Is Biden Gaffeproof?

Do Uncle Joe's steady poll numbers tell us anything meaningful about 2020?

Marc Caputo’s feature, “Joe Biden keeps stepping in it – and voters couldn’t care less” has the subhed “None of the controversies that have buffeted the Biden campaign, including the most recent one, have damaged his standing in the polls.” He may well be reading too much into that.

Joe Biden’s all-too-friendly touching of women in the MeToo era was supposed to be toxic to his presidential campaign. Critics thought his flip flop on subsidized abortions would show how deeply out of touch he was with the modern Democratic Party.

The latest controversy buffeting his campaign — his statements about his working relationships with Dixiecrat segregationists when they served in the U.S. Senate together more than 40 years ago — has chewed through news cycles for the past week.

Yet none of it seems to have damaged his standing in the race.

Now, admittedly, I thought the “touching” issue would sink his campaign when the flurry of stories started coming out. It struck me that, in the current era, it would simply cast him as outside the acceptable parameters of the Democratic Party. And, maybe, in the longer term, that’ll prove right.

But the “Dixiecrat” flap was always going to be a nothingburger. First, almost nobody other than the most hard-core political junkie is paying attention to that sort of thing this far out. Second, it’s very much on brand for Biden: he’s a guy who gets along with people and is liked and can work with people who disagree with him politically.

Biden remains the front-runner in national polls and in the four early states. And according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll taken several days after his comments about the racist lawmakers made headlines, his most recent flap isn’t hurting his chances in a significant way.

After hearing about Biden’s comments on working with multiple segregationists, 41 percent of likely primary voters said it would make no difference to them and 29 percent said they would be more likely to vote for him. Just 18 percent said they would be less likely to vote for him. The numbers were about the same for black voters: 30 percent said they would be more likely to vote for Biden, 20 percent said less likely and 27 percent said it made no difference.

Biden has been in the national spotlight for four decades. He first ran for President in 1988—eight presidential terms ago. People’s opinions of him are rather well baked at this point.

Caputo takes it much further:

After entering the primary exactly two months ago as the front-runner with a 2-to-1 lead over his next-closest rival, Biden is essentially in the same position today.

That would appear to validate the campaign’s theory that the Democratic base isn’t nearly as liberal or youthful as everyone thinks, and that the media is mistaking the disproportionately progressive Democratic voices on Twitter for the sentiments of the wider Democratic electorate.

[John Anzalone, Biden’s chief pollster] said elite opinion-makers and the chorus of progressive voices, notably New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, don’t reflect the party.

“Sometimes the media narrative is that this is an AOC convention. It’s not,” the Democratic pollster said. “Just like the narrative that the Democratic primary is some ultra-liberal incubator. It isn’t.”

Anzalone contends that Biden’s “stability” shows that another tenet of conventional wisdom is probably wrong — the idea that the former vice president’s support is built on mere name identification.

“We’re beyond ‘oh, this is name ID.’ This is attachment,” Anzalone said. “Voters know this guy.”

Now, I think Anzalone is going too far as well. With the possible exceptions of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, all of Biden’s opponents are still introducing themselves to the national electorate. So, a lot of it is indeed name ID. But, sure, a lot of people—myself included—genuinely like the guy.

The larger narrative, that maybe Biden is closer to where the Democratic nominating electorate is than the more socialistic candidates, is really hard to know at this point. While progressives of the AOC wing are indeed over-represented on Twitter, they’re more likely to actually turn out in primaries than moderates.

Eventually, Caputo admits

Still, while polls show Biden with a strong lead over nearly two dozen Democratic rivals, roughly two-thirds of Democrats aren’t sold on his candidacy. Primary voters are also telling pollsters they’re not completely committed to one candidate, they haven’t fully tuned in and that they don’t know as much about many of the others in the race.

So the cumulative weight of Biden’s troubles could ultimately be too much for him to bear as voters pay more attention. On Thursday, voters will get their first chance to measure him and nine of his opponents together on stage at the Democrats’ first presidential debate in Miami.

Biden will be literally center stage in his most-unscripted setting yet for a prolonged period of time. The moment will carry some risk since he will invariably be targeted by some of his rivals. And it will take him out of the protective cocoon his campaign has effectively wrapped him in.

In two months as a candidate, Biden has avoided nearly every major candidate cattle-call event hosted by Democratic and liberal groups, even at the expense of leaving some of them steamed. He has had just three sit-down interviews with national media outlets and 12 with local outlets.

On the campaign trail, Biden seldom engages in question-and-answer gaggles with reporters, though they are permitted access to cover his speeches at fundraisers (which are usually closed to the press).

The first sustained contact with his rivals at Thursday’s debate — where the segregationist flap and Biden’s positions on abortion are likely to be revisited — could test his resilience.

Barring something truly fantastic happening, Biden will remain the frontrunner for quite awhile. His lead is strong and there are literally two dozen others vying for the nomination. Eventually, though, the field will narrow to a small number of candidates and we’ll get a sense as to whether Democrats want the tried-and-true moderate, a more progressive direction (Sanders or Warren), or a complete reboot (say, Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg).

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Yank says:

    The take over of the Democratic party by the left has always been exaggerated. Just look at the midterms results. For every Omar Ilhan and AOC, there is about 20-30 center-left Democrats who won in GOP leaning districts.

    The truth that a lot of progressives are having a hard time accepting is Biden is closer to where the party is right now. Most of the “gaffes” and “controversies” aren’t being driven by actually rank in file Democratic voters but by woke white progressives on twitter and partisan hacks who are upset that Biden is beating their preferred candidate.

    Biden isn’t invincible. The best way to take him down is by making the case why you are better suited to take down Trump (that is primary voters number one concern. They could care less about the million of plans Elizabeth Warren has that will never make it through congress). They just want Trump gone and Biden polls the strongest. Until that changes, he will remain the frontrunner.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Biden is living on name recognition…which is why his gaffes mean nothing.
    But he is not going to be President.
    Sanders is not going to be President.
    Let’s move on to the others.

  3. Yank says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: People need to stop with this name rec excuse. For example, Biden has done the least amount of visits to SC, while Harris, Booker, and Warren have done the most and yet the polls have rarely budged.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Michelle Goldberg has an interesting take on Biden this morning.

    To this point Biden has avoided unscripted situations, has had minimal voter contact and is avoiding the press, that will need to change and his campaign could crumble. If in the debates show him to be a doddering old grandfather and in particular if in comparison to Bernie and Warren (because they are his age) he comes across as out of touch, he’ll be toast.

  5. Teve says:

    Biden’s a nice enough guy but that’s all he had the last 2 times. He’s going to fade.

  6. KM says:

    I think the better question is: why do so many keep giving him a pass on a “gaffe” he keeps making when that same thing would sink another? Hint: it’s the same reason Trumpkins give Trump a pass on his horribleness – they don’t consider a “gaffe”. Look who is claiming Biden’s mistake re “NBD, do you want Trump gone or not?” and what they are downplaying. Then think about *why*they are downplaying it and what that says about them.

    Biden’s not a bad guy. He is however, a product of his age in more ways then one. His “jokes” are semi-sexist dad jokes at best and straight up dinosaur thinking at worst. His stances are pure 90’s and seem to not notice it’s 20 years later and things might have changed a bit since then. His insistence on bi-partisanship and that his contemporaries are not so bad hearkens back to ideals of reaching across the aisle and getting stabbed in the back rather then the face.

    Biden is the candidate of “let’s forget all troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream”. He’s status quo when that status flatlined last decade. I’m sure he can do a great job at undoing Trump’s damage. The thing is he’s essentially the safe old white guy who may be little sexist, bigoted and condescendingly paternalistic but hey, he perfectly reflects how the older generations imagine it should be… because that’s what they are. It’s not just name recognition, it’s generational and cultural bias. Trumpkins voted for Trump because he’s like them so if a ton of people are preferring Biden even with his inappropriate statements and actions, what does that say about them? What does it say that they think he’s the candidate that pull Trump-liking Republicans away?

  7. Yank says:

    I think the better question is: why do so many keep giving him a pass on a “gaffe” he keeps making when that same thing would sink another?

    The answer is fairly obvious IMO.

    Biden’s sustained lead is mainly do to older African American voters. Years as Obama’s number two and building up relationships with leaders in the black community has given Biden the benefit of the doubt.

  8. al Ameda says:

    The Vice Presidential gig was perfect for Joe, he’s good for the ambassadorial stuff.

    Campaigning on a street level in Wilmington or Dover? He can do that well, they know him.

    However on a national stage Joe has proved time and again that he’s kind of clunky. He has some baggage, as anyone with a 40 year record would, but he gets a bit of a pass because people generally like him, but having every other candidate taking shots at him Joe will begin to make a lot of unforced errors.

    He may yet win the nomination but … that Party better hope that their primary constituencies are not de-energized by that prospect.

    As for me, I’m waiting to see how these candidates respond to pressure – e.g. see Mayor Pete for a first test, he’s in the crucible now.

    I want to see how Harris, Klobuchar do – can they get real momentum? Amy in particular, she’s got to show up in the 1st debate. My favorite non-factor candidate right now is Andrew Yang – he’s a good interview and I hope he sticks around past the debates.

    Elizabeth, Bernie, Joe … right now I’m just not interested. I’ll vote for any Democrat in 2020, but I hope we’re on a new and younger track.

  9. Hal_10000 says:

    It’s funny to read the above and remember what 2016 was like. All the gaffes that were going to supposedly finish Trump. The terrible debate performances that were going to supposedly finish Trump. When we are going to accept the reality that most people not political junkies and 90% of what gets discussed in politics doesn’t matter to them?

    This race is Biden’s to lose. Someone is going to have to come up big to beat him. Not impossible — see Obama in 2008. But it will take some major political talent.

  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    Biden has done the least amount of visits to SC, while Harris, Booker, and Warren have done the most and yet the polls have rarely budged.

    Exactly…because he has a lot of name recognition in SC.

  11. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    To this point Biden has avoided unscripted situations, has had minimal voter contact and is avoiding the press, that will need to change

    Biden isn’t really running for the nomination so much as he is gently strolling for the nomination.

  12. Yank says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: The other candidates are spending significant time down there and yet the polls have barely moved. So chalking it up to “name rec” is silly.

  13. Kylopod says:

    People who say the gaffes haven’t hurt Biden ignore the fact that his polling numbers have been steadily declining since early May.

  14. Yank says:

    @Kylopod: He got a bump after announcing and he basically has gone back to where he was prior to announcing. The same thing has happened to every candidate so far.

    It has been a remarkably stable race so far.

  15. Cheryl Rofer says:

    “Now, admittedly, I thought the “touching” issue would sink his campaign when the flurry of stories started coming out.”

    LOL, the Republicans are fine with a serial rapist.

    I get what you’re saying here, that Democrats actually have some standards on that sort of thing. But the focus is removing the serial rapist from office.

  16. Matt says:

    @Yank: Reality only partially agrees with you.

    Notice Warren and Buttigieg are both substantially up since announcing and some like O’Rourke have plummeted.

    Biden and Sanders are both basically back to where they started though.

    If people actually watch the debates than we might get a chance to see how much Biden and Sanders have been coasting off their name recognition. I still don’t expect much poll movement to occur until the debates start. Regardless I am surprised at how far Biden has dropped though and that has to be concerning for his camp.