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The Illusion of the Biden Appeal

When Joe Biden walked onto stage to “Born in the USA” at his Philadelphia campaign kickoff event, the lines between rock concert and political rally became nearly indiscernible. The Democratic candidate, with his characteristic dark-tinted aviators and squinty-eyed grin, stripped his suit jacket and threw it into the cheering audience with rockstar-like flair.

The emotional appeal was undeniable. Up on that stage, Biden looked presidential.

Yet, Biden’s support and high ranking in the polls doesn’t stem from an enticing and comprehensive list of policies, or a track record of success in political races—this will be Biden’s third run for the American presidency. The overwhelming Biden appeal in 2020 can be boiled down to one thing: electability.

Electability is a vague and vacuous term, oftentimes used to characterize male candidates who seem likeable enough for office. This trait is quantified by successful polling numbers, and attributed to the candidate you’d be most likely to get a beer with. But Democratic voters face a unique challenge in 2020: the defining criteria of electability is whether a Democratic candidate is likely to defeat Donald Trump in November.

When it comes to quantifiable electability, the former vice president is leading by a significant margin in nearly every single 2020 Democratic presidential poll. The overwhelmingly homogenous results of these surveys suggest two things: the Biden bandwagon dominates the early narrative of the Democratic race, and that electability at this point in the race is highly correlated with name recognition.

Relying on electability as a litmus test for American politics is fruitless, circumstantial, and highly subject to change. It is far too early for electability to play any substantial role in 2020 nomination projections, and it certainly is not a nuanced gauge for which candidate would best serve the country.

Biden’s campaign message resonates with Democratic voters over 50, 68 percent of whom consider Biden as the most electable candidate. His immediate name recognition among these voters and his fifty years of work in politics sets him apart from the field of younger candidates and political newbies. His amiable grandpa-like brand and insatiable love for soft-serve ice cream makes him relatable and likeable. Biden appeals to the frustrated moderate and center-left, and his economic policies may have the highest probability of reaching to voters across the political aisle. But running for president of the United States is inevitably subject to a much more intense level of scrutiny and public reckoning.

Biden’s half-century long political track record has the potential to alienate many younger, more progressive voters. The former vice president and senator has advocated for longer criminal drug sentences that disproportionately affect communities of color, and has suggested that the government’s role in desegregating public schools should be limited. Biden’s role in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings—and his untimely apology to Anita Hill—leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And his controversial interactions with women have earned him the name “Creepy Joe,” which certainly isn’t a palatable nickname for a presidential candidate.

The features that make Biden initially seem electable may be the same reasons keeping him from ultimately winning the nomination. Biden relies too heavily on an emotional appeal over substantive policy and ideological rigor. Biden’s wish for a return to political normalcy is too idealistic and fails to address his party’s demands for action and activism. The call for unity sounds like a great package at first—like a two-for-one deal at your favorite store—only to realize the promotion ended a month ago. Biden’s commitment to bridging the gaping abyss of modern day political hyper-partisanship is not a sustainable or realistic campaign message for 2020.

In a crowded Democratic field with incredibly intelligent, diverse and innovative candidates, Biden’s Obama-era nostalgic appeal and name recognition won’t be enough to carry Biden’s electability into November. More specifically, Biden’s electability appeal to voters over 45 is highly subject to change as these older voters learn more about up-and-coming candidates in the Democratic debates in June.

Part of Joe Biden’s electability has come from his campaign positioning of confronting Trump’s reelection head-on, which is an appealing, pragmatic approach that addresses the Democratic party’s main priority heading into election year.

Biden’s kickoff rally in Philadelphia drew on messages of unity while criticizing the president. Dozens of supporters waved “UNITED” flyers to emphasize the point. To donate to the campaign, voters are asked to text “UNITY” to a number. Ironically, the loudest cheers came when he lauded Obama and criticized Trump.

The age of Donald Trump has brought about a political ecosystem so partisan and so tribalistic, that voters don’t respond well to sympathy for the opposing party. Unless Biden comes up with concrete policies that elevate his campaign message beyond lip service, advocating for compromise across such a vast partisan divide is futile at best and polarizing at worst. The Democratic party doesn’t need a candidate who ostensibly appeals to superficial electability. What the party really needs is a candidate with a platform and policies that makes voters fired up enough to physically get out to the polls and cast a ballot in their favor.

This election cycle, Democrats face a fork in the road heading into the primaries: vote for the candidate that has the highest likelihood of defeating Trump, or vote for the candidate who would best meet the demands of the party. In this moment of unprecedented hyper-partisanship, America may not be ready for a progressive candidate who best addresses the demands of the Democratic party. Perhaps the country needs an electable, centrist candidate like Biden before it can head into a more progressive era. But right now, Democrats can only hope that a candidate that is both uniformly electable and politically responsive emerges to the forefront of the race.