Joe Biden Is a Placeholder Candidate for Democratic Voters

The first votes to be cast in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary are still almost a year away and only a handful of potential candidates have announced their intention to run. Over the next few months, it is likely that more will enter the race and, in the lead-up to the debates this summer, all of the candidates will fill in the missing pieces of their platforms. All of that means that Democratic voters have a lot to learn before it comes time to commit to a particular candidate.

None of that has stopped pollsters from attempting to tell us who is leading the pack. A recent poll by Emerson of potential Iowa caucus-goers is pretty indicative of what we’ve seen from national polls so far.

That is the kind of result that could encourage Joe Biden to enter the race. But a Washington Post/ABC News poll should provide a note of caution to both Biden and other contenders. Rather than give responders a list of names to chose from, they asked an open-ended question: “If the 2020 primary or caucus in your state were being held today, for whom would you vote?” Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 56 percent had no preference. For those who expressed a preference, no candidate even reached double digits.

A clear majority of Democratic voters haven’t made up their minds yet, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. When presented with evidence of that, most people assume that Biden’s lead in many polls is a matter of name recognition, which is probably true. But I think there’s more to it than that. During the 2016 primaries, most voters were asked to chose between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, so the latter is not an unknown quantity. But he still garners about half the level of support going to Biden.

That can provide us with some insight based on these early polls. I would suggest that Biden is a placeholder for respondents who are being asked to chose a candidate, but haven’t made up their minds yet. Rather than being an indication of support for his history as a senator or the platform he ran on in 1988 or 2008, it is very likely that it is his history as vice president that voters are responding to. Given that Obama left office with a 95 percent approval rating among Democrats, Biden’s support among primary voters makes sense.

If that assumption is correct, all we know at this point is that the Democratic field is pretty wide open for candidates to garner the support of voters who are naming Biden as their placeholder until they make up their minds. That bodes well for anyone who decides to claim Obama’s legacy and lays out a path to build on it.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.