Has a Presidential front-runner ever come in for more doubt than Joe Biden? All through 2019, even as national and state polls showed him ahead in the Democratic primary race, his opponents and the press dismissed him. His leads were illusory, they said. He was out of touch, his campaign operation too ramshackle, his support too tepid. During the primary debates, he often found himself on the butt end of viral sound bites. Afterward, in the spin rooms, his surrogates would stare down gangs of reporters who were all basically asking veiled versions of the same question: “How long can this go on?” Even Biden occasionally seemed to hesitate. At his campaign stops in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses—where you could often feel and occasionally even see audience members’ attention drifting—the candidate would sometimes cede the stage to prominent supporters, letting them serve as closers, making the pitch to voters. It was a situation so strange that, in early February, one of those prominent supporters, former Secretary of State John Kerry, was overheard in a Des Moines hotel lobby discussing the ins and outs of making a late jump into the Presidential race.
In the months since the Democratic primary effectively ended, in early March, Biden has never come close to trailing Donald Trump in the polling averages. The map of the so-called battleground states, too, has consistently favored him. Polls have found that Biden attracts strong support from seniors—a crucial voting demographic that Democrats had until recently thought was lost for good to Republicans—and that voters, over all, hold Biden in higher esteem than Trump on issues ranging from the coronavirus response to racism to trustworthiness. FiveThirtyEight’s election model currently gives Trump about a one in four chance of winning the election. It gives slightly higher odds that Biden will win the national popular vote by more than ten percentage points—a feat not seen since Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale, in 1984. The Trump campaign spent the summer disparaging Biden, cutting deceptive videos of him in an attempt to make him look befuddled, or worse. But Biden has generally been gaffe-free since winning the nomination. He has laid low at times, but he’s been sharp when the most eyes have been on him, such as during his acceptance speech, last month, at the Democratic National Convention. And after struggling to fund his campaign during the primaries, he’s enjoyed a historic surge of donations in recent weeks, helping him erase the financial advantage that many pundits believed Trump would enjoy this fall no matter who the Democratic nominee was.
And yet the doubts are creeping back up on Biden. This week, the Times ran the headline “Does Biden Need a Higher Gear? Some Democrats Think So.” There have been questions about whether he’s spending enough time in the Midwest. Whether he’s making strong enough overtures to Hispanic voters. And whether his campaign’s decision to abandon door-knocking this spring, as the pandemic exploded around the country, should be maintained through the fall. Bernie Sanders, the leader of the Democratic Party’s left wing, who has embraced an alliance with the moderate Biden in the name of defeating Trump, has lately, according to the Washington Post, been “urging Biden’s team to intensify its focus on pocketbook issues and appeals to liberal voters.”
Some of this, no doubt, is anxiety provoked by the memory of 2016. The word “front-runner” gives Democrats the willies. No polling lead can be trusted. Some of this, also, is a response to a general-election campaign that looks very different from what anyone could have imagined when 2020 began. Can a septuagenarian live streamer win the White House? Biden has only recently begun to emerge from the basement-bound campaign he waged this spring and summer, into, in the words of the Washington Post campaign reporter David Weigel, a “Bubble Campaign,” making select, targeted trips around the country to speak in front of small audiences. Some of these trips seem explicitly designed to quiet doubts. Last week, Biden spoke in Michigan and Pennsylvania about union jobs. This week, he gave a speech in Delaware about the California wildfires and climate change, and one in Florida about Hispanic Heritage Month. Meanwhile, his campaign announced that it was spending almost ten million dollars a day on paid media, including two new ads about health care that will run in the Midwest and the Sun Belt.
On Thursday night, Biden participated in a “drive-in town hall” on CNN, his most prominent public appearance since the D.N.C. A few dozen members of the public drove up to and parked around a stage in a baseball stadium in Moosic, Pennsylvania—not far from Biden’s boyhood home, in Scranton—for the chance to ask the Democratic nominee some questions. Back in front of a national audience, Biden was, once again, sharp. He projected righteous anger at Trump’s coronavirus response—frankly, he sounded pissed—and shook his head with sorrow at the lives lost. “We talk about two hundred thousand deaths and it’s almost like background noise,” he said.
Every Democrat who campaigned for the Presidential nomination last year had to choose how much to balance a critique of Trump with a proposed governing agenda. Biden made anti-Trumpism as central to his run as any of his opponents. Voters rewarded him, and he’s staying the course now. Biden spent much of Thursday night speaking about the current President and the current crises facing the nation, reminding viewers of Trump’s petulant outbursts, his aversion to masks, and the awful things that he has said about veterans. “This is all about one thing—the stock market,” Biden said. “It’s all about his reëlection. It should be about the American people.” Meanwhile, he kept his own cards close to his chest: when questioners got into the weeds on an issue, Biden often simply urged them to visit his Web site. When he did get specific, it was on topics like fracking, which he said that he still supports as a transitional energy source while the country moves to a renewable-energy future—a middle-ground stance on carbon emissions that infuriates the left. He continued to reject the mantle of the Green New Deal, even as he has absorbed its key insight that fighting climate change and revitalizing the economy should be pitched to voters as the same project. When a woman criticized how the increased unemployment benefits that Congress temporarily passed earlier this year meant that many Americans made more on unemployment than they did in the workforce, Biden didn’t try to convince her that the federal minimum wage is appallingly low, nor did he take the opportunity to call on Congress to end the impasse over another round of economic relief for its citizens—he simply encouraged the questioner to empathize with her neighbors who don’t know how they’re going to make their next rent or mortgage payment.
Barring some seismic, unforeseen shift in public opinion, Biden will win a larger proportion of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton did four years ago—a plurality of the public, generally, wants Biden to be sworn in as President on January 21, 2021. Trump’s remaining chances for reëlection are thanks to the Electoral College. The President knows this—his strategy has not been to run a national campaign but to again try to juice the margins in a few key swing states. That targeting a few thousand voters in specific districts could be a winning strategy when the popular-vote margin will likely be in the many millions is, of course, absurd. But it’s also where many of the current doubts about Biden find their purchase. With the voting changes and challenges brought on by the pandemic, and with states rushing to adopt early and mail-in voting in an attempt to keep voters and election workers safe, the race between Trump and Biden has become as much about mechanics as about politics. The candidates and their parties are currently engaged in high-stakes court fights around the country over voting rules and ballot access, and the results may determine the outcome of the election as much as any back-and-forth that takes place at one of the three upcoming Presidential debates.
Looming over all of this are Trump’s increasingly loud threats to reject the results of the election if things don’t go his way. On Thursday, Biden greeted these questions with a smile. “If the President had even remote confidence that he was likely to win the election,” Biden said, “he wouldn’t be doing this.” Here, too, the doubts creep in. How should Biden respond to the despotic rhetoric and actions of Trump and his allies? What’s the right messaging for the non-zero chance that America is a few weeks away from the end of even the pretense of democracy?
Democrats have spent four years arguing about why Hillary Clinton lost the election in 2016. The doubts now being raised about Biden are about why he’s winning. Sanders may well think that talking about a fifteen-dollar minimum wage will help Biden win voters now, but he also knows that, if Biden the candidate wins with a fifteen-dollar minimum wage front and center, then it will be more likely for Biden the President to make passing that wage increase a priority. The forces that Biden reacts to in the next few weeks could shape the next four years of this country, and beyond. “I’m running as a Democrat, but I’m going to be everyone’s President,” Biden said on Thursday night. “I’m going to be America’s President.”