you can say about Biden, he’s not sleepy, but here’s Trump when asked about what age is too old to be president, saying, “I’m the youngest person. I am a young, vibrant man. I look at Joe — I don’t know about him. I don’t know.” Yes, the youngest.
But when Biden opened his campaign by slamming Trump on his very-fine-people-on-both-sides quote from Charlottesville, he basically called out Trump for speaking well of neo-Nazis. This time Trump took the bait, and tried some Trumpian revisionism by saying the very fine people — many of whom were chanting “Jews will not replace us” — referred to those wanting to save the statue of Robert E. Lee, the very fine general who turned against his country in its great time of need. If Biden can take on Trump in this way, he’d be the first politician to master it.
That Trump is worried is a great selling point for Biden. But Biden is old — as a fellow old person, I don’t mean this pejoratively; I just mean he’s old, and if he served eight years, he’d be 86. (No, he shouldn’t promise one term. That would just give Trump the chance to conclude that Biden must be near death.) And Biden is a gaffe machine, as even he would admit. He’s also a moderate traditional liberal who’s on the other side of a lot of the issues (Medicare for All, the New Green Deal, etc.) that are energizing Democrats, particularly young Democrats. He has decades of votes on a list of issues, from banking to criminal justice, that he’ll have to explain.
And while the polling shows Biden doing extremely well among African-Americans, particularly African-American women, it should be noted that in 2008, Hillary Clinton was leading Barack Obama in South Carolina until Obama proved that he was legitimate contender and overwhelmingly won the black vote there. You can look for Kamala Harris and Cory Booker to take some heart in that.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I’m not surprised Biden is leading in the polls, but I am surprised by how convincingly he’s leading. Given where the Democratic Party seems to be moving, it doesn’t make sense to me. But then I remind myself that we’re more than two years into the Trump presidency. At this point, why should anything make sense?