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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Joe Biden is Still The Frontrunner. But He Doesn’t Have to Be.

Biden is surviving on the myth that he’s the most electable Democrat. He’s not.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has somehow come out of a news cycle on sexism and electability unscathed. While the media circled around Sanders’ alleged private comments about Warren’s presidential chances, Biden’s recent public comments intimating that he could defeat Donald Trump because he is a man have flown completely under the radar.  

If there was any time to bring up sexism and electability as a political maneuver, Biden should have been the prime target. With less than three weeks before the Iowa caucus, he continues to be the most consistent Democratic frontrunner. He has battled multiple personal issues on gender, from being dismissive about accusations of inappropriate touching to mistreatment of Anita Hill as she testified about sexual harassment. Any skirmishes among progressives that do not alter Biden’s lead are simply a fight for second place. 

That lead can only be overcome by challenging the assumption that he is the most electable Democrat. Progressives and leftists should focus on exposing Biden’s record and his weakness in a general election. Upon even minimal scrutiny, what is accepted as conventional wisdom—that a centrist Democrat has the best chances of beating a Republican candidate—is proven to be a house of cards that tumbles upon the slightest touch. 

For starters, there is a very strange assumption that somehow being geographically located in the center of the country make voters prefer a centrist. This was perpetuated with faulty assumptions in the epilogue of the 2016 election. As I’ve argued in Current Affairs previously, the largest misconception was that Donald Trump’s victory hinged primarily on flipping white Obama voters in Midwest swing states to Trump. Therefore, the logic goes, a Democrat must appeal to this relatively conservative set of voters in order win. In reality, 2016 came down to which candidate was slightly less uninspiring than the other.

In 2016, there was not a deluge of Republican enthusiasm in the three states that decided the election—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—as Trump won them with just over 107,000 more votes. What made the largest difference was that Clinton performed far worse than Obama in these states. Over 588,000 people who voted for Barack Obama did not vote for Clinton in 2016. Given Trump’s margin of 107,105 votes, that leaves a lot of voters who voted for Obama and didn’t for Clinton or Trump. So Democrat-leaning nonvoters, not Republican voters, made the most meaningful difference in 2016. When we think about who to run in 2020, we have to think about who will get those voters back. Not back to the party, but back to the polls. Who can actually inspire people enough to show up? 

The failure of a centrist to ignite Democratic-leaning voters in these three key swing states does not mean a progressive will automatically win there in 2020. However, history shows that progressive candidates can win in Midwest swing states. Arguably, today, progressivism is the only way you can win Democratic-leaning voters in the region. 

Barack Obama campaigned on universal health care and repeatedly jabbed Clinton’s ties with corporations in 2008. He was called a socialist, which then was a curse word rather than a badge of honor (how things have changed!). Still, he won Iowa and working class whites in Wisconsin. In 2012, Obama again hit populist notes (even without the populist record), framing Mitt Romney as a corporate hack who wouldn’t fight for the 47 percent, giving Obama wins in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. 

As I’ve argued elsewhere, some of this success likely has to do with historical ties to progressive politics in some of the region. Take Wisconsin for example, which some argue is the one state that will decide 2020. Its biggest city, Milwaukee, had a string of socialist mayors for much of the 20th century. The state piloted much of the progressive legislation that became incorporated into the New Deal. Abolitionists openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin birthed the Republican Party specifically to run on an anti-slavery platform. While Bernie Sanders, an actual socialist, lost white voters in the South, he won Michigan and nearly every single county in Wisconsin in the 2016 primaries. So in two out of three states that determined the 2016 election, where 2020 will also likely be decided, Sanders secured victories over the centrist. 

In the South, which lacks the kind of radical progressive tradition of the Midwest, among older black voters there is more inclination, as reflected in primary polling data, to believe a black man or socialist cannot possibly win a presidential election. But the Midwest is a different story. 

Without black voter enthusiasm in key swing states, a Democratic centrist may win a primary, but it will be impossible to win a general election. We constantly hear about black voters being the backbone of the Democratic Party. That is one truth. The other truth is that there are a critical mass of black nonvoters who are not excited about either party. In a survey of 30,000 black people conducted by Black Futures Lab, and the largest survey exclusively of black people since Reconstruction, 25 percent identify as independent, even though the respondents trended towards those who are politically engaged. Nearly one-fifth of the respondents had unfavorable opinions about the Democratic Party. A majority of respondents said that “politicians do not care about Black people or their interests.”

Economic issues and healthcare are at the top of concerns for respondents, and Biden has not addressed those concerns adequately at all in his campaign, while he leaves behind a trail of conservative economic policy that will likely sink him if the debates come down to him squaring off with Donald Trump. 

Biden has a 40-year history advocating cuts to Social Security, which harm older black voters. Despite urban communities grappling with soaring housing costs and displacement, he is the only Democratic candidate in the Iowa debate who has not offered an affordable housing plan, apart from some cursory mentions in his criminal justice plan about housing the formerly incarcerated. Further, Biden at times held more conservative positions than Republican hero Ronald Reagan on the war on drugs and frequently sided with segregationists. And this is all before touching his alignment with the banking industry that preys on working class Americans, refusal to embrace Medicare for All, and lack of vision on climate change. 

Biden’s preference for scolding individual black behavior instead of a racist and capitalist system that has stymied black wealth and health will not resonate for key younger demographics who are also necessary at the polls in swing states. As with the exposure of Hillary Clinton’s criminal justice ideology and corporate ties throughout her campaign, if he is the nominee, increasing focus on Biden’s conservatism will undoubtedly suppress black enthusiasm in swing states where Democrats need it most. 

Whatever opinions people hold about how Warren and Sanders handle race, gender, or who comprises their base, the fact remains that many people are still undecided and currently choosing no one. Many others are choosing Biden because they think he has the best chances of beating Trump. Fighting on these two fronts—inspiring nonvoters and challenging Biden’s electability—should be the only debate that matters.

More In: 2020 Election

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