Biden is expected to embrace a particular position within the overflowing Democratic primary field — that of the experienced guy who is more than happy to let others battle for the party’s far-left flank. In a party that elected a historic number of women to Congress last year and whose House caucus is heavily nonwhite, Biden is, unavoidably, an older white man.
Polling at this point suggests in the abstract that this position isn’t a hindrance to support. A Monmouth University poll released this week shows Biden with more support than any of the other candidates in the race, at least nationally. (Only candidates earning more than 1 percent support in either of Monmouth’s past two polls are shown below.)
It’s worth asking, though, how sustainable that support is for Biden. How well might we expect Biden to fare over the long term?
The Monmouth poll data reinforce the idea that Biden is the beneficiary of robust support from more moderate Democrats. Seventeen percent of liberals identify him as their first choice, a bit less than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But more than a third of moderates pick Biden — twice the support Sanders gets.
Gallup polling shows that there are still a lot of moderates in the Democratic Party. Last year, about a third of the party identified as moderate. But over the past 20 years, the number of self-identified liberals has climbed steadily.
When Biden was first chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, there were about as many liberal Democrats as moderate ones. Now, more than half the party identifies as liberal.
More problematically, Democratic primary voters are more likely to identify as liberal than members of the party are overall. In 2016, about 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters (a group that includes some independents) identified as liberal, according to an average of state exit polls, with a quarter identifying as “very liberal.” Only 48 percent of Democrats overall identified that same way.
In 2008, there was a similar gap: Primary voters were about nine points more likely to identify as liberal than party members overall.
White Democrats are more likely to identify as liberal than nonwhite Democrats. In Gallup’s ideology data released in January, 51 percent of Democrats identified as liberal while only about 3 in 10 black or Hispanic respondents (overall) did.
In Monmouth’s poll, Biden does slightly better with white voters than nonwhite ones. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg do much better with white voters than nonwhite Democrats, while Sanders does better with nonwhite voters.
That, we’ll note, appears to be a function of Buttigieg eating into Sanders’s support with white voters.
The views of nonwhite Democrats are increasingly important in a party that’s increasingly nonwhite. Pew Research estimated in 2017 that about 59 percent of Democratic registered voters were non-Hispanic whites. Data from the General Social Survey, a biannual national poll, suggests that those who identify as Democrats are more likely to be nonwhite than white.
Since white Democrats are more likely to identify as liberal, it’s probably not surprising that white voters, like liberals overall, also made up more of the Democratic primary electorate in 2008 and 2016 than General Social Survey data might suggest.
The Biden campaign’s Spanish-language ad targeted a specific and growing part of the Democratic electorate, but one that may have made up less of the primary electorate in 2016 than one might expect. (Exit polling data on race, we’ll note, is often worth taking with a grain of salt.) It does, however, have the ancillary benefit of making a point to other Democrats about the importance of Hispanic voters and their issues.
Biden’s path forward is bumpier than his early lead would suggest. If he continues to fare better with white voters than nonwhite voters and those white voters prefer more liberal candidates, that’s not ideal. In three of the first four primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — the electorate in 2016 was less heavily moderate than the national average. (The exception was South Carolina, which has a much larger black population than the other states.)
On the other hand, owing the support of moderates without much competition may be advantageous. It could light the path that worked for President Trump three years ago: Draw a solid number of votes in a massive field and cruise to a few plurality-vote victories that then create a sense of inevitability. Given Biden’s history and ties to the establishment, this is by no means a nonviable strategy.