Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
How do you like your presidential candidates? If the answer is white, male and septuagenarian then the 2020 presidential election could be for you.
With an approval rating of 90 per cent amongst Republicans, Donald Trump (72) will be the GOP’s candidate. Joe Biden (76), the former Vice President from 2009-2017, is the current front runner in a Democratic field that is its most diverse in modern political history, with a rich background of gender, ethnicity and sexuality. They are both the pollsters and bookmakers’ favourites to be the Republican and Democratic candidates respectively in next November’s election.
In an era of identity politics shaped heavily by the #MeToo movement, in which gender and diversity are under the microscope more than ever before, two white male politicians approaching their eighties fighting to be the leader of the free world seems at odds with social and political trends.
The diversification of the Democratic field started after John Kerry was the party’s chosen nominee in 2004, the last heterosexual white man to win the nomination after Democrats nominated them in every single prior presidential election since the party was founded.
Since then, the two Democratic nominees for president were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The diversification at the top of the party reflects the trend amongst its voters. According to exit polls in the 2018 midterm election, only about 25 per cent of Democratic voters were heterosexual white men whereas a majority (59 per cent) were women.
Biden’s strengths: Familiar, friendly, feared
Joe Biden’s near-total name recognition as a former vice president (99 per cent according to Morning Consult) is a significant asset compared to several other candidates in a bloated field who are battling for slim pickings in the national political spotlight. Biden benefits from eight years spent by Obama’s side in the White House and a further 36 years on Capitol Hill as a Senator for Delaware.
During his time in the White House, Biden sought to portray a friendly personam and his close relationship with Obama was well documented – from the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to friendship bracelets. His approach to politics has rarely been the kind of adversarial, divisive rhetoric favoured by Donald Trump. In a speech in Philadelphia, Biden said: “The country is sick of the division. They’re sick of the fighting. They’re sick of the childish behaviour.”Whereas a long list of Democratic presidential hopefuls have portrayed themselves as fighters, Biden has taken a different path and painted himself as someone to end the fighting and bring the country together.
The extent to which Trump truly fears Biden is unknown. Despite his new political strategy focussing on unity, Biden has also shown he’s not afraid to throw the gloves off. In 2018 he said “I’d beat the hell out of him”, referring to Trump. Assuming the American political temperature doesn’t increase even closer to actual boiling point, those fights will take place on the campaign trail and increasingly on social media. As a measure of how concerned Trump is with an issue at any one time, he has tweeted about Biden 28 times so far this year. If he didn’t fear a Biden campaign, he wouldn’t be seeking to sully it.
Biden’s weaknesses: Too familiar, too friendly, fairly progressive
As Obama’s running mate and vice president, Biden will always be inextricably linked to the 44th president. Amongst the Democratic base, that will likely see him rewarded – Obama’s Real Clear Politics approval rating exceeded 86 per cent and he has remained popular with the Democratic base since leaving office.
But Biden will struggle to plausibly argue that he is a ‘change’ candidate in an election when Democrats are desperate to replace Donald Trump with a fresh face. Hillary Clinton heavily leant on her experience – as Secretary of State, Senator for New York and First Lady of the United States – in a bruising 2016 election campaign against Trump to no effect. Instead, she was outmanoeuvred by a maverick who claimed to represent the silent majority and promised to drain the swamp. Biden is arguably very swamp, with 44 years’ experience in Washington politics.
Before he could even launch his presidential campaign, Biden’s team found themselves firefighting. Allegations of inappropriate physical behaviour towards Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, led to the conclusion that what had previously been brushed aside as “Joe being Joe” was no longer compatible with or appropriate in an era of a deeper understanding of gender norms in politics. Trump, keen on labelling all of his potential opponents with a nickname, has quickly taken to “Creepy Joe”.
Identity politics aside, Biden’s biggest problem might be that he is out of step with a Democratic Party base that is clamouring for progressive politicians and policies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York member of Congress, reacted furiously after Biden’s campaign suggested a “middle ground” approach to climate was necessary, subtly referring to Biden as one of the conservatives “on both sides of the aisle”.
For all his esteemed political experience, Biden arguably isn’t that progressive – certainly not as much as many of his 2020 rivals. Abortion is at the forefront of political debate after the legislative ban passed by Alabama’s State Senate, and the topic will be a key pillar of the 2020 primary process: as most Democrats see it, this is a fundamental matter of womens’ rights. That could prove problematic for Biden, and a gift for opposing campaigns conducting opposition research.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973, Biden said a woman shouldn’t have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.” He also voted to let states overturn Roe v. Wade, although he later reversed position, as the New York Times recently laid out.
Whilst Biden became more liberal on such issues as abortion, he often undertook a long journey of policy evolution; his younger opponents like Pete Buttigieg can claim to be lifelong progressives. Whilst his strengths are experience and name recognition, his weakness might be the issues associated with it – a long political history and the associated baggage of decisions that were once approved by Democratic voters but are now significantly out of step with the party’s base.
Despite that, Biden is not being punished in the polls where he is the second choice of supporters of Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke (see the chart at the top of this article) – over whom there are very few questions about progressive credentials.
Could he win?
Biden is the clear Democratic front runner, but the race has a long way left to go. Leading the pack puts a target on his back, in the same way that Conservative leadership hopefuls are gunning for Boris Johnson as the most popular candidate to replace Theresa May.
By nominating Biden, Democrats would be wagering a similar bet to the one they placed in 2016 when Clinton was selected as the safe candidate based on her experience and Washington credentials. Politics changed that year – and Trump was propelled to the White House. Biden will need to work tirelessly to prove his progressive credentials to the Democratic base before we consider how he might take the fight to Trump.