Does Joe Biden Have a Chance?

Democrats like him. But he’d likely command only factional support – and not a winning coalition.

Probably a long shot.   Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Former Vice President Joe Biden has been running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for a while – that is, he’s been doing things that presidential candidates do – but he’s now being pressed to make a more formal declaration. Biden claims that his interest is based on electability, that no one else out there is as capable of beating President Donald Trump. And it’s certainly true, as Nate Silver points out, that plenty of Democrats say they consider electability a top attribute in a nominee.

But I’m doubly skeptical.

On the one hand, political-science research has generally shown that candidates aren’t very important in presidential elections, especially out-party candidates facing an incumbent. Party is by far the most important factor in determining voter choice, followed by attitudes about the sitting president, the state of the economy and other current conditions. The challenger candidate isn’t entirely irrelevant: Selecting someone far from the ideological mainstream was probably costly for Republicans in 1964 and Democrats in 1972. And there’s evidence that moderation helps even during this era of partisan polarization. Overall, though, there’s just not much difference between most of the plausible nominees.

At the same time, I strongly suspect that electability isn’t really a major factor for most voters. Instead, candidates that they prefer for other reasons will likely seem more electable to them. Just as voters often claim to support the person and not the party, but inevitably wind up liking the person from the same party almost every time, they may justify supporting a candidate in a nomination contest for reasons other than demographic characteristics or the recommendations of well-known party actors.

At any rate, I’m still not very impressed with Biden’s chances. The New York Times says that he would “instantly be the early front-runner,” but doesn’t give many reasons to believe it. It’s true that Biden’s two previous presidential campaigns, in which he failed to win any support at all, preceded his terms as vice president, so they can’t entirely be held against his prospects now. Walter Mondale was a far stronger candidate in 1984 than he had been in 1976. But Biden’s on-again, off-again candidacy in 2016 was hardly met with a flood of support before he called it off for good. And in 2020 he’d be at best the leader of a moderate faction rather than of a broad coalition. In fact, it’s hard to see anyone but moderate candidates – maybe only moderate white-male candidates – who would drop out if Biden moved forward. And that’s a pretty good indication that he’s no overwhelming favorite.

As for his poll numbers: It’s important to read those carefully. Biden’s strong-looking performance so far is almost certainly based on name recognition. Sure, most Democrats like him. But by the time each state votes, the main contenders will have caught up in name recognition and they’ll be well-liked too. (That’s because most Democratic voters like most Democratic politicians, just as Trump’s high ratings with Republicans are largely because Republican voters like most Republican politicians.)

Could Biden win? Certainly. But my hunch is that Democrats are looking for someone within the party mainstream who has conventional qualifications – and someone no older than Senator Elizabeth Warren, who will be 71 by next November. Biden is already 76. My guess is that he isn’t one of the five likeliest nominees, and I’m not really sure he’s among the top 10.

1. Alice Hunt Friend at the Monkey Cage on Trump, Syria and civilian control of the military.

2. David Leonhardt has a first-rate summary of the case for removing Trump. I think he’s correct that a lot of Republicans in Congress believe Trump is unfit for office. But there’s a difference between believing that and thinking he should be removed.

3. Ed Kilgore, meanwhile, makes the case that Republicans won’t ever remove him.

4. Jennifer Bendery spoke with Native American leaders about Warren’s DNA test.

5. And Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks with a style report on the first day of the 116th Congress.

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