Politics

Two Scoops of Vanilla With Extra Vanilla on Top

Biden’s boring, conventional campaign is the comfort food many Democratic voters want.

Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Teamsters Local 249 Union Hall on Monday in Pittsburgh.
Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Teamsters Local 249 Union Hall on Monday in Pittsburgh.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

It is hard to imagine a more conventional start to a presidential campaign than the one Joe Biden has put together. The 76-year-old kicked things off with a video in which he spoke directly to the camera about “what makes America, America.” He followed that with a string of endorsements from establishment politicians and a big-ticket fundraising dinner with corporate lobbyists. He then sat down for his first extended interview Friday on the soft-focus set of The View. At his first rally Monday, at a union hall in Pittsburgh, he stepped on stage to the same Bruce Springsteen song used by Barack Obama for his 2012 reelection effort. The speech that followed was heavy on timeless stump filler—“When I travel this country and I meet people like all of you…”—and light on surprises.

Biden’s strategy is so conventional that it can look boring, particularly for journalists like myself who have a professional bias toward things that are new and different, and it looks the same to an activist base trying to shake up the status quo. But Biden’s uncreative approach looks like something else to those Democrats most desperate to defeat Donald Trump: comforting.

Biden, after all, isn’t promising a political revolution, as Bernie Sanders is, or proposing to fundamentally reshape the system like Elizabeth Warren is. He wouldn’t make history as the first female president, like Warren or Kamala Harris, or the first openly gay one, like Pete Buttigieg. He does not support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, either of which would radically alter swaths of the U.S. economy. Likewise, Biden isn’t telling voters that he’s found a way to harness small-donor funding and resist the pressures of wealthy donors, nor is he plotting a new path to Electoral College victory. Instead, Biden is offering Democrats a generous serving of familiar (and forgiving) comfort food—and so far a whole bunch of them are eating it up.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there had been four major new polls released since Biden formally entered the race, and all four show the former vice president expanding both his base of support and his lead on field. And while post-announcement bumps can be fleeting, the surveys also confirm that Biden’s appeal extends well beyond the white, working-class men most often associated with a candidate who calls himself “middle-class Joe.” The polls found, for instance, that Biden actually fares better with women than he does with men, and he performs even better with nonwhite voters than he does with white ones. The diversity of Biden’s coalition complicates one of the biggest knocks against him, which is that his lived experience as a white man has left him a poor fit to lead an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

Biden sits at 39 percent in the new CNN survey, up a rather remarkable 11 percentage points from where he was last month and up 24 percentage points above his closest rival in the poll, Sanders, at 15 percent. Biden is at 38 percent in the new Quinnipiac poll, up 9 points from where he was last month and up 26 points on his closest rival, Warren at 12 percent. Biden’s gains were a little more modest in the new HarrisX/ScottRasmussen.com survey (up 4 points) and the latest Morning Consult poll (up 6 points), though the latter was conducted over a weeklong stretch that began several days before Biden’s launch.

Evidence of Biden’s surprising strength lies beneath the toplines as well. In the Morning Consult poll, he fared better than any other candidate among white men, white women, black men, and black women—but he performed best with black women (47 percent) and the worst among white men (32 percent). CNN found a similar divide along racial lines: Biden was the choice of an even 50 percent of nonwhite voters, compared to just 29 percent of white voters. And Quinnipiac found similar, albeit smaller, splits along both race and gender lines. That suggests that Biden’s attempt to sell himself as the man who can win over Trump voters has found a more receptive audience among groups less likely to be Trump voters. Biden’s popularity with women and people of color speaks to the reality that they disproportionately suffer the harms and dangers of Trump’s America; it’s natural that they might be seeking the safety of the candidate they think has the best chance of defeating Trump.

We’re nearly two months from the first primary debate, and another seven months out from the first nominating contest. A lot can and will happen to change the dynamic in the race. But Biden’s early polling strength could easily have a knock-on effect, whereby he begins to look so inevitable that party officials, wealthy donors, and voters increasingly see him that way and coalesce behind him. That’s a powerful force for any politician, but it could be particularly potent for Biden, given he is selling himself as the Democrat best suited to take down Trump and given that Democrats appear unusually eager to settle on a candidate who they are confident can win.

Early primary polls can’t predict the future—as Presidents Rudy Giuliani and Jeb Bush will remind you—but they offer clues. When FiveThirtyEight crunched 40 years’ worth of early polling recently, it found that a well-known candidate who polled nationally between 20 and 35 percent during the first half of the year before the primaries went on to win the nomination 36 percent of the time. Success was far more common for similar candidates who polled above 35 percent during that same stretch of time, at which point his or her odds quickly approach 50 percent and climb higher from there. If Biden’s early success holds through the summer, then he could conceivably go from being the front-runner with the best chance in a crowded field to the undeniable favorite—better positioned than all of his challengers combined. That wouldn’t make for the most surprising, dramatic primary, but the Democratic rank and file would probably be just fine with that.