Can Biden Carry Obama’s Flag to the Finish?

Over the weekend, I wrote that Joe Biden has developed a smart strategy and will be branding himself as the representative of the Obama coalition. He will attempt to convince people that he’d essentially be a third-term for Barack Obama. If he’s successful in this effort, he should benefit from the huge field of alternative candidates who are promising change rather than restoration. He doesn’t need to cobble together a majority to win the nomination, or even a particularly large plurality—he just needs to get the most delegates in the primaries and caucuses or become the consensus pick in any brokered convention.

When I was writing about this, I was thinking almost exclusively about Democratic voters, but most states allow non-party members to participate in the nominating process. Some other states allow same-day party re-registration, which means people can walk into the polls and become Democrats for a day. Biden’s strategy seems well-suited for winning over a lot of these voters, too.

To see what I mean, look at the recent focus group of Ohio swing voters that was done by Engagious/Focus Pointe Global:

The group included 12 swing voters, half of whom voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and then flipped to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and half of whom went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

– Five of the six Obama/Trump voters would pick Obama if he could run again in 2020. Among the reasons: Obama is “more of a diplomatic person,” as one participant put it; another said he’s “more intellectual.”

– Another common refrain: “I think this country needs a sense of calmness,” said Brenda R., a 62-year-old Obama/Trump voter.

Yes, I know that this is a sample of twelve people, so all caveats about sample size certainly apply here. Still, we can see a sentiment among Obama/Trump voters that could easily benefit Biden. One of these voters, a 24 year-old Trump-voter named Christopher DiRando, said “I will definitely not vote for Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren; I just want to see a level-headed, competent person.” He’s clearly not looking for an economic populist or doctrinaire liberal, but he’s eager to vote Trump out if the alternative doesn’t seem even more threatening. Representatives of both the Romney/Clinton and the Obama/Trump camps had negative things to say about Trump’s honesty and integrity and compared him unfavorably with Obama. They’re looking for someone authentic, honest, and “transparent.” It’s hard to find a politician in American more transparent than Joe Biden.

For Biden’s strategy to work, he’ll need to hold onto a large chunk of Obama’s strongest supporters. The black vote in the South is going to be very important in many early contests, including South Carolina. If Biden carries their vote, he’ll be in a good position. Soft Democrats, independents, and disaffected Trump voters could make up a swing vote in states like New Hampshire, and if they gravitate to Biden over a splintered field of candidates who are competing to be the most liberal, it could be enough for him to pull off a victory.

I see three main vulnerabilities to Biden’s strategy. The first is that it’s backward-looking in emphasis, and it’s unlikely to be a compelling argument to the majority of Democratic voters.  If the nomination were decided strictly on change versus restoration, I’d bet on change winning.  The second weakness is related to the first. His strategy probably depends on a very slow winnowing of the field so he can pile up delegates for a long time with small/medium-sized pluralities before having to compete in a three or two-person field. The final threat for Biden is that someone else will do a better job of satisfying this yearning for non-ideological decency and normalcy. The number one complaint I hear about Biden is that he’s too old, and perhaps much younger candidates like Pete Buttigieg or Beto O’Rourke can fill that need without the same amount of baggage.  It’s also possible that Biden will simply fail to hold Obama’s strongest supporters if they find someone who seems like a better bearer of the flame.

The day Biden announces his candidacy, he’ll probably still be leading in the polls. He’s not going to be easy to dislodge from that position so long as there are so many alternatives vying for attention and beating each other up.  If the race ever comes down to a one-on-one contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, that will be really fascinating to watch. It’s almost impossible to believe that a majority of Democrats would choose a non-party member to lead them over a popular former vice-president.  But it could happen, especially if Sanders can win more of the soft Democrat/independent vote.

If Biden finds himself in a one-on-one contest with one of the female candidates, that would also be very compelling. Democrat voters seem anguished on gender right now—simultaneously hungry for a woman to redeem Clinton’s loss and unconvinced that any woman would fare better than she did against Trump. I hear this ambivalence expressed every single time I discuss the election with casual Democrats. Joe Biden very much comes from a pre-#MeToo generation and the contrast between him and Kirsten Gillibrand or Kamala Harris would be striking. The lower the Democrats’ tolerance for perceived risk, the better Biden would do.  The choice would split households nationwide and create some very raw emotions for the losers.

Biden has many flaws and weaknesses as a candidate, but he’s carrying Obama’s flag now and that means the others must do one of two things. They either have to capture that flag for themselves or they have to convince the voters that they shouldn’t care about that old flag because they now have a more exciting cause to follow.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com