Ever since Donald Trump’s presidency hit the 500-day mark, the media have been speculating daily about the next presidential election. As we watch the ongoing reality show, Nov. 3, 2020 seems like it will be the final episode of a multi-year season of “Washington Survivor.”
Which Democrat will rise above the pack? A few weeks ago, CNN published its ranking of the Democrats most likely to be the nominee, based on polling and lessons from history. In reverse order of likelihood, as of the end of July, they are:
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio;
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu;
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey;
Governor Steve Bullock of Montana;
Former attorney general Eric Holder;
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont;
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York;
Senator Kamala Harris of California;
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts;
Former vice president Joe Biden.
Regardless of what you think of this list (why are former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles missing?), what would my panel of 500 voters think of it?
Half the group had no idea who Brown, Landrieu, Booker, and Bullock are. Only three candidates were known to all: Biden, Warren, and Sanders. And the favorite, far ahead of the rest, and palatable even to many Republicans: Joe Biden.
Some voters talked about Facebook posts about him, while others had read his recent book, “Promise Me, Dad.” Some talked about his ability to connect with working-class voters, while others talked about his foreign policy experience. Sharleen, an African-American from Virginia, admitted that despite her commitment to getting women and people of color elected, she would be “down for Biden,” and Chas, a white coal miner from Kentucky, said that he trusts that Biden supports the troops in a profound way because of the tragic loss of his son Beau.
The theme from Democrats is that Biden is less extreme than the others on the list and has the potential to heal the division in our country, to “tap into the humanity of everyone.” Said Tim from Wyoming, “I am scared to death that the Democrat reaction to this crazy time will be to nominate a super left-wing, socialist-leaning candidate, who will ultimately get massacred by Trump and only make our divisions worse.” Brenda from Michigan added, “Biden has friends on both sides of the aisle and is one of the few on the list who has publicly demonstrated an ability to appear bipartisan, and in the coming election, that will become incredibly important.”
Many Republicans — including many Trump voters — said they could live with Biden. Said Carly from New Hampshire, “If Biden were running, I would watch the debates very carefully and give him a fair shake.” She explained that he is he is pro-military, pro-ICE, and pro-police, and that she doesn’t believe he is corrupt. Added Jesse from Texas, “If I woke up tomorrow and Biden was president, I’d be thankful it was him and none of the others on the list.” Many Republicans admitted that they would have voted for Biden in 2016 if he were the nominee.
The dominant theme about Biden from across the political spectrum was how people feel about him as a person. Over 40 of my voters described him using the word “love.” Voters talked about his “class,” “dignity,” “inner strength,” “patriotism,” “authenticity,” “compassion,” and his ability to “stop the boat from rocking violently and to lead us back to some sense of normalcy and decency.”
The primary negative for Biden is that he is 75 years old. “I would want a presidential candidate in her 50s or 60s, mostly due to the rigors of campaigning,” said Richard from Connecticut. “However, I’d make an exception for Biden.”
Voters under 30 were the ones who had the least concern about age. They wrote that health and stamina are more important than age, that it wasn’t an issue with Bernie Sanders, and that being president doesn’t require the rigors of playing football. “For what it’s worth,” said Joey from New York, “I’ve always had the impression that I’ll live to at least 100, and I can’t really imagine wanting to retire before 80.”
When I pressed on the age issue, voters mostly believe that 80 might be the new 60. After all, 85-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says she has five more years on the Supreme Court; investor Warren Buffett is 87 and starting a new health care company; and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who just turned 41, can take hits and still throw accurate touchdown passes. Ira from California, who is 83, said that he feels 60, swims 50 laps a day followed by an hour at the gym, and writes and sculpts to stay sharp; he would consider Biden if he thought he hadn’t “lost his fastball.” Said Pete, a Massachusetts college student, “My logic says he is too old and the party needs new blood. But I love Joe Biden as a politician and as a human being. So as for Joe Biden running, my brain says no, but my heart says ‘I’m all in. When do you need me to start knocking on doors, Joe?’”
The lack of name recognition for the other candidates will change, of course, in the next two years. But just as the name Trump was an advantage in a variegated field of 17 Republicans in 2016, Biden’s familiarity could be a huge asset among a large slate of candidates.
Democrats could lurch to the left in 2020, backing a candidate intended to swing the political world back from four Republican-dominated years. No milquetoast moderate is likely to win the nomination. But a Democrat who can actually win in 2020 will have to unite the party with liberal bona fides, appeal to those across the aisle, and promise to normalize a government reeling from Trumpian chaos. That sounds a lot like Joe Biden.
Clarification: The voters in this column were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.