Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders Stake Out Ideological Poles of Democratic Race

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are both white-haired septuagenarians with decades of experience in Washington. Yet the two front-runners represent opposite ideological poles in a packed field of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.

They offer voters a stark choice that mirrors a struggle inside the party over whether to pursue incrementalist or transformative policies. Biden is an establishment Democrat with a long record of bipartisan deals ranging from budget accords this decade to a now-maligned 1994 crime bill. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was an early adopter of ideas including single payer health insurance and a $15 federal minimum wage, that have rapidly gained traction in the progressive base.

Or as Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report put it in an analysis posted Thursday, Biden and Sanders represent "restoration versus revolution."

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders Stake Out Ideological Poles of Democratic Race

For the moment, Biden, 76, and Sanders, 77, lead the pack in virtually every poll, buoyed by strong name recognition. But both are vulnerable in a cluttered pack of 20 candidates, the most diverse group ever to seek a major-party nomination. The variety reflects a party base increasingly made up of young people, nonwhite voters and women. It features the would-be first woman president, first Indian-American president, first Latino president and first gay, millennial president.

“Biden and Bernie are the two titans in this race, and the only question is who’s going to challenge them,” said Tad Devine, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns and a top strategist for Sanders in 2016.

Main Challengers

Among the favorites to play that role are South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who are in a tight competition for third place with about nine months to go before voting begins in Iowa.

A Washington Post-ABC poll of Democrats released Sunday showed that even though Biden has an edge, with 17 percent, the race remains fluid. Sanders had 11 percent. Buttigieg trailed with 5 percent, and Harris, Warren and O’Rourke were tied at 4 percent. The open-ended survey, which didn’t list the names of candidates and simply asked respondents to say who they would vote for if their state’s primary were held now, found that 35 percent of Democratic-leaning voters were undecided.

“Voters who’ve decided they want a different kind of leader in the party now are going to gravitate to one,” Devine said. “It’ll winnow down to more than three soon, but ultimately three once the voting gets going."

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders Stake Out Ideological Poles of Democratic Race

Carol Lytle, an Iowa Democrat who is 73 and retired, is one of those voters who are looking for a change. She said earlier this month that she was undecided and shopping for a candidate to caucus for; she’d ruled out Biden and Sanders.

“I think their time has come and gone. I’m all for some new ideas, new blood,” she said. “I’m all in favor of someone with more youth and vitality than some of the ones who have already run for president.”

“I’d also like to have a woman be our next president,” Lytle said.

‘He’s Too Old’

Or as 70-year-old Bev Rosenkrans from Sioux City, Iowa, put it this month: “I like Joe Biden but he’s too old.” She plans to back O’Rourke.

Biden and Sanders also have competition in their ideological segments of the Democratic electorate. Biden has institutionalist rivals in Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Colorado’s ex-governor John Hickenlooper, although both are struggling to gain traction. Sanders faces a challenge from Warren, who has laid out a similar message of progressive economic transformation.

The two front-runners come with baggage that could pick away at their support in a long campaign. Sanders faces intense opposition from Democratic establishment figures and many voters who still blame his 2016 attacks on Hillary Clinton for her eventual defeat to Donald Trump. Biden has a 36-year history in the Senate packed with decisions that are out of step with the party today, including his votes for the crime bill, repealing Glass-Steagall and the 2005 bankruptcy bill.

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders Stake Out Ideological Poles of Democratic Race

Biden, who announced his candidacy Thursday, has already been tripped up by one of his biggest vulnerabilities. Appearing Friday on ABC’s "The View," he stopped short of apologizing for his handling of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991 after she accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

"I’m sorry the way she got treated," Biden said. An aide said earlier last week that the former vice president had called Hill to apologize. She later told the New York Times she wasn’t satisfied with his remarks.

Biden also labored in "The View" interview to explain how his White House would be different than President Barack Obama’s.

‘Into the Future’

"It’s about moving to the future," he said. "It’s not about recreating what we did. It’s about taking the same decency and the philosophy that we have, the political philosophy, and taking it into the future."

Obama’s continued popularity in the party is an asset to his former vice president, although the ex-president hasn’t endorsed him and doesn’t plan to pick favorites this early in the Democratic race, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

For now, Biden has demonstrated his fundraising prowess by announcing Friday that his campaign raised $6.3 million in the first 24 hours after it began, outpacing the hauls of O’Rourke, who brought in $6.1 million, and Sanders, who took in $5.9 million.

Biden, who received the endorsement of a major union, the International Association of Fire Fighters, will appear at a Pittsburgh union hall on Monday for the first rally of his campaign, before touring the four early-primary states. The Democrat’s plans drew a mocking tweet from Trump:

Sanders can draw strength from the devotion of his voters, many of whom say they won’t consider any other Democrat.

“He’s the only one for me right now,” said Melissa Mallaber, a 46-year-old social worker from the Buffalo area in New York. She said Democrats need to turn the page and embrace the “new progressive wave.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.