“Sanders is saying we need a political revolution. Warren was saying we need to overhaul America, big structural change, big money,” said the same adviser. “You had this whole dynamic on the left, very populist, a lot of anger, and very strong feelings about the need for reshaping America, the whole Warren-Sanders message. That is what is dominating the conventional thinking about the coming campaign: that the Democratic Party is becoming a party of the hard left and you must be responsive to that. That grew out of the rubble of the ’16 election. Then you draw a line through to Ocasio-Cortez winning in New York and you have a whole throughline: This is what the Democratic Party is. This is a kind of revolutionary moment, and we have to meet it with that sort of thinking. And it mattered because Sanders was already there and Warren moved in that direction. And that’s where Harris went. And that’s where Booker went. And the truth is that’s where Buttigieg went at the outset. He’s executing a pretty quiet retreat to the center now. But previously it was, ‘I’m all in with the new progressive world’ for a long time. So the whole party moved hard left. That’s where it went. That’s not how Biden was looking at the race.”
The adviser added, “He understood there was a rising tide in terms of a vocal, energized left. He’s not blind to it. But he didn’t see it as swamping the whole party. There was still a pretty broad swath of Democrats who hadn’t just decided to reject the Obama-era Democratic Party theory.”
Klain said, “It would be preposterous for him to stand up and say, ‘I’m the furthest to the left candidate in the field,’ or for him to stand up and say, ‘I’m a complete outsider and I have no experience doing things.’ We’re running the kind of race that is him.”
When most political observers watch Biden in a debate or at a diner interacting with voters or delivering his stump speech, they tend to have two main impressions: Biden looks very old and he rambles, sometimes to the point of incoherence. They—we!—wonder how it is that this seemingly flawed candidate has remained at the top of the national polls for the entire year.
Many reporters also initially thought that George W. Bush’s inability to communicate effectively was a major liability and that Donald Trump’s erratic behavior would almost certainly be rejected by Republican primary voters. Most of these observers also happen to be writers or TV analysts, people who place a high value on polished communication skills. That is the prism through which Biden’s longevity in politics is generally viewed by the media: age and possible mental decline. Whether Biden’s decades of experience is ultimately processed by voters as “too old” or “presidential” is key to his fate.
Biden’s top aides have insisted all year that Biden brought major assets to the race that were deeply misunderstood by the largely New York-based media elite who had similarly underestimated Trump in their coverage of the 2016 Republican primary. Biden was the only candidate in the field who unquestionably could be president on his first day in office. He had high favorability ratings among Democrats, was seen as empathetic, and he had a glowing Obama halo.
Biden’s experience “was always baked into the candidacy,” Klain said, “on the negative side his age, on the positive side the fact that he’s been around a long time and done a lot of things would be an asset for us not a liability. We just elected someone with no experience, look how that worked out.”
So far they’ve been right. In addition to experience serving as a proxy for presidential qualities, it has served as a useful contrast to his opponents who are senators. “Sanders has his veterans thing he did with McCain, but otherwise he’s kind of just been talking about what he’s going to do,” said the top Biden adviser. “Warren obviously has the Consumer Finance thing, but just look on paper in terms of the achievements and there isn’t a close call.”
The final insight from the Biden brain trust was about demographics. Biden dominates among African American voters and does well with white working-class voters. According to data compiled for POLITICO by Morning Consult, which conducts a weekly national tracking poll of the Democratic primary, Biden’s support among African Americans has hovered around 40 percent (the low point was 31 percent and the high point was 47 percent). Biden’s support among white working-class voters has averaged about 35 percent (the low point was 28 percent and the high point was 41 percent). But Biden is weaker with white college-educated voters. His standing with white-collar white voters has been around 28 percent (the low point was 24 percent and the high point was 37 percent).
Across every category of race and education Biden does much better with older voters. He is very weak with young voters. Biden’s older working-class white and African American base has been incredibly stable. There has been only one day when another candidate overtook Biden in national polling averages. (It was Warren on October 7, and she then began her precipitous decline.)
But the media narrative of a more volatile race has been skewed by the influence of college-educated whites, who now represent the largest group in the Democratic electorate. This group is over-represented in the two early voting states where Biden has been overtaken in the polls. And this group has been the most volatile, fueling the surges of Kamala Harris, Warren and Buttigieg. Not surprisingly, this is also the group that is most represented in the media and online. When this group suddenly becomes enamored of a candidate, it is loud on Twitter and on MSNBC, it shows up in polling in Iowa, and it can seem like the whole race has shifted. The Biden campaign argues that this is a driving force for why many political pundits have misunderstood the race.
“What people basically look at is where is the race among very liberal whites,” said a top Biden adviser, describing why he believes the media, especially the young and liberal Cambridge-Brooklyn-Shaw axis of news professionals, underestimated the former vice president.
Another top adviser said, “What happens in campaigns—and it’s been exacerbated by Twitter and social media—is that you get a cool-kid conventional wisdom, and then at some point, voters get read into the process and voters quite often behave differently than the cool kids do.”
Exciting liberal candidates fueled by college-educated whites have a long history of disappointment in Democratic presidential primaries: Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1992, Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean in 2004. All of those candidacies were defeated by a more establishment Democrat who put together a coalition of the white working-class and African American voters. Biden’s advisers have long insisted that those were useful models for understanding 2020, while advisers to Warren have often scoffed at the idea that that bygone era of politics has much to teach in the new Democratic Party.
In 2008, Obama made history by winning with a coalition of white-collar whites and African Americans. For the first time, the cool-kid candidate of liberal elites won. In 2016, Clinton beat Sanders with this same Obama-style coalition. College-educated whites are now a large and ideologically diverse group in the Democratic electorate, so Biden could end up enjoying a sizable share of their support. But if Biden wins the nomination, his campaign will be a restoration not just in terms of its Clinton-Obama era advisers, or in terms of his policies, which eschew what’s currently fashionable on the coastal left, but also in terms of its voters. It would be a return to the working-class and black coalition that dominated Democratic politics for three decades before 2008.
Will it work? Biden’s demise has been endlessly predicted, and yet going into the new year he is in the same spot he was in at the end of 2018: the frontrunner and slight favorite to win the nomination.
For all of their eye-rolling about the press and their occasional gloating about Biden’s durability, Biden’s top aides know he could still lose.
“I do feel like the bottom on this whole thing could fall out at any minute,” said a senior staffer.
“I still think it’s very volatile and very wide open,” said an adviser noting how Biden’s ups and downs in Iowa have been nerve-wracking. “If he comes 10 or 15 points behind in Iowa then you worry about what happens in South Carolina.”