This morning the talk of the internet is Joe Biden’s performance
in the Democratic primary debate last night. After Kamala Harris viciously
attacked Biden (see
the clip here) over his failure to support forced busing, a 1970s era
issue, many pundits are saying that the former vice president is down for the
count. I’m not so sure.
Biden definitely took some hard hits in the debate, but that
doesn’t necessarily translate into lost support. The real question is what
Democratic voters want in a candidate. That question is one that most observers
have been wrong on so far in the campaign.
The fact is that most observers and progressive Tweeters have
been predicting Biden’s demise since before he even launched his campaign. The
premise was that Joe Biden was gaffe-prone and not radical enough for the modern
Democratic Party. That was before Biden jumped into the race and took a consistent
double-digit polling lead after pulling in an impressive $6.3
million in donations in his first 24 hours. For two months, the naysayers
have been proven wrong.
The problem seems to be in the assumption that radical leftist
Twitter represents the Democratic Party as a whole. While there is definitely a
very radical Democrat left wing, polling so far suggests that it may not be as large
as many observers have assumed. This is particularly true after two years of
Donald Trump’s Administration has pushed many moderate and conservative voters
toward the Democrats.
A number of polls over the past few months have lent
credence to the idea that many Democratic voters are moderates. In March, an NBC/Wall
St. Journal poll found that 54 percent of Democrats considered themselves
as moderate or conservative. A Real
Clear Politics poll from the same month showed that 38 percent of Democrats
rated themselves in the middle. In April, a CNN poll also found that 54 percent of Democrats were moderate or conservative, up
from 47 percent in 2018.
Polls can be easily dismissed, but election results are
something else entirely. National
exit polls from the 2018 midterms showed that Democrats won 62 percent of
moderates and a whopping 16 percent of conservatives. By way of comparison,
Democrats won only 52 percent of moderates in 2016 but maintained
the 16 percent share of conservatives.
Polling also shows that most Democrats don’t favor a radical
nominee. A Fox
News poll from June found that more than 70 percent of Democrats want a unifying
candidate over one who will fight the right-wing. Likewise, more than 70
percent want “steady, reliable leadership” rather than “a bold, new agenda.”
Another June poll from USC
Dornsife/Los Angeles Times revealed that more than half of Democrats
believed that a white, male candidate would stand the best chance of defeating
Donald Trump. Voters in the poll thought that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were
most likely to beat Trump.
As I’ve predicted for months, Joe Biden is benefitting from
being the only first-tier candidate in the moderate lane of Democratic primary.
If about half of Democrats are conservative or moderate, then Biden has been
getting support from about 80-90 percent of this wing of the party. The remainder
is split between candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Andrew
Yang, and John Delaney, who are each polling at five percent or less.
Meanwhile, a number of top-tier candidates are vying for a
share of the half of the party that is liberal. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris,
Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg collectively poll at about 50 percent, but
when that wing of the party is split four ways they each run a distant second
to Joe Biden.
The big question from the debate is whether Joe Biden’s
debate performance will sour moderates and conservatives on his candidacy and,
if so, where they will go. It is difficult to imagine conservative Democrats
rallying behind any of the other top four candidates due to their radical
A CNN poll from May asked Democratic voters about their second choice candidates.
Biden was the top second choice followed by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders,
and Kamala Harris. Buttigieg finished a distant fifth in this survey.
Further, Biden’s debate performance was not as disastrous as
many observers would have you believe. Aside from the exchange with Harris,
Biden was largely stable and avoided making serious gaffes. His calm demeanor
may be what many voters are looking for as the antithesis to Donald Trump’s
Despite attacks on Biden’s racial record from 40 years ago,
he has also been the frontrunner among black Democrats. Polling has put Biden’s
support among blacks even higher than his support from the Democratic Party as
a whole, approaching 50
percent even with minority candidates in the race.
In fact, Biden’s pitch last night was that he was running as
a third term for Barack Obama. While President Obama has never been popular
with Republicans and has lost favor with Democrats, Obama is still popular with
moderates, boasting a 56
percent positive rating. The appeal of his past association with Obama is
especially strong for black voters and Millennials.
Given the mathematics of the Democratic primary, I seriously
doubt that the debate will erode his frontrunner status. There are simply too
many moderate voters in the Democratic Party who are being ignored by the other
top candidates. If you are a moderate Democrat, the calls from the other top
candidates to abolish private health
taxes, and take away guns may not be very appealing.
At the same time, Biden does need to put on his game face
and prepare for his next encounter. If he cannot convince voters that he can go
toe-to-toe with Donald Trump then his supporters may leave him for candidates
that they see as more electable. The former vice president is not done yet, but
he needs to show voters that he is still “Scrappy Joe” and not “Sleepy Joe.”