Monday, April 16, 2018

#InvisiblePrimary 2020: Uh oh Biden?

Over at Politico, Charlie Mahtesian has this to say about a prospective Biden candidacy for 2020:
"Joe Biden, who leads the Democratic 2020 presidential field in early polls, has all the markings of a front-runner. He possesses a sterling résumé, access to a donor base, name recognition and eight years of loyal service to a president who’s loved by the party base. There’s just one problem: He’s also a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party." [Emphasis is FHQ's]
That is just the opening, but Mahtesian goes on to count off the issues Biden may encounter in the lead up to and during 2020. The usual suspects are in there: age, some pre-#MeToo moment indiscretions that may look different in the current context, and a host of past Senate votes that may again spell trouble now that conditions are different in 2018-20. 

And that all makes sense. Any or all of those things could derail a Biden run before it starts or some time after it is launched. But Mahtesian is potentially overstating the case here by not exactly detailing where it is that Biden could be in trouble. First, he aggregates the potential roadblocks, toggling back and forth between primary phase problems and general election setbacks. This is compounded by imperfect comparisons to 2016 and Hillary Clinton's troubles throughout that cycle (in both phases).

Age, for example, could be a problem for Biden in the primary phase. It is shaping up to be a crowded field with a number of younger alternatives. But millennials did not have trouble supporting an older candidate in 2016. Much of that had to do with the binary choice that most Democratic primary voters and caucusgoers had during the last cycle. Both options were older. That does not appear to be an issue for 2020. And candidate age may not be what is driving the decision-making of younger voters in the Democratic primary electorate. 

During the general election phase, as Mahtesian notes, the age issue would be at least somewhat neutralized compared to another septuagenarian like Trump. 

A similar dynamic exists across election phases when the focus shifts to how pre-#MeToo actions are perceived in a post-#MeToo world. That may affect Biden during a competitive Democratic nomination race, but compared to what? Compared to whom in the Democratic field? Additionally, perception of those actions is something that may resonate with a significant segment of the Democratic primary electorate: women. Female voters may opt for someone other than Biden because of that. They already have more options in 2018 than they did in 2014.

But again, during the general election phase, those perceptions of pre-#MeToo actions look different when compared to Trump, his past behavior, and past and present comments. Does that neutralize the issue? Is it a recipe for potentially depressing turnout to some degree among women (something that is much more likely to disproportionately affect Biden)? 

In those two areas, Biden would potentially suffer more in the nominations phase. However, when Mahtesian shifts gears and begins to focus on Biden's past Senate votes on a number of issues, the exact nature of where -- primary or general -- the pain is felt fades into the ether. Each of those issues -- whether the 2005 bankruptcy bill or the 1994 crime bill -- affects specific constituencies within the Democratic primary electorate. Biden's positions were compared to Clinton's in 2016, but neither stood in the way of the latter claiming the Democratic nomination during the last cycle. Again, however, the field will be different -- more robust -- in 2020 than it was in 2016. Similar positioning by Biden for 2020 may affect his odds of winning the nomination, but, depending on how the large field winnows and who survives, the effects could vary from great to minimal. 

Moreover, the contours of 2020 winnowing extend to the Connor Lamb-like "personally against but politically for" positioning on abortion rights when Mahtesian substitutes Tim Kaine for Hillary Clinton as the point of comparison to Biden. That may or may not be an issue for the former vice president. That depends upon to whom exactly he is compared. Across all of those issues, it may be a problem in the primaries, but less so in the general election. 

Look, based on name recognition alone, Biden is at the top of list of potential 2020 Democratic nominees at the moment. That may change. It may not. Given how relatively early it is in the cycle and that the far too early to be meaningful polls are the most data-rich metric at this time, things are apt to change. Visits will be made to 2018 battlegrounds and 2020 early states. Campaign teams will be built. But any propensity for who is in that pole position to morph hinges on to whom Biden is compared. If one is to carry much of Mahtesian's comparison of between Clinton and Biden to its logical end -- Biden as the 2020 stand-in -- it will not be just Bernie Sanders on the other side this time. There will be others involved who will split the nascent Democratic primary electorate differently than in 2016 and impact the direction of that race through the invisible primary in much different ways. 

That competition may undermine Biden's candidacy. But it may also be that it is too early to cast Biden as this cycle's Jeb Bush. There are warning signs there; similarities, sure. Yet it is not clear just how those "deep flaws" will filter through the patchwork of processes that determine presidential nominees. That gauntlet tends to produce broadly acceptable general election candidates, even ones with flaws. 

But at this stage there are more questions than answers as to how another Biden foray into presidential nomination politics will play out.