At any rate, the “scared” pitch refers to the “electability” argument that posits Biden is a safer choice to beat President Trump so voters should go with him.
How voters decided on this definition of electability in large part is due to the mainstream media that has obsessed on “winning back the white working class” and has insisted the road to the White House runs through the upper Midwest. It ignores the crucial role of suburban women, the need to turn out the African American base and college-educated voters. (If electability is defined in that sense, a Warren-Kamala Harris ticket or Warren-Stacey Abrams might be ideal.)
Unfortunately, once that storyline is set -- America won’t vote for women as readily as men (as if the 2018 election never occurred) and won’t support a non-white candidate as readily as a white candidate (2008, anyone?) -- it becomes very hard to beat down. Voters’ belief in flawed political analysis drives poll numbers, which in turn confirms their theory of electability.
In the RealClearPolitics average, Biden leads Trump by nearly 12 points. He is consistently outside the margin of error. Other candidates lead Trump as well but not by as big a margin. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is generally out of the margin of error (he leads by nearly seven points in the RCP averages) while Warren, Harris and Pete Buttigieg lead by single digits. Voters concerned about electability seize on the polls numbers. See, Biden is the most electable! This information loop built on a shaky premise will likely continue until new information -- actual primary returns -- comes into the picture.
Given all that, Warren’s plea not to be “scared” gets to the nub of the problem. Democrats understandably think Trump is an existential threat to our democracy, to immigrants, to civil rights and to everything else they hold dear. It is very hard to get them to make a choice that makes it just a little bit more likely Trump would get four more years. The risk of losing is so great that many voters (operating on the conventional wisdom) will take a safer candidate.
There is even a psychological explanation and well-accepted principle in behavioral economics: Loss aversion. A paper for Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania explained:
The psychology and economics literature suggests that legislators face an uphill battle when proposing legislation that has both costs and benefits due to the power of loss aversion, a cognitive bias that causes individuals to dramatically overweight losses relative to gains. ... Because losses loom larger than gains psychologically, policies that would create net benefits for society but would also involve costs may frequently be defeated.
The same is true of candidates. Fear of loss to an awful opponent outweighs the potential gain with a candidate you might like better.
This doesn’t mean Biden will inevitably win because of loss aversion. However, it’s probably not a good idea for Warren to talk about voters being “scared.” That’s a little like the “don’t think about pink elephants.” Voters (not her devoted base but others she needs to win over) are scared, and loss aversion tells us that when people are scared, they will overweigh losses relative to gains. Bringing up the very basis for loss aversion (fear!) seems unwise.
By contrast, Jill Biden, an educator who might know a thing or two about psychology, laid out a perfect argument to demonstrate loss aversion. “You know you may like another candidate better but you have to look at who’s going to win,” she said at a New Hampshire campaign event in August. "Joe is that person.”
Warren might do better making the case that she is just as electable if not more so than Biden. Painting Biden as risky -- because of age or proclivity to ramble or whatever -- and herself as the one to run rings around Trump might be a better bet. Alternatively, she can wait around for a meltdown moment when Biden demonstrates how risky he really is. Either way, she shouldn’t knock “scared"; it’s real and a powerful motivator.