Was Joe Biden the Right Nominee After All? | Opinion

The decision to nominate Joe Biden came after a long internal party debate in which Democrats decided the thing they cared about the most was electability and that Biden was the best vehicle for that. Now that Biden has been elected, it's fair to look back and ask, Were Democrats right?

This is not as easy a question as it sounds. Yes, Democrats wanted someone who could win, and he won. But we didn't also run versions of this election with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg or anyone else at the top of the ticket; we can guess how they would have done, but we can never know for sure.

In the research for my recent book, Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020, I spoke to dozens of Democratic activists in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Washington, D.C, starting in early 2017 and following up with them until the Iowa Caucuses. I wanted to know why they thought Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 and who they were thinking about for 2020 and why.

The activists I spoke to gave a wide range of reasons why Clinton lost—there's still no consensus on this. They thought of Clinton as something like New Coke: an innovation that they had reason to think would be very popular but for any number of reasons wasn't. And regardless of why, they were eager to get back to the formula they thought had brought them success in the past.

Biden looked like Coke Classic in that situation. A relatively moderate, experienced white man with ties to a popular recent presidency seemed a safe choice. Everyone knew Biden, and while he wasn't everyone's first choice, few had strong feelings against him. And importantly, just by the nature of his identity, he seemed less likely to stir up complaints about "identity politics." A feminist woman calling for underrepresented groups to have a greater voice in American politics might have gotten some pushback from conservative white voters; Biden might be given some leeway there, they reasoned.

Overwhelmingly, those activists who leaned toward Biden as 2020 approached did so because they saw him as "electable." They believed he could win against Donald Trump and were less confident others could.

In believing this, these activists were very much in line with Democratic voters. A series of YouGov surveys, conducted the year prior to each of the past four presidential elections, asked Democrats whether they preferred a candidate who agrees with them on most issues or a candidate who could win in November. In 2003, 2007 and 2011, strong majorities said they preferred a candidate who agreed with them. In 2019, that had flipped—58 percent of Democrats said they preferred someone who could win.

So was Biden the most electable? Again, this is hard to test. But a NY Times/Siena College poll from October 2019 was revealing. It showed Democrats with a healthy lead over Trump nationally, but with Biden out-polling Trump among likely voters by just one or two points in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, and narrowly trailing in North Carolina. With the exception of Florida, those predictions were dead-on. And importantly, the same survey showed Sanders and Warren losing nearly all those states.

There's reason to question just how accurate a survey like this might be. Voter party discipline is quite high, and it's possible that Sanders or Warren or another Democratic nominee would have done just about as well as Biden. But it's certainly plausible that the actual identity of the candidate is worth a point or two, and that moderate voters who felt comfortable pulling the lever for Biden might not have done so for another Democrat.

Another way to approach this question is to ask just how well Biden should have done against Trump. We make assumptions like this all the time in politics—many Democrats believe Clinton should have defeated Trump without any particular explanation as to why. It's a tricky question to answer, especially this year. What is a good baseline to measure Biden against? Biden underperformed his polling somewhat, but that's more a problem of the polls than of Biden.

One of the best predictors of the presidential vote is the performance of the economy. But the economy has been on a roller coaster this year. Second-quarter gross domestic product plummeted at rates not seen since the Great Depression; third-quarter GDP skyrocketed back up. Traditionally, both second-quarter and third-quarter GDP are good predictors of the vote, but they can't both be right this year. Also, to the extent voters knew the economy was a problem, they knew COVID-19 was a direct cause, and they might or might not have blamed Trump for that.

For the past several presidential cycles, a group of political scientists have published their forecasts of the presidential vote several months prior to the election. These models use a wide range of methods, relying on economic growth, presidential approval, primary performance, combat deaths, ideology and more to predict how the president will do. This year's forecasts covered a broad range, but the median forecast predicted Trump winning 230 electoral votes and 47.6 percent of the two-party popular vote. With a hand tally of Georgia ballots confirming Biden's win on Thursday, this forecast will be very close to the actual results, with Trump getting 232 electors and, so far, pulling 47.2 percent of the popular vote, although that percentage will likely keep shrinking as more votes from New York and California are counted.

Judged by this marker, Biden did almost exactly as well as we would expect a generic Democrat to do. And in many ways he was running as precisely that, a generic Democrat. That he managed to win that share while adopting relatively progressive stances on health care and the environment and while naming a woman of color as his running mate perhaps testifies to his strengths as a candidate. But he basically hit his baseline.

Given that Biden's margin in several swing states is looking to be just a point or two, and that other Democrats polled slightly behind him in those same states, Biden may well have been the exact right nominee for this moment. That doesn't mean Democrats need to follow the same formula in future contests; a different Republican nominee may bring out different sorts of voters. But the gamble that Democrats took in going with Biden appears to have paid off.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.