WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Of all the what-ifs, hypotheticals, and counter-factuals Democrats have wrestled with since Nov. 9, 2016, one has gained new urgency as they look ahead to the 2020 presidential campaign: what if Joe Biden had run?
Then-Vice President Biden publicly waffled over the question for months in 2015, ultimately deciding he could not do it in the wake of his son Beau’s death from brain cancer. Several times since then, though, he has expressed confidence that he would have won if he did.
“At the end of the day, I just couldn’t do it,” Biden said during a 2017 lecture at Colgate University. “So, I don’t regret not running. Do I regret not being president? Yes.”
He may have one more chance. Biden told CNN last week he will decide “soon” whether to run for the Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. His comment came as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., traveled Iowa for her first campaign stops since announcing the formation of an exploratory committee.
After the 2016 election, Biden and others criticized Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for failing to hone an economic message that appealed to working class white voters. Many Democrats think he could have succeeded where she failed in connecting with voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and delivered an electoral college victory.
“There’s a strong belief among Democrats that if he had been the nominee, he’d have beaten Trump in 2016, so that’s a pretty powerful opening argument [for 2020],” said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.
There are upwards of 30 Democrats eying a possible 2020 run, including several prominent senators and governors, but Biden would indisputably be the frontrunner if he announces his candidacy this spring. A December CNN/SSRS national poll found Biden was the top choice of 30 percent of Democrats, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., far behind in second place with 14 percent.
Faced with the prospect of four more years with Donald Trump in the White House, many Democratic voters say electability is the trait they most desire in a 2020 candidate. In one recent poll, 54 percent of Iowa Democrats said nominating someone who can beat Trump is more important than picking a candidate who shares their ideology.
However, “electability” is a nebulous and subjective standard. New Hampshire-based progressive radio host Arnie Arnesen cautioned what seems most electable today may not still be the case on Election Day 2020.
“I think this is going to be a wild year and what we actually need for a candidate in 2020 may change because of the economy or because we go to war or because of a natural disaster,” she said.
Instead, Arnesen argued Democrats should be looking for a candidate who offers hope, inspiration, and a compelling vision for the future.
“I think the strategy for 2020 is not to run against Trump,” she said. “It’s what do we need to do, what does our future look like, and how do we get there.”
Among those who think Joe Biden is the most electable Democrat for 2020, apparently, is Joe Biden.
“If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it,” Biden told a Democratic Party official recently, according to The New York Times. “But I don’t see the candidate who can clearly do what has to be done to win.”
For a few months in late 2015, pollsters routinely asked voters if they preferred Trump or Biden, and the vice president typically led by double-digits. Hillary Clinton also topped Trump by a comfortable margin in most polls all the way through October 2016, so that may not be as reassuring as it sounds.
More recent polls have considered a hypothetical Trump-Biden showdown in 2020, and Biden again comes out on top. A May 2017 Public Policy Polling survey gave Biden a 14-point edge, a July 2018 Politico/Morning Consult poll put him up by 7 points, and a Hill/HarrisX poll last month found Biden leading Trump 42 percent to 36 percent.
“We need someone who’s experienced, who can appeal to parts of states where we were losing, and someone who’s not going to get tripped up by Donald Trump,” Ferson said.
A lot of Democrats would say that describes Joe Biden, but they have more than a year to decide if it describes any of their other options too before they have to cast a primary vote.
"Joe Biden is uniquely qualified, but the race is also wide open," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. "Democrats should nominate someone who offers a positive vision, in addition to being strong enough to stand up to Trump, without becoming whiny or stooping to Trump’s level."
Much of Biden’s early polling strength has been written off as a byproduct of having nearly universal name recognition. However, voters also have more favorable opinions of him than other well-known contenders like Sens. Warren and Sanders.
One significant counter to Biden’s electability argument is that he has run for the presidency twice before and, well, not been elected.
Biden made his first bid for the White House during the 1988 campaign, dropping out of the race months before the first primaries amid accusations of plagiarism. When he ran again in 2008, he made it to the Iowa caucus, but he withdrew from the race after receiving only one percent of the vote there.
“If you look back at the times Joe Biden has run for president, Joe Biden has not been a great presidential candidate... Even though he may look good on paper and ideologically and temperamentally, so did Jeb Bush,” said Michael D. Cohen, CEO of Cohen Research Group and a professor at the University of Southern California.
Twelve years later, Biden would be putting his name on the ballot as the nation’s former second highest-ranking official who left office as a widely liked and respected pop culture icon. It would also be following four years of Trump governing largely as Democrats feared he would.
“[Biden] probably has more appeal because you now have a track record of what Trump is like as president,” Cohen said.
Trump’s approval rating remains in the low 40s despite a surging job market and a strong economy. Democrats are skeptical he will be much more popular when the election arrives.
“In 2016, it was easy to buy the false promises, and he said, ‘Take me on my word, what have you got to lose?’ Well, now we know,” Ferson said.
While the post-2016 landscape in many ways makes Joe Biden a more viable national candidate, cultural changes over the last two years have also created new obstacles for him.
The #MeToo movement and the controversy surrounding sexual assault allegations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh revived questions about the treatment of sexual harassment accuser Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, which Biden oversaw as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. Biden has said he owes Hill an apology for the harsh treatment she received from the committee, but she said he has never actually apologized to her.
President Trump recently received rare bipartisan praise for his support of criminal justice reform legislation that advocates hoped would begin undoing some of the damage caused by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Biden supported. Hillary Clinton publicly apologized for backing it during the 2016 campaign, and Biden would surely face questions over it as well.
“He’s familiar, he’s jocular, he’s fun,” Arnesen said. “I’m glad he’s [considering] running, but I’m not sure he’s the right messenger for the time, given his history in politics.”
Another potential weakness critics point to is Biden’s tendency to make inappropriate or inopportune comments, like the time he described then-candidate Obama as “articulate and bright and clean” or when he told a state senator confined to a wheelchair to “stand up.” Biden has made a case that his occasional gaffes and embarrassing remarks pale in comparison to Trump’s frequent false statements.
"I am a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can't tell the truth," Biden said at a December book tour appearance at the University of Montana. At the same event, he declared himself the most qualified person in the country to be president.
Ferson expects Biden, a highly experienced campaigner and debater, can defend himself against those concerns. One thing the 76-year-old cannot defend against is the reality that he would be the oldest person ever elected president, and that will give some voters pause.
“If Joe Biden were 20 years younger, it would be a no-brainer for a lot of Democrats,” he said.
Democrats generally see two paths to ensuring 2020 turns out differently from 2016. One is to mobilize new diverse voters and the other is to win back midwestern white voters they lost. Biden is generally regarded as one of their best hopes to accomplish the latter strategy.
“While he may have the best shot of beating Trump based on who he could win back, it’s not necessarily true he could keep all the enthusiasm you saw in the midterms,” Cohen said.
Biden would start out the race well ahead of the rest of the pack, but other candidates would have plenty of opportunities to overtake him with the campaign already shifting into first gear now and a dozen primary debates scheduled beginning this June.
“If you want someone a la Biden, why don’t you go with [Ohio Sen.] Sherrod Brown? He’s got none of the baggage,” Arnesen said, offering an alternative who might carry similar appeal to Rust Belt workers.
After a midterm election that ushered in the most diverse class of congressional freshman ever, a 70-something white man may not be the ideal candidate to energize the progressive base.
“There are several of them who are like, we broke through several barriers in 2018 and we don’t want to go backwards from a demographic standpoint,” Cohen said.
At the same time, some in the party are reportedly reticent about nominating another woman, uncertain how large of a role sexism and gender played in Clinton’s 2016 defeat. Arnesen dismissed that concern, suggesting Clinton’s long career in the public eye, including eight previous years in the White House, hampered her in a way that would not apply to women like Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., or Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
“You can’t look at Hillary and just say a woman can’t run and win,” she said.
With the first debate still months away, heavyweights like Biden and upstarts like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, are continuing to publicly and privately consider their options. Experts say it will be difficult to winnow the field down until it is clear who is running, who is not, and who is connecting with voters on the campaign trail.
“I don’t know if the base knows what it’s looking for until it sees it... This is what primaries are for. Let’s let the process work its magic,” Ferson said.
Whoever Democratic voters choose, though, experts say victory has a way of settling differences, as many of President Trump’s GOP critics learned in 2016.
“They weren’t happy about him, but they were real happy he was able to beat Hillary Clinton,” Cohen said.