I’ve been in endless debate (as many of you likely are) about the Democratic presidential primary field and who is the best pick to defeat President Trump. (I have a backlog of TPM Reader emails about it I plan to share with you soon.) For me, much of this debate is driven by the fact that Joe Biden is clearly and consistently polling the best against President Trump even though I can see as well as anyone a number of potential liabilities to his candidacy. This was plausibly chalked up to Biden’s universal name recognition and association with President Obama. But that theory gets less tenable as his support grows even as the other candidates’ name recognition and exposure grows.
But I want to come at this from a different angle. Maybe we shouldn’t just be looking at Biden’s seeming strength so much as the other candidates’ relative weakness.
Let’s look at this Fox poll that came out last week. (Remember, Fox News’s odiousness aside, their poll is a serious, quality poll.) It’s just one poll and it shows the pattern in sharp relief but it’s in line with other recent polls. For the horse race numbers it had Biden +11, Sanders +5, Warren +2, Harris even, Buttigieg -1.
Biden is killing it compared to all but Sanders. But let’s flip the question. Trump is really and consistently unpopular. By key measures he’s the most unpopular President in modern American history. He’s never had net popular approval during his entire presidency. He’s frequently been under 40% support. In this poll specifically 53% of Americans disapprove of him and, even more importantly, 44% “strongly disapprove.” And yet, only two of these five are ahead of him and only one is substantially ahead of him.
Two of the three are women. That likely plays a role. But so was Hillary Clinton and she led Trump through almost all of 2016 and in fact won more votes. They will of course still be women in 2020. With Pete Buttigieg — maybe he’s still too unknown; maybe he seems too young; maybe being gay is holding back his numbers; maybe weak support from less educated voters or voters of color (both of which show up in his primary race demographics) are holding him back. I don’t know.
I don’t have a clear theory here. In deciding on electability, whether Biden is strong or everyone else is weak may be a semantic point. But I think it’s worth thinking about why these other candidates aren’t doing better rather than just Biden’s apparent strength. Given Trump’s unpopularity I think that’s a pretty important question that doesn’t have a totally clear answer.