Vox writers are making the best case for the leading Democratic candidates — defined as those polling above 10 percent in national averages. This article is the third in the series. Our case for Bernie Sanders is here; our case for Elizabeth Warren is here. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.
For a Democrat to beat President Donald Trump in 2020 and to have a shot at retaking the Senate, they’ll have to win in places Hillary Clinton lost. Democrats who’ve done it before want former Vice President Joe Biden to be the nominee.
Rep. Conor Lamb, 35, won a special election in the suburbs of Pittsburgh 18 months after Trump carried the district by 20 points. His campaign made time for only one national surrogate: Biden.
“He reminds me of my son Beau,” Biden said at a rally at the Carpenter’s Training Center in Collier, Pennsylvania, a week before the March 2018 election, referring to his son who died of brain cancer in 2015.
Biden’s endorsement was not the only reason for Lamb’s victory, but the campaign did think the visit from the former vice president offered Lamb a chance to build credibility with union workers.
Lamb is now endorsing Biden to be the Democratic nominee, and he’s in good company. Biden has far more endorsements from elected officials than any other candidate. The FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker, which keeps track of high-profile endorsements and weights them by influence, has Biden scoring 237 points — nearly triple the second-place candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who scores an 81. Sen. Bernie Sanders trails Warren at 55. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is next with 50.
Other candidates have picked up pockets of support in important states — in Michigan, five state lawmakers are backing Warren and the Young Democrats have come out for Sanders. But Biden has way outpaced his competitors in numbers, and he’s earned endorsements from Democrats who’ve won tough races in places that will be tough again in 2020.
In Pennsylvania, four sitting Democratic members of Congress have come out for Biden. In Arizona, where Democrats have a slim chance of picking up a Republican-held Senate seat, Biden has been endorsed by former Gov. Janet Napolitano (a rare Democrat to have won statewide in recent history). Sen. Doug Jones — the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama in decades — has endorsed him, too.
Jones, up for reelection in 2020, won a special election in 2017 against a man accused of sexually assaulting two teenagers and other predatory behavior. Even so, the campaign knew it would be a feat for a Democrat to win in Alabama. They only wanted surrogates with cross-party appeal, like former NBA star Charles Barkley — and Biden.
“We were not anxious to bring in a lot of national partisan officeholders,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who worked on the Jones campaign. “Biden’s never had the persona of a hard-charging partisan. He was somebody we wanted to campaign. He is among the least polarizing figures in the party.”
The Democrats in swing states who have endorsed Biden did so, of course, because they support his policy positions. But in a year when Democrats are laser-focused on beating Trump, their endorsements also represent a vote of confidence in Biden’s ability to win in their states and to help down-ballot Democrats win, too.
Biden seems to have an edge in battleground states, but the top Democratic candidates all tend to outperform Trump in head-to-head polling. The case for Biden is about his potential to do one more thing: take back the Republican-controlled Senate.
“How the hell are any of them going to get anything through Congress with Mitch McConnell sitting in the Senate?” Trippi said.
Biden’s coalition offers the Democrats their best shot at winning up and down the ballot. He’s led the pack nationally among Democrats, including core base voters like African Americans. He’s consistently polled further ahead of Trump in key Midwestern states, despite relentless attacks from Trump. And the Democrats who know what it takes to defeat Republicans in hostile territory want him to take on not just Trump but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, too.
How Democrats won in 2018
Two important storylines about the Democratic Party emerged from the 2018 election.
The first is the rise of the far left, best symbolized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory against longtime Democrat Joe Crowley in New York. Ocasio-Cortez instantly became a leading voice in the new progressive wing of the party.
The second storyline to emerge has gotten far less attention but explains how Democrats actually won. While Ocasio-Cortez represents an important new force in the party, her win over a fellow Democrat didn’t change the party makeup of the House. That bragging right goes to a crop of moderate Democrats who ran careful, pragmatic campaigns. They won on tangible policy ideas, like preserving the Affordable Care Act’s provision on preexisting conditions. They weren’t calling for a revolution, so much as a return to stability.
An analysis by Alan I. Abramowitz at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia found that candidates in the 2018 midterms who supported Medicare-for-all performed worse than those who did not.
It’s true that the progressive left helped inspire enthusiasm, including a surge of new voters and young voters. Latinx voters made up a larger vote share in 2018 than in previous elections.
But as Yair Ghitza of the Democratic data firm Catalist estimates, about 89 percent of the party’s improved vote margin is attributable to swing voting — not higher turnout by committed Democrats. “A big piece of Democratic victory was due to 2016 Trump voters turning around and voting for Democrats in 2018.”
Ghitza also found that even though many of the Democratic wins were in suburban districts, “rural areas largely moved in a Democratic direction, often by even larger margins than the suburbs.”
To carry these districts and win the Electoral College, the Democratic nominee must appeal to a broad swath of voters — including Trump voters. Biden stumped in these districts in 2018 and candidates welcomed his help, a sign that he’s the strongest choice to do it in 2020.
Biden has the best shot at carrying the Senate
Any Democrat who could beat Trump would only have a shot at a transformative presidency if he or she also took the Senate. Right now, it looks bleak for Democrats.
McConnell controls the Senate by three votes (plus the vice president’s tie-breaker). And in 2020, there is no Republican running in a state that Clinton carried by 5 points or more. So while Democrats defend seats in 12 states where they’re up for reelection, a few of them tough races, they’ll also have to flip seats in at least three competitive races to take back control of Congress.
Most Democrats believe their best bets for flips are in Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, and Maine. Biden has earned about a dozen endorsements across these states, including from Napolitano, the only Democrat to be elected governor in the state since 1982.
Vulnerable Democrats defending seats include Sen. Gary Peters in Michigan, a state where Biden has consistently polled above Trump by a higher margin than any other candidate. He’s earned some half a dozen endorsements from sitting lawmakers there, too.
Similarly, he’s picked up strong support in Alabama.
“Even if you look at an example like the state of Alabama where there’s a clear dichotomy between urban-exurban and rural, he’s uniquely positioned not to move just urban voters,” said Democratic Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who has endorsed Biden. “When you think about all parts of the state, he’s actually able to excite and motivate those same Alabamians who may be white or rural.”
Hanging on to the House is not a given, either. Democrats surged in 2018, delivering a wave election even bigger than the Tea Party’s in 2010. But this time around, Trump will be back at the top of the ticket and could make it harder for Democrats who won on his turf.
Biden’s campaign is headquartered in Pennsylvania, a state that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012 but Clinton lost in 2016 and that Democrats will need to win back in 2020 to realistically defeat Trump. He’s racked up endorsements from six sitting and former Pennsylvania lawmakers.
“I think some in the media and the sort of commentary around this race have been a little bit focused on the size and novelty of policy proposals,” Lamb said in a recent interview before heading to Iowa to stump for Biden. “I think Joe Biden is advancing ideas that can actually be passed into law and actually help the lives of people who I care about.”
Liberals shouldn’t be so worried about Biden
A fear among liberal skeptics of Biden is that his pragmatism represents a retreat from the party’s leftward momentum. That’s true in one sense. He doesn’t pass progressive purity tests on issues like Medicare-for-all. On paper, his plans are less ambitious.
But he’d still be the most progressive Democratic nominee in history if he won.
His plans line up closer with the center of gravity in the party, but in recent years the center has moved much further left than even during the Barack Obama years. For example, Biden isn’t willing to replace the Affordable Care Act with a new, single-payer system like Warren or Sanders’s Medicare-for-all. But he does want to improve on it with a major new addition, an expansive public option. He’d also cap premiums at 8.5 percent of a patient’s income.
These might seem small relative to the scope of Medicare-for-all, but Medicare-for-all has pretty much no chance of becoming law, and it’s likely to spark a damaging intraparty fight among congressional Democrats that harms the chances of passing any health care bill.
Lamb pointed out that there probably aren’t enough votes in the Democratic-controlled House to pass it, never mind a Republican-controlled Senate (or even a narrowly Democratic-controlled Senate post-2020). And the key Senate Democrats who will drive health care policy if Democrats retake the gavel have already said Medicare-for-all is a nonstarter.
Ultimately, the question of which health care policy passes Congress comes down to how many votes Democrats have in Congress. If Biden is best for down-ballot Democrats, as many Democrats who’ve won in those states believe, then he’s likelier to get health care reform passed than his competitors with more ambitious plans, but narrower political appeal.
“It takes a lot of integrity not to necessarily back the flashiest thing in the moment but the thing that I can actually do for you and your life,” Lamb said.
Woodfin agreed, echoing Lamb’s point that most Americans don’t favor Medicare-for-all; even among Democrats, the enthusiasm has declined.
“At a certain point, being a leader, wanting to be a leader — the president, the leader of the free world— pragmatism is required,” Woodfin said. “It’s not just this whole world of what I want to do.
“As it relates to his policies, they are pragmatic. They are workable.”
Biden has also outlined a suite of policies that, taken on their own terms, would be the most ambitious governing agenda of any modern Democrat:
- On climate change, Biden’s plan is similar to those of the other leading contenders. He’s also been fighting climate change well before the rest of his party. He introduced the first climate bill ever in the Senate in 1986.
- On criminal justice reform, he’s put forth a sweeping proposal, which my colleague German Lopez, often critical of Biden’s policies, describes as “one of the most comprehensive among the presidential campaigns, taking on various parts of the criminal justice system at once.”
- On gun control, he’s one of just a handful of original candidates to get into his plans in detail.
- On paying for college, Biden was an early supporter of the idea of free college, though he speaks about it less now. He did, however, unveil a well-received plan to make community college free. (He also put forward a comprehensive plan for primary education, which includes boosting spending in poorer districts and raising teacher pay.)
Still, there is one significant policy criticism that Biden can’t overcome easily: his stance on the Iraq War. He voted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support the intervention. He’s recently portrayed the vote as a decision he quickly regretted. But as Alex Ward and Tara Golshan reported for Vox, the story of Biden and Iraq is long, complicated, and arguably checkered.
During a recent debate, Biden reiterated that he regrets the vote and that he has proven he’s trustworthy on the issue.
“It was a mistake and I acknowledged that, but the man who argued against the war, Barack Obama, picked me to be vice president.”
While liberals recall how the Iraq War shaped the 2008 primary and general election, a deadly folly that loomed in voters’ minds, polling amid Trump’s Iran confrontation showed 32 percent of potential Democratic primary voters trusted Biden most on foreign policy. Sanders came in second, trailing him by 12 points.
Matters of war and foreign policy are certainly big enough questions for any individual voter to consider in deciding whom to pick for president. For Biden, he’s overwhelmingly the favorite among Democrats on these matters.
There are some obvious problems with Biden
In an ideal world, the Democrats would likely want a nominee younger than Biden, who is 77.
It’s also true that for a party coming off the historic election of the first African American president and that came within a razor’s edge of electing the first female president, there’s something symbolically disappointing about retreating to another white man.
This is made worse by the fact that when he was pressed to address his problematic personal treatment of women near the launch of his campaign, Biden was perfunctory and dismissive.
Representation matters, and with Biden we’re not getting a real advance. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and there isn’t a younger and slightly more self-reflective version of Biden out there for Democrats to vote for.
There’s way too much that’s both tangibly and symbolically at stake with Trump’s presence in the White House for Democrats to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the politicians with something on the line in tough races think Biden is the best chance to beat him.
Trump has been running — and losing — against Biden for months
Ultimately, the 2020 primary issue Democrats care about most is who can stand up to Trump and beat him. Biden is in a unique position. He’s faced almost a year of attacks by Trump — and it hasn’t hurt him.
In the fall, the American public learned that Trump had enlisted his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to gin up dirt on Biden’s son Hunter Biden by leaning on the government of Ukraine. While these revelations ultimately ended in the president’s impeachment, they also led to months and months of Trump attacking Joe Biden.
In October, Trump really lit into him with personal insults (he “was only a good vice president because he understood how to kiss Barack Obama’s ass”). Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump and his former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on to make fun of Biden’s slight stutter.
Amid all this, Biden’s fundraising skyrocketed, and he paid no penalty in the polls. Biden remains up over Trump in head-to-head polling in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. (As noted earlier, most Democratic candidates beat Trump in head-to-head polling, but Biden consistently holds the highest margin in swing states.)
Biden’s campaign made an ad about Trump’s attacks, which Biden tweeted with a joke, “Why are you so obsessed with me?” Sometimes a joke is funny because it gets at the truth.
Biden isn’t the flashiest candidate or the most ambitious in his proposals. But he’s the candidate who is in the best position to beat Trump and take back the Senate. He’s stayed strong in the polls nationally and up against Trump in key states, despite months of attacks. He’s got strong support from different types of Democrats. And most of all, the Democrats who know what it takes to win in Trump country believe he’s the best candidate for the job.