Washington, D.C.: Joe Biden’s strongest selling point — that he’s the most likely to beat Donald Trump — is losing some of its edge, as Elizabeth Warren vaults into second place because a growing number of Democrats think she can win the general election.
In a new Economist/YouGov poll, 65 per cent of Democratic voters said Biden would ‘probably beat Donald Trump’ — unchanged from June. But the number saying the same thing about Warren jumped 14 points since then, to 57 per cent, the highest of any other candidate.
In the overall race, Biden led Warren by just 1 point among Democrats in a matchup with Trump. That’s after being 16 points ahead of her in June, according to the poll.
Warren’s boost in the primary dovetails her improving head-to-head poll numbers against Trump. A Fox News survey this week found her leading Trump by 7 points nationally, after the same poll found them statistically tied in June. It also coincides with rival campaigns and party strategists beginning to explicitly challenge the notion that Biden is electable.
Biden’s perceived electability “rests on some weak assumptions,” said Faiz Shakir, campaign manager for Bernie Sanders. “You have to excite people about where you want to take this country. I’ve yet to see that materialise from the Biden campaign.”
Sanders and Warren offer contrasting visions for how to defeat Trump — one that hinges on mobilising some of the 100 million disenchanted voters who sat out the 2016 election. Biden is trying to win back middle-of-the-road voters who flipped from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.
Henry Singleton of New York watched all the major Democratic candidates make their pitch to black voters at the NAACP convention in Detroit last month. He was impressed with Kamala Harris, but he plans to vote for Biden in the primary.
“We can’t play with this. This is very, very serious,” Singleton said. “The rhetoric and what Donald Trump is doing — we got to get this man out of office. We can’t take a chance, and Joe Biden is our best chance.”
Some 2020 Democratic operatives have a nickname for those who are basing their votes on electability: the “pundit voter.”
Biden sceptics say he would meet the same fate as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, campaigning as a longtime creature of Washington who appears to have “electability” but lacks a fresh vision. They believe his long record allows Trump to replay his 2016 strategy in industrial states that decided the election — undermine Biden with the middle class by highlighting his support for unpopular trade deals like NAFTA, and use his spotty record on race to tamp down the enthusiasm of minority voters.
“I believe Joe Biden is more of a gamble than anyone in the political establishment is willing to say out loud,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and former aide to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is also running for president.
“It’s not just Hillary Clinton. Look at John Kerry before her. Look at Al Gore. Democrats keep nominating candidates who they think are the best-qualified to win, but the candidates who actually win are the ones that people did not predict,” Katz said, citing Barack Obama. “At what point do the smart D.C. insiders stop pretending they know what electability really means and start asking the question: Who are the voters most passionate about?”
Biden’s campaign said those comparisons are irrelevant because 2020 is a unique playing field.
“It’s a weak argument,” said John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster and adviser. “You can’t compare apples to oranges. You can’t even compare it to 2016, which wasn’t too long ago. Trump was a hypothetical, he is a reality now.”
Anzalone said no other Democrat has run ran against an incumbent like Trump, arguing that his inexperience and erratic temperament pose a uniquely strong contrast for the former vice president, a 44-year veteran of Washington.
“Democrats want to win. They look at Joe Biden and think that he can beat Trump,” Anzalone said. “They kind of know he’s the guy who can win important swing voters.”
In the Fox News poll, Democrats said by a 24-point margin that it’s more important to have a candidate ‘who will restore the country and get American politics back to normality’ — the core of Biden’s pitch — over ‘a candidate who will fundamentally change the way things work in Washington,” which is Warren’s message.
Warren’s campaign declined to comment on the latest surveys and pointed to her remarks in the second debate.
“There is a lot at stake, and people are scared. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in,” Warren said in the debate. “Democrats win when we figure out what is right and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid, either.”
Bryce Smith, chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party in Iowa, said perceptions of electability are fluid in the first-in-the-nation contest, where Biden’s lead over rivals has narrowed to single digits.
“From the very beginning, when the first Democrats announced, the major question of support was and still is: Who can beat Donald Trump? And what’s happening is a lot of voters, especially here in Dallas County, are meeting the candidates and thinking, ‘Oh, man, they could beat Donald Trump,’” Smith said.
“It’s not just what they see in polls or on TV,” he said. “You’re going to see the race really tighten up in Iowa because people are meeting more candidates.”