When Joe Biden first entered the presidential race, he was supposed to be a Jeb Bush redux — a relic of a bygone era who would quickly be swept away by candidates who appealed to the party’s insurgent wing. But so far that hasn’t happened — instead Biden enjoyed a solid post-announcement bounce in the polls and now leads his closest competitor, Bernie Sanders, by double digits. That prompted some to make the opposite case, and Biden became Hillary Clinton — an establishment-backed, well-resourced, Barack Obama-affiliated, lifetime Democrat fighting against the progressives.
But Biden isn’t either of these politicians. He’s not nearly as dominant as Clinton, who scared off almost all of her competitors in 2016. So far, Biden’s candidacy has failed to intimidate even Eric Swalwell. Unlike Bush, Biden is arguably more in step with contemporary Democrats, both on substance and style, than Bush was. Instead, Biden is more like Mitt Romney: a poll leader and plausible nominee who seems acceptable to the party establishment but faces some big obstacles in his quest for the nomination.
You could talk about Scranton Joe and Super CEO Mitt Romney at the beginning of their most recent presidential runs as if they were the same man.
Like Romney, Biden is the closest thing to a next-in-line candidate that the party has. He is aiming to run against seemingly vulnerable first-term president whose party lost badly in its first midterm. He changed some of his positions to more closely align with the center of his party (this might run against Romney’s reputation as a Massachusetts moderate, but by 2012 he had shifted a number of positions, and Republican primary voters saw him as ideologically similar to them per YouGov). One core pitch for his candidacy is his electability. He hasn’t started out with full establishment support, but he is acceptable to the party elders. He is leading his opponents in the polls, but he doesn’t have enough support to be a genuinely strong favorite.
And Biden has some of the same vulnerabilities as Romney. During the 2012 election season, Romney suffered through a series of surges by ultimately unsuccessful candidates — Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Herman Cain all led in the national polls at various points. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented in “Game Change,” these long-shot candidates followed a “discovery, scrutiny, decline” process in which the media discovered a previously unknown candidate through a strong debate performance, speech or event; voters learned about that candidate and began to support them; and they floundered when the media started digging into their pasts, as they did with the sexual misconduct allegations against Herman Cain, and when other candidates started attacking them in ads and debates.
It’s not hard to imagine the same thing happening to Biden when the campaign really gets underway. So far, Biden’s opponents haven’t had many chances to really upset the apple cart — there have been no debates or primary contests, and Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate who has been able to leverage his CNN town hall into a polling bump. But debates, confabs with party leaders, actual contests and more televised interactions with voters are all coming down the pike. Each of these events represents a chance for a lesser-known candidate to break through and either take the lead or at least loosen Biden’s grip on it.
And if one of Biden’s opponents does surge, it could spell real trouble for him. Biden, unlike Romney, is competing with a dozen plausible presidential candidates. Both Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke can run in Biden’s still-liberal-but-not-socialist ideological lane and back up their own “electability” claim using the 2018 election results. Both could strike a contrast with Biden on age (Americans say they’re uncomfortable with very old presidential candidates), and Klobuchar could claim that she has enough experience to run the country. Cory Booker and Kamala D. Harris both clearly want to compete for the African American vote, which has been a big part of Biden’s base up to this point.
And other candidates might try to win by going around the Biden bloc rather than through it. Elizabeth Warren, Sanders or Harris might start out by consolidating the 33 percent of voters who genuinely liked Sanders in 2016 and build from there. Romney didn’t have a lot of credible competition in 2012, but Biden does now. And that’s a big threat.
That being said, Biden has some advantages that Romney didn’t. In late 2011, Romney was reasonably well-liked by likely GOP primary voters. About two-thirds rated him favorably according to YouGov, which was better than any of his opponents. But those numbers aren’t quite as strong as a 74 percent favorable rating among the broader group of Democrats and Democratic-leaners. And Romney’s Republican Party might have been more flighty and discontented than the modern Democrats, who have a deeper, more experienced presidential field than the Republicans of eight years ago. In 2011, only 44 percent of Republicans rated the primary field as “excellent” or “good,” which was low by historical standards. So it’s possible that the Democrats of 2020 won’t feel the need to continue shopping around after the early states vote, and that Biden’s solid reputation and strategy will carry him through.
But Romney’s experience carries a clear message for Biden: There’s a difference between being a poll leader and a dominant candidate. Romney started out with a polling lead, a clear case for why he should be nominated based on his conservative bona fides, his perceived electability and his demonstrated competence. But he faced a very bumpy road and had some really closer-than-many-like-to-remember calls with Gingrich and Santorum. The polls suggest that Biden is starting out in a significantly stronger position than Romney. But his competition is tougher. And if Biden’s opponents play their cards right, they could shake up this primary sooner than anyone expects.