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).