If it seems like Joe Biden is running for the nomination of a different Democratic Party than the rest of his rivals, that’s because he is.
Story Continued Below
From his schedule to his messaging to his policy positions, the former vice president is carving a divergent path through the primaries based on a theory that few of his rivals appear to believe — that the Democratic base isn’t nearly as liberal or youthful as everyone thinks.
It’s a high-risk strategy at a time when the progressive wing is pulsing with energy. There is a danger of looking disconnected from the rising Obama coalition, or seeming to adhere to an outdated view of the party.
But so far it’s working. Since his April 25 launch, despite talk that his polling numbers would slide once he entered the race because he was out of step with the current party mood, Biden has instead led in every national survey. He sprinted out of the gate with a post-announcement 6-point bump and still hold leads in recent early state polls.
“He is keeping his eye on becoming the nominee. And the more important thing, if you do become the nominee, you have to win the Electoral College in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said Jim Mowrer, who ran veterans issues in Iowa for Biden’s 2008 presidential race. “If you’re only speaking to a specific group in the Democratic party, those things are not going to be appealing to the general electorate.”
Biden doesn’t explicitly articulate his theory on the Democratic primary electorate, though he has publicly expressed his view that the party hasn’t moved appreciably more to the left.
“The fact of the matter is the vast majority of the members of the Democratic Party are still basically liberal to moderate Democrats in the traditional sense,” he told reporters in early April. “The idea that all of a sudden, the Democratic Party woke up and, you know, everybody asks, what kind of Democrat are you, I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I’m proud of it.”
Privately, several Biden advisers acknowledge that their theory of the case is rooted in polling data and voting trends that are in plain sight. They contend that the idea of a hyper-progressive Democratic electorate is advanced inaccurately by a media stuck in a bubble propagated by Twitter, and out of touch with the average rank-and-file Democrat.
Biden’s team points to recent polls showing that a majority of the Democratic primary electorate identify as moderate or conservative, 56 percent is over 50 and nearly 60 percent are not college educated. And they point to the results of the 2018 midterm elections that they say saw moderate Democrats win their congressional and state primaries.
“There’s a big disconnect between the media narrative and what the primary electorate looks like and thinks, versus the media narrative and the Twitter narrative,” said one Biden adviser who declined to speak on the record. “The Democratic primary universe is far less liberal. It’s older than you think it is.”
That might explain the former vice president’s digital advertising buys since entering the race. Since his launch, Biden’s campaign has disproportionately focused on targeting Facebook ads to voters 45 years and older.
They make up an estimated 62 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a top Democratic digital firm. Biden has spent 83 percent of his total $1.2 million Facebook ad money on targeting them, according to data compiled by Bully Pulpit from April 20 until May 25.
No other top Democratic candidate in the primary has pursued a similar strategy.
There are other subtle indicators of his path he is pursuing. Unlike other top tier Democratic 2020 contenders who were eager to appear on liberal kingmaker Rachel Maddow’s show once the primary race began taking shape, Biden sat with “The View” and ABC News, where he laid out his progressive bonafides as Barack Obama’s No. 2.
“The things that we did in the United States as president and vice president of the United States, I thought they were pretty progressive. I guess there’s this new notion that you somehow you have to have — well, I guess people have to take a look and see I’ve been very progressive on things that really matter for the vast majority of people.”
As a front-runner with high name identification, Biden is afforded scheduling luxuries that other candidates do not have. Still, he raised eyebrows with his absence from the California Democratic Party convention last weekend, which 14 of his rivals flocked to. (The former vice president was in Ohio for a Human Rights Campaign event at the same time.)
Biden also skipped a presidential forum in San Francisco moderated by the grassroots liberal group MoveOn.org last weekend — another high-profile progressive event which was simultaneously live-streamed to its 500,000 members.
“Any candidate serious about the nomination should be prioritizing relationships with the grassroots organizations like MoveOn,” said Reggie Hubbard, Washington, D.C., strategist for the group. “We don’t take any offense to it. But it was definitely a missed opportunity.”
On Sunday, the former vice president was a no-show at another “cattle call” party event — this one in Iowa, attended by 19 other presidential hopefuls. His campaign said he was attending his granddaughter’s graduation.
It’s not that Biden is bypassing big party events altogether. He’s just being selective in the ones he chooses to go to. He’s scheduled to speak at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s convention later this month — where fewer candidates will be in attendance and the state party bends closer toward the center than its more liberal counterparts in California and Iowa.
When it comes to policy, Biden hasn’t been as quick to join his competitors in embracing the purist positions preferred by progressive activists. That includes shrugging off Medicare for All, even as his closest rival, Bernie Sanders, champions it and as other top-tier candidates pile on with their support.
Biden has already been stung for some of his stances, criticized as out of step with the party. He was lambasted preemptively — by Ocasio-Cortez and others — for what they expected to be a middle-of-the-road climate policy proposal. But last week, the Biden campaign released a $1.7 trillion climate plan that embraced the framework of the Green New Deal.
The bigger problem came on the issue of abortion rights. Biden had said he’d maintain his longtime support for the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions in most circumstances, including for low-income women enrolled in Medicaid. At one time, that position wasn’t rare among Democratic politicians. But it is close to untenable now, and Biden last week reversed his support just after saying he wouldn’t, amid great external and internal campaign pressure.
“It reflects the difficulty of defending a 45-year record that spans political eras,” said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former strategist.