A normal candidate in strange times: Joe Biden reacts to receiving the Democratic party's nomination at their virtual conference. Photo: Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Think Trump has transformed American politics? Think again

Joe Biden’s rise is a reminder that the way to win an election hasn’t changed

With the Zoom version the 2020 Democratic National Convention underway, and Joe Biden officially nominated as the party’s candidate for president, many now treat former Vice President Joe Biden as not just the frontrunner, but the inevitable winner, of the 2020 general election.

It is far too soon to count Donald Trump out, but the turnaround of his opponent’s fortunes has been remarkable. Just days before Joe Biden effectively secured his nomination with his commanding win in South Carolina, the conventional wisdom was that the ex-VP amounted to a paper tiger: strong in national polls thanks to his name recognition, but with little genuine support among voters.

The now-clichéd idea that an ‘exciting’ candidate would have expanded the electorate by energising young people ignores the fact that an unenthusiastic vote counts as much as an enthusiastic one

How did pundits get Biden’s “zombie campaign” so wrong? In an era of frenzied polarisation, they mistook the blandness of the gaffe-machine from Delaware, at times sheltered from the media by his own staff, as a liability. In fact, it become a virtue – especially when confronted with a wildly unpopular incumbent.

Biden’s success in the Democratic primary and lead in the polls is a reminder that, notwithstanding the disruption brought about by Donald Trump, the last four years have not changed the basic logic of US politics as much as you might think.

It is easy to forget that Donald Trump ran on his own version of ‘centrism’ in 2016, cleverly encroaching on a traditionally Democratic turf. Emphasising infrastructure, penalties for outsourcing, non-interventionism abroad, Social Security, and even Medicare, he gained support from former Obama voters in key states. As a result, Trump was perceived by voters as hard to pin down ideologically and more moderate than Romney, McCain, or Bush.

As a sitting president enacting a traditional Republican agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judicial appointments, Trump can no longer playact a role of a liberal Republican. But that does not mean, as many on the left assumed, that authentic progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would be best positioned to challenge him.

In fact, political scientists David Broockman and Joshua Kalla have shown that voters are more likely to go with a known entity (Trump) when they are presented with a hypothetical matchup against a far-left Democrat, relative to a situation when a moderate Democrat is on the ballot.

An argument with some merit is that a restoration figure such as Biden might still fail to bring in sufficient gains among white voters without a college degree, a constituency that Clinton lost by a spectacular margin. However, he seems to be more than making up for it by erasing Trump’s considerable advantage among senior voters from 2016.

Likewise, the now-clichéd idea that an ‘exciting’ candidate would have expanded the electorate by energising young people ignores the fact that an unenthusiastic vote counts as much as an enthusiastic one – a lesson learned the hard way in recent elections by the UK’s Labour Party. More importantly, it underestimates the capacity of the deregulator of shower heads to prompt Democrats, Independents, and some Republicans to mail their ballots or to show up at the polls, even during a pandemic.

In a recent NYT/Siena College poll of nearly 4,000 registered voters in six battleground states, a majority of Biden supporters said their intentions for November stemmed from opposing Donald Trump rather than from casting an affirmative vote for Joe Biden. In these six states, all of which Trump carried in 2016, Biden is currently ahead of Trump by a two-digit margin.

Conversely, unlike the more ‘exciting’ options, Joe Biden has not mobilised passionate opposition on the GOP side, notwithstanding efforts by the Trump campaign to depict him and Kamala Harris as pawns of the radical left. Only 15 per cent of Trump voters in swing states said their vote was motivated by opposing Biden. In a more recent national poll from YouGov, merely 12 percent of Republicans said they planned to vote “against Joe Biden.”

Those numbers may well shift before November if the incumbent’s campaign succeeds in tarring an all-around inoffensive candidate as dangerous. After all, a substantial proportion of the electorate – including a majority of Republicans — already believe that Biden wants to defund the police. (He does not.)

However, political controversies unfold differently among zealots on Twitter than among most Americans who do not organise their daily lives or build their identity around politics. On a UCLA/Nationscape poll, 45 per cent of voters said that partisan affiliation was “not too important” or “not at all important” to them. The notion that regular voters now love their parties as much as they love their sports teams is misguided.

The rest of the race will provide a test of whether America’s political life really been radically transformed in the past three and a half years. Following Trump’s victory in 2016, many have claimed so, often overstating their case.

An equally plausible story goes like this: social media wizardry might have upended some constants of political life but it has not given America a new electorate. Online platforms in the attention economy have created more direct channels between entrepreneurial politicians and their audiences and it is true that this environment does reward flashier and bombastic speakers. But the new information ecosystem has not relieved political candidates of the duty to meet voters where they are.

The folk expression that “Democrats fall in love but Republicans fall in line” captures the view that left-wing parties are broad, less disciplined tents, relative to conservative forces who focus on the big picture: winning elections. This year Democrats have instead settled on a centrist who has not made anyone fall in love. But many Americans are enamoured with the simple prospect of replacing Trump in November.

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