The media put emphasis on moments — a debate, a gaffe — which those following the race sporadically wave off as noise. Lifelong Democratic voters don’t need to listen to the media; they know who Biden is. (Warning to President Trump: Voters have deep affection for Biden and deep animosity toward the president, so attacking Biden in personal terms may well backfire spectacularly.)
The media should be looking not at “How in the world could voters stick with Biden?” but rather, “What does he have that the others don’t?” Let’s try to answer the latter.
Biden shows reverence for the most popular Democrat around, former president Barack Obama; others find fault in everything from the Affordable Care Act to immigration policy. Biden does not bombard voters with a torrent of multi-part plans; he gives them a few basic positions and defends them. Biden does not campaign from the neck up; he campaigns with his heart on his sleeve. Biden is deeply optimistic; his opponents think Americans are the problem, not Trump. (I don’t suggest that his opponents are wrong, merely that their stance apparently isn’t as popular as they thought.) Biden wants normalcy plus reform; his opponents want a peaceful revolution. Biden knows people want to be heard and seen; his opponents (with the exception of Sen. Kamala D. Harris) don’t fully grasp this. They want to “help," to pepper people with ideas and a to-do list, while Biden takes the time to listen to them. (Think of the well-meaning friend who has a thousand suggestions when you are grieving and you’d rather they just shut up and commiserate.)
This is the grouchy-white-guy-in-the-diner problem all over again. Reporters are blinded by their own age, background, education and geography. Instead of going to West Virginia diners to find the Trump voter, reporters should go talk to the residents of The Villages in Florida, the African American churchgoing ladies and the buttoned-down professionals in the affluent suburbs (the Romney-Clinton voters). These people have endured a noisy, offensive and intrusive presence in the White House. They don’t necessarily want a different noisy, intrusive presence — even one they agree with on substance.
Part of the “mystery” of Biden’s appeal would be solved if the moderators flipped their questions, as one smart Democrat not in the Biden camp put it. Instead of asking Biden or another moderate, “Why aren’t you going with the big, bold idea of Medicare-for-all?,” the moderators might consider asking Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), “Why blow up Obamacare, and why don’t you trust people to choose Medicare if given the option?” Instead of assuming that extreme proposals are the standard, requiring the moderates to explain why they are such wet blankets, the moderators should press the super-progressives on questions such as: What makes you think that voters want to go through another health-care makeover? Why should poorer people pay for richer people’s health care or subsidize their college debt?
Better yet, ask the candidates to relate the personal story from a voter who moved them the most, or the last voter whose phone number they took so that the candidate could call later, or the most insightful thing they have heard from a voter. It might reveal who is talking at voters and who is listening to them.