The Slatest

Joe Biden Isn’t As Irresistible to Blue-Collar White Voters As He Thinks He Is

Biden takes a selfie with a fan in a crowd of supporters.
Joe Biden at a campaign rally for former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill on Oct. 31 in Bridgeton, Missouri.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The New York Times, citing sources close to former Vice President Joe Biden, reports that he’s leaning toward running for president in 2020 on the grounds that no other potential Democratic candidate has his appeal to the kind of (largely white) working-class middle-American voters whose defections swung the electoral college to Donald Trump in 2016.

“If you look at Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the labor folks who voted for Trump, they love him,” former Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware said of Mr. Biden. “He has a connection with these people.”

The assertion has some logic to it. Biden sells himself as a blunt-talking son of blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania; if a Democratic nominee wins Pennsylvania and the other two states above and everything else holds steady, the party will win the presidency in 2020. Trying to get certain white people to vote Democratic again on the basis of shared identity is definitely a route back to power for the party.

On the other hand, Democratic efforts to use Biden’s heartland appeal to save several high-profile heartland Senate seats in 2018 were not overwhelmingly effective. Biden appeared at rallies for old-school centrists Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), focusing on themes commonly associated with blue-dog Democrats like the need to put “bipartisanship” above “divisiveness” and to protect middle class–friendly health care policies. Those four candidates lost, as did two white, male House candidates whom Biden stumped for (Brendan Kelly in Illinois and George Scott in Pennsylvania). Overall, in 2018, Democrats flipped eight House districts that Obama won in 2012 but that Trump won in 2016; of those districts, which are in Biden’s ostensible wheelhouse, five were won by nonwhite male candidates. For the most part, the story of Democratic gains in midterms was one in which women and people of color won elections on the coasts and in the suburbs. Polling suggests, meanwhile, that many of the white working-class individuals who swung to Trump did so because he attacked undocumented immigrants and Muslims; those voters probably aren’t coming back to the Democratic Party in 2020 no matter what, given the likelihood that Trump will once again make “border security” and the alleged threat of terrorism salient issues during the presidential campaign.

On the third hand, Biden also campaigned for winning Montana Sen. Jon Tester and winning gubernatorial candidates Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) and Tony Evers (Wisconsin). A number of white, male military veterans—New York’s Max Rose, Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb, Maine’s Jared Golden—won high-profile flips from what you might call the “Biden lane” of the Democratic Party. And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as much as it pains me to say it, won big over leftist primary challenger Cynthia Nixon by running as a tough, old-fashioned Democrat who has adopted cutting-edge progressive policies on issues like LGBTQ rights and marijuana legalization but still has the stones, balls, and cojones to stand up to Trump, which is how Biden would probably sell himself in 2020. (Biden’s brother Frank, and I am not making this up, called into a SiriusXM show called The Michael Smerconish Program on Monday to disparage Trump’s physical fitness and brag that Joe can still bench-press multiple reps of 185 pounds.) It’s not at all clear that the Democrats need a Biden-like candidate to win, but it’s also not clear that he’d be doomed.

So what does this all add up to? Given the above, and his well-documented ’90s policy baggage, not to mention his age, it seems like instead of trying to become president for eight years Joe Biden should instead open a chain of no-frills weightlifting gyms in the upper Midwest from which he can make cable-news appearances as a Democratic surrogate who remains beloved because he didn’t have to have his record litigated in a tough primary. It’d be a win-win in which the first win is for the Democratic Party and the second is for Joe Biden’s biceps. Let’s pump some iron!