Joe Biden has been campaigning like he’s already won the Democratic nomination.
In his first few forays in early-voting states, the former vice president has talked past his Democratic primary opponents and aimed squarely at the up-for-grabs voters in swing state communities about President Donald Trump.
“Folks, the fact is, we cannot let this administration win again in 2020,” he told cheering supporters on Tuesday in Henderson, Nevada. “We have to restore the American creed of decency honor and dignity, leaving no one behind, friendship.”
Implicit in the frontrunner’s message on economic fairness, workers’ rights and presidential temperament is an argument that he is the strongest Democrat to challenge Trump on his record. In fact, he’s been treating his first few weeks as a declared candidate doing just that, attempting to spark voters’ imaginations about how a Trump v. Biden general election looks like.
It’s rooted in a long-running argument, one that has vexed party insiders every four years: Can this person win?
More than anything else, Democrats want to defeat Trump. In polls of likely Democratic voters, that dominates everything else, including ideological purity. One poll, conducted by CNN after Biden joined the race, said 92% of Democrats said having the ability to beat Trump was very or extremely important, while roughly two-thirds ranked having progressive policies or being the future of the party mattered.
A separate poll from Quinnipiac University seemed to anoint Biden as the best suited to the task of making Trump a one-termer. In that survey, 56% of Democrats said Biden was strongest to defeat Trump, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came in second, with 12% of Democrats thinking he was capable of beating the President.
But there is a disconnect in these numbers. Even as more than half of Democrats saw Biden as the strongest, he drew only 38% support. In other words, a double-digit percentage of Democrats were willing to go with less of a sure thing rather than Biden.
Biden advisers are hardly coy about making electability and a return to pre-Trump politics central to their strategy. They are strategically trying to provoke Trump — “a clown,” Biden mused recently — and Trump has been taking the bait. Biden’s team is also betting that Obama-era nostalgia will set in among the Democratic electorate.
Rival Democrats aren’t exactly eager to start attacking a beloved party elder who served as a loyal lieutenant to the nation’s first black President. But they’re also starting to see risk in Biden running away with the nomination without any real pressure testing.
After all, Biden isn’t the only Democrat who stands strongly in a hypothetical head-to-head with Trump. Given the margin of sampling error inherent with polling, most of the Democrats are essentially tied with Trump and no one is a statistical slam dunk. In fact, CNN’s latest polling shows, Biden joins South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren running about even with Trump. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke are slightly ahead of Trump. Not one of them can be considered a definite leader over Trump. So Biden is not uniquely positioned in the polls to coast to a win.
Which is why Biden is trying to sand off some of Trump’s support. Biden’s message of unity and comity is one likely to assuage weary voters, but he’s also tossing a bone to those voters who sent Trump to Washington to send a message that business-as-usual wasn’t working.
“The political system is so broken,” Biden said Tuesday. “It’s so mean and it’s ugly that it’s difficult to get anything done.”
Trump, Biden said, is to blame. “The President has deliberately attempted to divide this nation and he’s decided to be President for his base. I’ll be President for all Americans,” Biden said to cheers.
It’s still very early in the process. The Iowa caucuses are 271 days away. And voters are still shopping. CNN’s poll indicated 23% of voters want to know more about Harris, 20% want to hear more about Warren and 17% want to see more Buttigieg. Nothing at this point is set. Activists are starting to separate candidates into buckets but are hardly ready to pick just one.
The debates, which start at the end of June, could change all of that. And there’s warning in the example of then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had a meltdown during a 2012 campaign debate. He was seen as the strongest challenger to defeat Barack Obama in polls that fall. Then, he had his “oops” moment and support vanished. The same could happen with any number of mini-meltdowns or stumbles. Voters, after all, a fickle lot.
Still, with Biden so firmly planted atop the pack, and with voters so explicitly looking for someone to beat Trump, and with Biden seemingly the favorite, it’s worth remembering that it comes with a giant target on his back. Democratic rivals will need to erode that lead, and it could get messy. One only need remember Biden’s love of improvising his responses to voters, his long legislative record and even the number of voters who say he’s best positioned to beat Trump and yet still aren’t with him. His support may not be cemented just yet, but rival Democrats are risking a lot by hoping Biden gaffes his way from his advantages.