Through the ups and downs of the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained his front-running position. Democratic voters desperate to beat President Trump still see Biden as the safe harbor who could attract the sorts of Midwestern swing voters who would not back 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton.
But modern political history suggests that the path to the White House is difficult for candidates who have run and lost before — and that if Democrats choose Biden, they might be repeating the same mistakes that doomed Clinton four years ago.
Polls show Biden performing better against Trump than any other candidate in the Democratic field. Since the beginning of October, Biden has led Trump by double-digit margins in eight of 11 national polls. In the past month, Biden has led Trump in polls out of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and New Hampshire.
That strength is the heart of his pitch to voters.
“We have got to beat this man. It’s not enough that we just beat him, we’ve got to beat him soundly so everyone knows we are not going back to a time when another president like him can hold that office,” Biden told Iowa Democrats at a major party gathering last month. “And I will beat him like a drum if I’m your nominee, and he knows it.”
His carefully crafted image, honed against the backdrop of a working-class upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and nightly Acela rides home to Wilmington, Del., is a comfort to voters who care less about finding an ideological match and more about defeating Trump. Biden, in their minds, would be perfectly palatable to the white working-class voters who have abandoned the party in recent years.
And Biden’s depth of experience is unmatched in the Democratic primary. He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his eight years as Obama’s vice president are the cornerstone of his appeal to party faithful.
“I’m leaning towards Biden pretty strong,” Robert Bell, a retired farmer from Madison County, Iowa, said at a recent Democratic Party gathering. “I think we need somebody with experience, and he’s got that all the way around.”
But it is his experience itself that makes him such a risky bet for Democrats. Biden’s pledge to return government to a more civil era comes at precisely the time when more Americans than ever before want Washington to change its stagnant and stale ways.
Modern presidential history shows voters almost always prefer an outsider candidate who pledges to shake up Washington.
In the post-war era, the fresh new candidate has almost always beaten the experienced insider: Dwight Eisenhower was an outsider within his own party.
The fresh-faced John Kennedy beat a Senate majority leader and the sitting vice president. Richard Nixon returned, tanned, rested and ready, to beat a sitting vice president. Govs. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all defeated sitting presidents, and Gov. George W. Bush beat Clinton’s vice president.
Even a man who built a career as a maverick, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), became the insider against the first African American man to win a major party nomination.
(The lone exception to the otherwise unbroken rule is George H.W. Bush, who effectively won Reagan’s third term.)
In 2016, antipathy toward Washington was near an all-time high. Though Obama’s approval ratings were strong, just 18 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing, according to the last pre-election poll conducted by Gallup; it had been more than a decade since Congress’s approval rating was north of 40 percent.
At such a tumultuous moment, Republican voters chose Trump, the ultimate outsider candidate, someone who promised to blow up a system that worked against the interests of everyday Americans. Democratic voters chose Hillary Clinton, who had spent a quarter-century in the public eye as first lady, a senator and secretary of State.
By Election Day, both Trump and Clinton were deeply unpopular. Those who found both candidates distasteful opted for the outsider over the experienced insider — Trump won voters who saw both candidates in an unfavorable light by a 69 percent to 15 percent margin.
History is not kind to Democrats who have run for and lost their party’s nomination before. In the last century, only five candidates who ran for and lost the nomination came back to win the nomination in a subsequent campaign.
All five of those nominees — Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey and John W. Davis — lost the general election to Republican nominees. A sixth, Adlai Stevenson, had the dubious distinction of losing two consecutive general elections.
Only one Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, has won election after failing in an earlier attempt to win the Democratic nomination, and in that case Johnson ran for reelection after ascending to the White House following Kennedy’s assassination.
What has happened in the past is not always a perfect predictor of what will happen in the future, especially in the age of President Trump. Perhaps the types of persuadable voters who opt for Biden in phone surveys today will still choose him in November, even after Republicans dump millions on television spots portraying him negatively.
Or perhaps Democrats would be repeating the mistakes of the past, choosing an insider who represents the status quo of a hated Washington and allowing Trump to reclaim the outsider mantle.
If there is one thing Democrats, Republicans and independents appear to agree on, it is their depth of disdain for the way Washington works, or doesn’t. If voters are hungry for a change, Biden’s greatest assets may prove to be the same liabilities that sank Clinton’s campaign three years ago.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.