How to Beat Biden

What we’ve learned from the front-runner’s first few weeks on the trail.

Joe Biden does that grin of his, with Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris to the side and in the background.
This guy! Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ethan Miller/Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images, Bebeto Matthews/AFP/Getty Images.

Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign is undergoing a reset, the New York Times reported this week. After trying to compete against Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for the hearts and minds of progressive activists, the California senator is now directly challenging President Donald Trump, playing up her history as a prosecutor to show that she has the skill set necessary to make the general election case against the president. Instead of, say, getting bogged down in multiday news cycles about whether she would ban private health insurance, she is now choosing to ride multiday news cycles about her efficient and merciless questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr.

“Two recent events—Ms. Harris’s insistent questioning of Mr. Barr at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s multiday spat with Mr. Trump—have been clarifying moments for Ms. Harris and her aides,” the Times writes, “demonstrating the value of elevating her voice of opposition to the president and seeking direct confrontation with the White House, according to her advisers. Her campaign is also drawing on internal polling of early nominating states showing that Democratic primary voters are consumed with defeating Mr. Trump.”

Harris’ “recalibration” is one that I bet we’ll be seeing from other competitive, but currently middling, campaigns going forward. Before Biden’s entry, the primary was littered with left-wing policy litmus tests, with candidates tripping over themselves trying to pass. Biden, both pundits and fellow competitors felt, could never pass these tests and would quickly collapse as he proved himself to be out of touch with the modern-day iteration of the Democratic Party.

But Biden has surged in spite of the fairly loud press airing of his lamentable policy positions and the statements he’s made over his nearly 50 years in public service. And it’s not just name recognition. The Democratic electorate as a whole, for better or worse, seems to imbue a candidate’s perceived capacity to defeat Trump with more weight than, say, which health care bill she plans to watch die in the Senate. And right now, again for better or worse, the Democratic electorate as a whole believes the person with the best capacity is Biden. To defeat him, the rest of the candidates will have to prove that they would be a stronger matchup against Trump.

Signs that this would be the case were hanging around earlier this year even as the conventional wisdom held that the Biden campaign would steadily decline after its launch. In March, as FiveThirtyEight observed, national polling showed an unusually high number of Democrats, relative to previous elections, saying that they would prefer the candidate with the “best chance” to beat Donald Trump over the one whose views on the issues were closest to theirs. The belief hasn’t dissipated. In a New Hampshire primary poll conducted by Monmouth University this week, a full 68 percent of likely Democratic voters said they “prefer to have a nominee who would be a strong candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues.” Meanwhile, only 25 percent said “they would favor a Democratic candidate who they are aligned with on the issues even if that person would have a hard time beating Trump.”

Biden is crushing it with this unusually large bloc of voters who are eager to hold their nose while casting a primary vote. In an April 30 Quinnipiac national poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, Biden earned 38 percent of the vote, a 26-point lead over the runner-up, Elizabeth Warren. Biden managed to earn that 38 percent even though only 23 percent of Democrats felt he had the best policy ideas. So what made up the difference? A full 56 percent of respondents said Biden has the best chance to beat Donald Trump. Sanders was next, with 12 percent. The feeling is similar in South Carolina, where Biden is performing strongly with black voters.

“One after another,” the Associated Press wrote in its story about Biden’s first trip to South Carolina, “voters who filled a community center in South Carolina’s capital to see Biden this weekend described him as a safe, comforting and competent counterpoint to the turbulent Trump presidency.” Safety, comfort, and competence: This sums up the case for Joe Biden’s perceived electability, and the risk-averse criteria by which many Democrats are vetting the candidates.

It’s not that Biden has proved that rigorous adherence to bold, progressive policies doesn’t matter. It just may matter less than previously thought for center-left candidates. If you’re Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, holding down the progressive wing is still very much the space to occupy within the party; their electability arguments hinge on firing up core supporters and turning out new voters more than stringing together a broad ideological coalition of existing voters. But for Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Cory Booker, there may be less to gain trying to win the competition over who is the most progressive or policy-minded candidate in the race when they’re not. Instead, there’s a large pool of voters who just want to beat Trump and want to be sure that they’re voting for the contender most likely to do that. To first beat Biden, these candidates need to show that he’s not that person, and that his safety, comfort, and competence have either been exaggerated or aren’t enough to knock off an unpredictable incumbent.