It is a view that is not shared by those who are incredulous that the former vice president, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are atop the polls in the most diverse field of candidates in the nation’s history, a field that includes five women.
Biden, 76, who formally launched his campaign this week, is the front-runner not because he is a white man, his fans say, but because he has the experience and name recognition to take on the president.
It is also true, some observers say, that Biden was able to gain that experience and name recognition because he is a white man.
Democratic voters have told pollsters that the most important quality for their party’s nominee in 2020 is “electability.” Some are willing to compromise on some of their personal demands if it means denying Trump a second term. But among the diverse groups that make up the Democratic Party, there is disagreement about what constitutes that electability.
“The wide array of Democratic presidential candidates suggests there is no party consensus on what a coalition that can beat Trump looks like,” said Ted Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Is it filled with white working-class Obama-Trump voters? Does it try to win over moderate or conservative-leaning white women who may be especially turned off by the president’s rhetoric? Or does it hinge on mobilizing more voters of color, especially black voters and the growing Hispanic electorate?”
That the face of electability for some voters is a white man has to do with how the news media and pundits have portrayed the candidates, some activists and political scientists say. Biden and Sanders are atop the polls because they have higher name recognition than the other 18 Democratic candidates, said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the school's Eagleton Institute of Politics.
“I still think that white-male privilege is a stubborn thing, so it does persist, and it persists especially at the presidential level because this is the level of office in which we’ve seen so little diversity among both candidates and officeholders,” Dittmar said. “So, when we think about what is expected in our candidates and what is perceived as viable, it is certainly attached to the prevailing images and ideas about who can be president.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a political education and mobilization group focused on the South, said even many women and people of color can get caught up in that way of thinking. “We underestimate how deeply embedded racism and patriarchy is in America and particularly in the political discourse,” Brown said. “So, regardless of how progressive-leaning we are on policy, we see over and over again that we think of political leadership in this very narrow context of white males. . . . Consciously and unconsciously we go back to that default position.”
Dittmar and Johnson also suspect that some voters, including women and people of color, have concluded that a white male candidate like Biden is electable because that’s the only type of Democratic nominee who would be palatable to certain white male voters.
“The strong showing of high-name recognition, white male candidates suggests that many believe a white male candidate avoids the race and gender pitfalls that pushed some voters toward Trump, and that such a candidate will also be more appealing to working-class and moderate/conservative-leaning white voters disenchanted with the president’s behavior,” Johnson said.
Dittmar said Hillary Clinton proved a woman can get the majority of votes in a presidential contest — even if she didn't win the electoral college. So what do people really mean when they express doubts about a woman's electability?
“When you say, ‘I’m concerned a woman can’t win,’ this is overemphasizing the group of voters we emphasize a whole lot — white, working-class, middle-class men. If you believe that is the group that made the difference in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere in 2016, then perhaps that’s what you’re really saying: ‘I’m not sure that those guys will support a woman or a person of color or a woman of color.’”
White men make up about 30 percent of the population. Dittmar said the question should be: “Is that the group that we actually should care the most about, when in fact many of these [other] candidates could potentially pull from and energize entirely other groups of voters who may not be mobilized by having an older white male on the ticket?”
That is not to say that Democratic candidates should ignore those voters, “but you also can’t only message to them and rule out candidates because of your fear that those voters won’t understand or respect or ultimately vote for them. Doing that is not only insulting to those voters [because] it assumes that they’re sexist or racist . . . It’s also unfair to candidates because it assumes they can’t empathize and engage voters who don’t’ share their gender or racial identities.”
Dittmar said the diverse field of Democratic candidates is an opportunity for voters to ask whether white men “are best to mobilize all voters. It raises important point about the standard to which we hold white male candidates versus candidates who are not white and male.”
She added: “The more we talk about it, the more freedom voters may feel in choosing the candidate that they think is best, instead of the candidate they’ve been told is most likely to win.”