Joe Biden, who does a terrible job of pretending that he hasn’t decided whether to run, has a theory of the Democratic electorate.
“We’ll find out whether I can win in a primary,” he told reporters on Friday, shortly after a speech in which he cracked wise, twice, about recent allegations of inappropriate touching. “I think you guys, if you look at all the polling data, and look at the actual results, the [Democratic] Party has not moved, to the way” left, he said. “The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of the members of the Democratic Party are still basically liberal-to-moderate Democrats in the traditional sense.
“The idea that the Democratic Party has sort of [been] stood on its head, I don’t get it,” he said.
There’s little question that the Democratic Party has moved to the left, perhaps more than Biden would let on. But he still has a point: Even with that leftward movement, there’s plenty of space for a Joe Biden candidacy.
In 2018, for the first time in Gallup’s polling history, a majority of Democrats—51 percent—described their political views as “liberal,” while 34 percent described them as “moderate,” and 13 percent as “conservative.” That trend toward the left has been relatively steady since the early 2000s, when self-identified liberals were in the high 20s and moderates represented a strong plurality of the party. (It’s worth noting that Biden, too, described himself as a liberal in Friday’s interview, and also as an “Obama-Biden Democrat.”)
Democrats, however, are still nowhere near Republicans in terms of ideological uniformity: In 2018, 73 percent of Republicans described themselves as conservative, while 22 percent were moderate and 4 percent liberal. Though Democrats are moving left, the 2020 presidential primary will not mimic a modern Republican one, where acts of heretical moderation are much more fatal to a candidate’s chance. That’s borne out further in a Pew study, conducted in January, that shows a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners want their party to move in a more conservative direction, while a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want their party to move in a more moderate direction. Biden’s politics might not represent the fashionable vanguard of the Democratic Party, but unlike Jeb Bush’s or John Kasich’s politics in the 2016 Republican primary, there’s still a market for them.
So why does so much of the conversation surrounding Biden’s potential candidacy suggest that his support could collapse once his record is given a proper inspection? Why was anyone surprised when Biden’s poll numbers were only grazed, at best, following the inappropriate touching stories? While these stories could turn into a bigger problem if the issue stays in the news, and Biden’s candidacy could very well dissipate into mediocrity once he enters, the assumption that he’s just too moderate to get anywhere is a blind spot not only in coverage of Joe Biden but of the Democratic Party at large.
The New York Times, in an extensive report published Tuesday with data collected by the Hidden Tribes project, shows that the most active Democratic social media users tend to be more liberal than the party writ large. While only 29 percent of Democrats who post content on social media identify themselves as moderate or conservative, 53 percent of Democrats who aren’t Extremely Online do. Social media posters are also whiter and more educated.
“Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its ‘woke’ left wing,” the Times writes. “But the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.” And those “politically active, Democratic Twitter users … often engage with political journalists and can have a powerful effect in shaping the conventional wisdom.”
The study is a more academic presentation of the recently trendy phrase, “Twitter is not real life.” I happen to find that saying annoying and patronizing, because no shit, but it’s true that many political journalists might be tempted to overstate the Democratic Party’s full-on rebirth as a socialist party rife with doctrinaire ideologues because that wing of the party is overrepresented in their feeds. And the press’s fascination with, say, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—which is understandable, because she is something new—also gives a skewed perception of the left’s upper hand in Democratic politics. Her presence in the House is an indication of the Democrats’ leftward trend, but the dozens of moderate and conservative freshman members of Congress represent a wing that’s still very much a factor in the party.
Joe Biden could lose the Democratic nomination for any number of reasons, and the Democratic Party of 2020 is not the Democratic Party of 2008. But there are more than enough “Obama-Biden” Democrats to justify a competitive Biden candidacy.