People listen to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speak at the Hyatt Park community center May 4 in Columbia, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Former vice president Joe Biden is embracing his role as the leading moderate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field. He has at times adopted an almost curmudgeonly tone about his opponents’ embrace of more progressive policies, preferring a nostalgia for the way things were back in the good old days of, say, 2015.

It’s an approach that, at first, seems at odds with where the party is going. We’ve noted previously that Democrats are increasingly likely to identify themselves as liberals, a trend that probably helps explain why so many of the 2020 candidates have embraced progressive positions — and why more progressive candidates have entered the race.

Polling, though, suggests that this may not be a foolproof strategy. For one thing, a crowd of more progressive candidates (an admittedly nebulous designation) will compete for the same voters, freeing Biden to vacuum up support from moderates. But polling also shows that Democrats overall aren’t necessarily prioritizing a candidate who espouses progressive policies. The data below are from a recent CNN-SSRS poll: More Democrats think it’s important for a nominee to work with Republicans than to support liberal policies.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

While the party is growing more liberal, there are still a lot of self-identified moderates — and even some conservatives — in the mix. Data from the biannual General Social Survey shows how Democrats have identified themselves over time. In 2018, more than 55 percent said they were at least to some extent liberal.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

But that shift hasn’t been uniformly distributed throughout the party. White Democrats are much more likely than Democrats overall to say that they are liberal, including nearly half who say they’re more than slightly liberal. Even just since 2016, there’s been a big increase in the number of white Democrats embracing that label.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

There’s also been an increase in the number of black Democrats who identify as liberal — but more than half of black Democrats identify as moderate or conservative.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

The difference in the change by race is dramatic. White Democrats are 32 points more likely to identify as liberal than in 2000. Among black Democrats, the increase was only 10 points.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Data for Hispanic Democrats is patchier, given the sample sizes of the survey, but among that group, views are even more centrist.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

It’s important to remember what happened in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) essentially tied in Iowa, and Sanders won easily in New Hampshire. But Clinton crushed Sanders in South Carolina, and ended up dominating him throughout the South. Why? In large part because of black support. There was an easily discernible correlation between the density of the black vote and support for Clinton as the primaries progressed.

The chart below is from early March 2016, shortly before Clinton had essentially locked up the nomination.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Part of that support was a function of Clinton’s outreach to black voters. But at the same time, Clinton was also generally winning more support from moderates while Sanders was winning more support from liberals.

As in 2016, most of the states in the South will vote on super Tuesday in early March. If Biden re-creates Clinton’s success there (by re-creating, to some extent, her sales pitch), he will be exceptionally well-positioned moving forward. After all, Clinton only had one opponent at that point and Biden has, as of writing, 20.

One should never underestimate Biden’s ability to get in his own way, but blazing a path to the nomination by espousing more moderate positions and holding strong support from nonwhite voters seems more than viable.