Joe Biden is emerging as a human Treasury bond in a time of turmoil. That is, the favored instrument for nervous political investors searching for safety in an electorally uncertain era.
Almost every Democratic presidential candidate has gotten a bump when she or he entered the race, but Biden’s rise to solid front-runner status feels different. Unlike South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Senator Kamala Harris of California or Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Biden is most decidedly not a shiny new object of interest. Quite the contrary. Just a couple of weeks ago, he struck some analysts as too much of an old battle-scarred figure from the past to succeed in today’s Democratic presidential politics.
But Biden’s lead in the polls — and not just nationally but in first-primary-in-the-nation New Hampshire — reflects two underlying (and underestimated) strengths: acceptability and electability. Whatever the various concerns or caveats about him, the former vice president is someone many Democrats feel comfortable with. As an eight-year understudy to a president rightly popular with Democrats, Biden is also easy to imagine sitting in the Oval Office. Further, his role as Barack Obama’s junior partner has left him in good stead with African-American voters, while his own biography and political history give him real purchase with blue-collar and union voters.
And he’s obviously occupying premium political space in Donald Trump’s head. How else to explain Trump’s Biden-targeting twitter-explosion? Trump’s fixation with him and reported fears about running against him only increase Biden’s campaign cachet. And all that adds up to something none of the other hopefuls can yet claim: a polling-reinforced perception that he can retake the White House for the Democrats. That’s a big plus at a time when likely primary voters are putting a premium on a candidate’s perceived ability to beat Donald Trump.
Now, one thing you hear a lot in early assessments is that Biden’s standing in the polls is mostly based on name recognition, and that he’s got nowhere to go but down. Maybe. That is often the case with well-known front-runners. Yet in this race, Biden has a certain unrecognized asset. Let’s call that asset by his name: Bernie Sanders.
Sanders’ supporters follow him with a devotion unseen since the fictive days of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. But unlike Biden, Sanders is someone many center-left Democrats fear would be a general-election loser. Yes, the two men are of similar political vintage. Biden, however, is a well-liked moderate, verbally gusty but gregarious, known during his Senate days as a deal-maker, and someone who looks the part of president. Sanders is, both ideologically and temperamentally, an aloof and sometimes irascible loner.
So why is Sanders a Biden asset? Because most polls show the Vermont independent-running-as-a-Democrat perched in a solid second among the Democratic hopefuls, both nationally and in New Hampshire. Sanders may not have huge growth prospects, but given the devotion of his followers, neither does he seem likely to do a fast fade.
Think of the campaign as a tall ladder. Biden has a reasonably high perch. Sanders is a dozen or so rungs below him, the other attention-commanding candidates grouped together some rungs further down. To climb into position to challenge Biden, one of the others first has to separate her or himself from the pack, and then clamber over Sanders.
That’s not an impossible task, certainly, but this year it’s likely to be harder than in past campaigns. One reason: Some of the candidates who might otherwise catch fire face doubts about whether they could win nationally against Trump. Both Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg fall into that category.
Can those doubts be overcome? Yes. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign demonstrates that. But until they are, Joe Biden is perched in the catbird seat.