Our campus is abuzz with political discussions that will only become more important as the Democratic primary continues and the general presidential election of 2020 nears. President Trump’s defects and malign activities, while not the focus of this piece and too numerous in quantity to list here, have made him a weak incumbent, vulnerable to defeat. However, the president’s electoral odds are being strengthened by the Democratic party’s hard-left turn and embrace of candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Confined to the Duke bubble or progressive Twitter, one could not be faulted for perceiving that there is widespread support for hard-left policies and that a campaign centered on these policies can capture strong voting majorities.
But there is little evidence to support either of those conclusions. In fact, political science findings continue to suggest that candidates with more ideologically extreme positions are punished by general election voters. To make matters worse, many of the more extreme Democratic candidates, in an effort to attract progressive supporters, have exposed themselves to future general election attacks for taking controversial stances on issues such as eliminating private health insurance, providing medicare coverage to illegal immigrants, and compulsory gun buybacks.
Enter: Joe Biden.
He is certainly not perfect or without his faults, but a strong case for supporting Joe Biden can be found in 1) his electoral advantages vis-à-vis the President and 2) his potential to restore the country to a state of cooperation and effective governance.
Of all the candidates in the Democratic field, Biden has the clearest path to an Electoral College victory. It is no secret that Trump’s path to victory hinged on small margin victories in key rustbelt states, namely, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In fact, outside of flipping both Florida and Arizona (both of which Trump carried by larger margins), it is hard to imagine a Democratic path to electoral victory that does not involve those three states.
It is also no secret that Biden’s childhood roots in Scranton, PA, role in the 2009 auto bailout, and history of political moderation afford him significant advantages in these swing states. In a September 4 poll, Biden held a nine point lead on Trump in Wisconsin, while Warren was even with Trump. Moreover, in a July 25 poll, Biden held an eight point general election lead over Trump in Ohio (a state which Trump carried by eight points in 2016) while Sanders and Warren both trailed Trump by one point. While polls can certainly change, it is likely that a Biden nomination would not only put the rustbelt on the table but would also deliver it, and by extension the White House, by a comfortable margin.
However, stemming largely from the primary success of Sanders and Trump’s ultimate general election victory in 2016, there is a notion that the Democratic nominee needs to “energize” the Democratic base by racing to the left. Sanders and Warren both embody this high energy strategy, campaigning on “political revolution” and “big, structural change” respectively.
By contrast, the 2018 midterms suggest that the path to Democratic victory in purple states (i.e. states that the Democratic nominee will need to win in 2020) is to campaign moderately and smartly on issues that have broad appeal while letting Trump’s unpopularity and the fatigued Republican base take care of the rest. A hard-left swing will not only dissuade moderate voters who are otherwise fed up with Trump, but will also rally the Republican base around fears of socialism and draconian wealth redistribution.
Outside of democratic socialism somehow catching fire in the politically moderate heartland, it is hard to foresee how the Sanders/Warren strategy will result in an Electoral College victory. Indeed, this path is more likely to inflate Democratic margins in places like California and New York at the expense of crucial Midwestern swing states. All of these electoral advantages aside, a Democratic strategist would be remiss to ignore the serious problem both Sanders and Warren have in attracting African American voters (a critical component of a winning coalition in 2020). Thus, if the goal is to actually win the White House, the more moderate Biden is the best candidate to run in the general election.
Still, some might retort that electability shouldn’t be the only consideration when picking a nominee; instead, a candidate’s ideas and capacity to enact change should take precedence. However, it is in this area that Biden especially separates himself from the pack and wins on the merits. It is highly probable that the winner of this coming presidential election will face at least one Republican-controlled chamber during their term. Given this reality, it is wildly unrealistic to expect that a candidate will be able to implement sweeping policy changes without significant compromise and bipartisan agreements.
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Importantly, Biden is the only top-tier candidate who has a chance of softening our partisan animosity and returning the country to a state of normalcy. His likability is contagious and cuts across socioeconomic and even party lines. In addition, be it the Brady background check bill for gun control in 1994 or his sponsorship of the first climate change bill back in 1986, Biden has a proven capacity for bipartisan leadership. In line with this track record, his current proposals for America recognize the serious challenges before us—climate change, healthcare, and an evolving economy—but seek to rectify them through measured and practical solutions that actually have a chance of adoption.
In contrast, Sanders and Warren are polarizing figures who, if elected, would represent a swing in our national politics from the far-right to the far-left. Political gridlock would continue and our descent into ever greater polarization and anger would persist. There would be nothing restorative or healing about a Sanders or Warren presidency as each would seek radical agendas that demand little in the way of compromise or pluralism.
Finally, it is worth examining and deconstructing some common criticisms of Joe Biden. It is true that Biden’s debate performances have been shaky thus far. Yet it's not as if Biden would be facing an eloquent or rational debater in Donald Trump come 2020, nor is there compelling evidence that recent presidential debates have strongly influenced voters (as only the most engaged voters watch). Furthermore, despite his gaffes and occasionally rambling responses, it appears that voters don’t particularly care given how Biden has retained his polling lead. Lastly, other candidates have insinuated that the 76-year old Biden is too old and out of touch for young voters. Yet his challengers (i.e. Warren, Sanders, and Trump) are all septuagenarians themselves at 70, 78, and 73 respectively. It is clear that none of Biden’s opponents can play a “youth” card and that the media’s incessantly negative coverage of Biden is telling and perhaps indicative of its bias.
In conclusion, far-left activists and insurgent progressives within the Democratic party are increasing Donald Trump’s odds of reelection. They are simultaneously undermining the most electable candidate available and handing President Trump gift after gift as they adopt controversial hard-left stances. So, as political discussions continue on campus, it is worth remembering that Joe Biden, despite his imperfections, is uniquely positioned to defeat President Trump in 2020 and has the best chance of implementing an actual agenda.
Mitchell Murphy and Matthew Noles are Trinity seniors. Their column “prose and cons” runs on alternate Wednesdays.