How the Political Class Underestimated Joe Biden

They thought he was too generic a politician. Turns out, that didn’t matter.

John Harris of Politico wants to emphasize that Joe Biden is “epically bland,” but he has a strange way of making his case. He begins his argument by acknowledging that an informal 2019 survey of “about 15 campaign journalists,” who he assures us “are all smart and well-connected,” found zero predictions that Biden would win the nomination. Instead, they went for Beto O’Rourke or Kamala Harris on the theory that people are always looking for someone Kennedyesque.

Politico’s Harris acknowledges that this highlights “the frequency with which the political-media class fails to perceive powerful currents in the electorate,” as if that’s by itself an adequate explanation. But being horribly wrong is the disease. What we want to know is how they got the disease, or why they were horribly wrong. This isn’t a case where they simply missed some “powerful currents.”

On April 12, 2019, before Biden had even formally announced his candidacy, I projected that he and Bernie Sanders would be the likely finalists of a nominating process that then involved nearly 30 names. I didn’t rely on my perception of the candidates’ ability to emulate John F. Kennedy’s youthful energy and sex appeal. I also didn’t rely on some lazy idea that the electorate always goes for someone whose qualities (i.e., steadiness) offset the flaws of the incumbent (i.e., complete shitstorm).

I said that Biden and Sanders were in the best positions because they had the best name recognition and “they are popular with Democrats all along the ideological spectrum, and this seems to confound and perplex political analysts and activists alike.” I also pointed out that columnists who were dismissing their chances were taking “no account how delegates are actually awarded in the Democratic primaries.”

In a simple formulation, Democrats liked Biden and Sanders a lot, and it simply wasn’t true that their appeal split or fell along ideological lines only. Sanders had a lot of strength in white working class circles, and Biden was extremely well-liked in many progressives circles, particularly in the black community. They both had big built-in bases of support that others would struggle in a crowded field to match. Biden and Sanders would pile up delegates everywhere, even when losing, and grind out a lead over folks like Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris.

It wasn’t rocket science. It was based heavily on how delegates are won in the nominating process and who was in the best position to win them. In early 2019, O’Rourke and Kamala Harris were in a terrible position, and projecting that that would significantly change based on their supposed Kennedyesque qualities wasn’t serious political analysis. Anyone on the street could have come up with that theory, as it was based entirely on feel and faith.

So, the reason these “smart and well-connected” political commentators were so terribly wrong is that they didn’t conduct actual analysis. Instead, they did something that looks like this:

Since JFK inaugurated the television era of politics in 1960, successful presidential candidates have been theatrical candidates. The exceptions, like Gerald Ford or George H.W. Bush, had short tenures that tended to prove the rule. Winning politicians have had narrative electricity—they were performers and story-tellers who could command the attention of people who loathed them no less than those who revered them.

First, the question wasn’t who was successful as a presidential candidate, but who was successful in winning their party’s nomination. That list includes Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore and Mitt Romney, along with Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. When you include all the names, it becomes obvious that “theatrical candidates” don’t have any historical edge whatsoever.  It also doesn’t explain Richard Nixon’s immense political success.

Second, Politico’s Harris continues to underestimate Biden’s appeal to Democrats. For some, he’s old and boring, but for others he’s warm and genuine and loyal and dependable. There’s a lot of love for Joe Biden, and a lot of appreciation for how well he served Barack Obama. This certainly exceeds anything that could have been said about Walter Mondale. Progressives missed this too, and they badly miscalculated how strong Biden would run in the primaries based almost wholly on this reserve of good will. The pundit class also blew their prediction with respect to Bernie Sanders, for a similar reason. They simply couldn’t understand that Sanders had the best approval ratings of any of the candidates, and that this cut across the whole ideological spectrum of the party. Perhaps the political class needs to evaluate what charisma actually looks like, and maybe it doesn’t require youthful good looks and virility.

But more importantly, they should reevaluate the importance they place on superficial factors and pay more attention to mathematics and rules. Biden and Sanders were the finalists, just as I predicted, because they were almost guaranteed to come in close to the top in every contest involving a crowded field. They had done the hard work of building that advantage long before the 2020 campaign season commenced.

John Harris calls Biden “a generic politician, wrapped in plain packaging,” and marvels at how that seems to be just the right contrast to Donald Trump. This, too, is overthinking things. Any Democratic nominee would likely be in a similar position against Trump. This election is a referendum on his performance in office, and his performance has been disastrous. Policy proposals have marginal importance. Identity politics aren’t likely to be determinative. This is a Trump “yes or no” election, and it’s very likely to be a no regardless of who Biden chose as his running mate or what he does or doesn’t do in the campaign.

Sometimes, the boring and bland analysis is the most reliable, but what you want from an analyst is accuracy and understanding, not some hot take about how a backbench congressman reminds them of a young Jack Kennedy.

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Martin Longman

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