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Joe Biden’s Pitch to the Doubters

Eric Lach writes about Joe Biden’s latest positive polling results, his gaffe-free recent appearances, his campaign strategy, and the lingering doubts that Democrats have about his suitability as a candidate.

Has a Presidential front-runner ever come in for more doubt than Joe Biden? All through 2019, even as national and state polls showed him ahead in the Democratic primary race, his opponents and the press dismissed him. His leads were illusory, they said. He was out of touch, his campaign operation too ramshackle, his support too tepid. During the primary debates, he often found himself on the butt end of viral sound bites. Afterward, in the spin rooms, his surrogates would stare down gangs of reporters who were all basically asking veiled versions of the same question: “How long can this go on?” Even Biden occasionally seemed to hesitate. At his campaign stops in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses—where you could often feel and occasionally even see audience members’ attention drifting—the candidate would sometimes cede the stage to prominent supporters, letting them serve as closers, making the pitch to voters. It was a situation so strange that, in early February, one of those prominent supporters, former Secretary of State John Kerry, was overheard in a Des Moines hotel lobby discussing the ins and outs of making a late jump into the Presidential race.

In the months since the Democratic primary effectively ended, in early March, Biden has never come close to trailing Donald Trump in the polling averages. The map of the so-called battleground states, too, has consistently favored him. Polls have found that Biden attracts strong support from seniors—a crucial voting demographic that Democrats had until recently thought was lost for good to Republicans—and that voters, over all, hold Biden in higher esteem than Trump on issues ranging from the coronavirus response to racism to trustworthiness. FiveThirtyEight’s election model currently gives Trump about a one in four chance of winning the election. It gives slightly higher odds that Biden will win the national popular vote by more than ten percentage points—a feat not seen since Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale, in 1984. The Trump campaign spent the summer disparaging Biden, cutting deceptive videos of him in an attempt to make him look befuddled, or worse. But Biden has generally been gaffe-free since winning the nomination. He has laid low at times, but he’s been sharp when the most eyes have been on him, such as during his acceptance speech, last month, at the Democratic National Convention. And after struggling to fund his campaign during the primaries, he’s enjoyed a historic surge of donations in recent weeks, helping him erase the financial advantage that many pundits believed Trump would enjoy this fall no matter who the Democratic nominee was.

And yet the doubts are creeping back up on Biden. This week, the Times ran the headline “Does Biden Need a Higher Gear? Some Democrats Think So.” There have been questions about whether he’s spending enough time in the Midwest. Whether he’s making strong enough overtures to Hispanic voters. And whether his campaign’s decision to abandon door-knocking this spring, as the pandemic exploded around the country, should be maintained through the fall. Bernie Sanders, the leader of the Democratic Party’s left wing, who has embraced an alliance with the moderate Biden in the name of defeating Trump, has lately, according to the Washington Post, been “urging Biden’s team to intensify its focus on pocketbook issues and appeals to liberal voters.”

Some of this, no doubt, is anxiety provoked by the memory of 2016. The word “front-runner” gives Democrats the willies. No polling lead can be trusted. Some of this, also, is a response to a general-election campaign that looks very different from what anyone could have imagined when 2020 began. Can a septuagenarian live streamer win the White House? Biden has only recently begun to emerge from the basement-bound campaign he waged this spring and summer, into, in the words of the Washington Post campaign reporter David Weigel, a “Bubble Campaign,” making select, targeted trips around the country to speak in front of small audiences. Some of these trips seem explicitly designed to quiet doubts. Last week, Biden spoke in…

Eric Lach

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