Joe Biden's frontrunner success shows identity politics aren't moving Democratic voters

Older, white voters still form the core of the party, and they show no signs of faulting the former vice president for looking and sounding like them.
Image: Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arrives for a campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden arrives for a campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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By David Mark

Reports of the death of the Democratic old guard in the face of a "woke" Democratic electorate have been greatly exaggerated.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is currently the undisputed front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, despite being a septuagenarian white male who’s spent decades striding the halls of power in Washington. He’s leading even though the 20-plus-person Democratic field is by far the most diverse in American political history — including African American lawmakers, several female senators, a gay Midwestern mayor and many more.

Biden’s lead flies in the face of predictions by pundits and political professionals that his candidacy would be fatally damaged by his uber-establishment background.

With all the usual caveats about the fluidity of public opinion and it being extremely early in the primary season, Biden leads his closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 38.3 percent to 18.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and a smattering of other candidates are mired in the single digits.

Biden’s lead flies in the face of predictions by pundits and political professionals that his candidacy would be fatally damaged by his uber-establishment background, which includes 36 years as a center-left Delaware senator and eight more as Barack Obama’s vice president. Nor has he so far been sunk by self-inflicted wounds, such as his “handsiness” with women or his much-maligned stewardship of the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, when he and senatorial colleagues gave short shrift to Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment by the Supreme Court nominee.

Biden is soaring because the Democratic electorate that will actually select the party’s candidate remains relatively old and white with a significant bloc of African American voters with whom the former veep has a long electoral history. And it shows no sign of prioritizing grievance politics based on gender and race in its choice of a presidential nominee, indicating that the political acumen of vocal left-wing critics who have labeled these the defining issues for the party and its constituents is weak.

In a typical critique, Jill Filipovic, author of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness,” wrote in a New York Times opinion piece Friday that “it is baffling” that anyone would “conclude that the most electable candidate is Joe Biden, an older white man tightly associated with sexual harassment and racism, even if he is polling ahead more than a year before the election.”

But it’s not so baffling once you realize that these types of critics — well-represented as they might be on the opinion pages of leading coastal newspapers — are a relatively small, if noisy, element of the Democratic voting coalition. In one very telling data point, the Hidden Tribes, a project run by a group devoted to addressing political partisanship, found in October that those at the political extremes use social media to express their views much more than the considerably larger moderate wings of each party.

The dire warnings against an unwoke candidate are clearly off-base given that Biden’s perceived liabilities over his treatment of women haven’t materialized (at least not yet). A Hill-HarrisX poll, conducted a few weeks before Biden officially joined the Democratic fray in late April, found that only 23 percent of people surveyed thought recent allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women should disqualify him from seeking the White House.

And, according to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, Biden has strong, even overwhelming, support from female voters in Pennsylvania (60-36 over Trump), a virtually must-win state for Democrats. (It helps that it’s the one in which Biden grew up.)

While Biden may have been a bit too physically familiar with women in public, there’s zero evidence of his actually taking advantage of female colleagues. Biden is by all accounts a devoted family man without a hint of truly untoward behavior. None of that is to excuse Biden’s “handsiness” or conduct as Judiciary Committee chair during the Thomas episode. But Biden has likely helped his cause by acknowledging he crossed lines and needs to make at least some amends with Hill, though she says his remorse hasn’t gone far enough.

Moreover, skeptics are missing the structural reasons for Biden’s ride atop the polling wave, reasons that make it likely he’ll stay there. For starters, there’s Biden’s demographic edge in the primaries. Biden, 76 and white, broadly fits the profile of the Democratic electorate that will select the nominee.

Voters in their 50s or older turn out to the polls at the highest rates, according to post-2016 U.S. Census Bureau data and a range of surveys spanning decades. This extends to the Democratic primaries, where older Americans are the most reliable voters. A pair of polls, Hill-Harris and Quinnipiac, show him doing best with older voters, while younger voters are more divided. And in 2016, white voters comprised 62 percent of Democratic primary voters (down just 3 points from 2008), according to a CNN analysis.

Biden also has strong bases of support with one of the most important nonwhite Democratic constituencies, African American voters. At 24 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016, according to CNN, the constituency favors Biden by more than 30 points over Sanders, his next-closest competitor for their vote.

A campaign button in support of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Philadelphia on May 18, 2019.Dominick Reuter / AFP - Getty Images

Beyond the deep relationships he has cultivated with the African American community over generations and his role as the first black president’s right-hand man, Biden matches African American voters ideologically, as they tend to be fairly moderate, sometimes even conservative.

A Brookings Institution study from 2013 through 2018 found 54 percent of whites in the Democratic Party call themselves “liberal,” compared to 33 percent of blacks. As just one example, black voters — led by religious leaders — in 2008 helped pass California’s Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal.

And African Americans aren’t the only Democrats who are moderate. On the whole, the primary electorate is a fairly pragmatic bunch. A Pew poll in January found that 53 percent of Democrats would like to see their party move in a more moderate direction (as opposed to 40 percent who prefer a more liberal orientation). And defeating the current president is the top priority of primary voters, a slew of surveys have shown. The most recent, a Fox News poll released May 17, found that for 73 percent, “can beat Trump” is the most important quality in a Democratic nominee, above other characteristics such as “shares views on major issues” and “has new ideas.”

Biden matches African American voters ideologically, as they tend to be fairly moderate, sometimes even conservative.

That approach has already been successfully road-tested by a swath of Democratic representatives who in 2018 helped the party win a majority of the U.S. House for the first time in eight years. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term congresswoman from deep-blue New York City, might get the most media attention for stridently championing the Green New Deal and other left-wing causes. But more of the freshman Democratic class comes from swingy areas where Biden can excel, such as formerly Republican redoubts in suburban Houston, coastal South Carolina and Irvine, California.

It’s a prospect Biden is already embracing. "Some say Democrats don't want to hear about unity. They are angry, and the angrier you are, the better. That's what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination,” Biden said in a speech in Philadelphia on Saturday. “Well, I don't believe it. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That's what we've always been about.”