Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, smiles while speaking during a campaign event in Iowa City, Iowa, U.S. (Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

Biden Surge Fueled by Democratic Angst Over Who Can Beat Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden has vaulted to the front of the Democratic 2020 field by touting his electability. Now his rivals for the nomination want the party’s voters to know that they, too, have the chops to beat President Donald Trump.

The other 21 Democrats in the field have been moving to adjust their strategy since Biden’s entry into the race on April 25 and are making the case directly to voters that they can take on the Republican president.

Biden, who has taken an early lead in the polls, was asked Saturday in a television interview in South Carolina why his third presidential campaign would be different from his failed bids in 1988 and 2008. He answered with two words: “President Trump.”

The other Democratic contenders have caught on.

Speaking to the NAACP in Detroit on Sunday night, Senator Kamala Harris took aim at the “conversation by pundits about ‘electability.’” She said such discussions were “short-sighted” and leave out “people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit.”

In a reference to Biden, Harris added: “We cannot get dragged into simplistic narratives or yesterday’s politics.”

On Saturday, Biden’s closest rival, Bernie Sanders, sought to assuage concerns about his electability, insisting he can expand the electorate and turn out disaffected voters.

“You’re going to hear a lot of attacks on me. That’s the way it is. And one of the arguments is, ‘Sanders can’t beat Trump,’” the Vermont senator said In Perry, Iowa. “We can defeat Trump because we’re going to get more and more people involved in the campaign, including a lot of young people and working people, and get them to come vote.”

Sanders received applause when he said his internal polls show him leading Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that were key to Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton.

The electability question has made it hard for any Democrat who isn’t named Biden or Sanders to break through. It has forced them to address the issue head-on and look for other ways to stay in the minds of voters.

A striking 56 percent of Democrats said Biden had the best chance of defeating Trump in 2020, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released on April 30. Sanders was a distant second, with 12 percent. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg had just 4 percent, while Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke had 3 percent. Harris had 2 percent.

Conversations with dozens of voters in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation nominating contest, indicated a broad array of opinions about electability. Many see Biden as the top choice -- that includes women who worry that the U.S. isn’t ready to elect a female president, and Democrats who believe the more liberal candidates cannot win.

Holli Kinstle, a teacher and caretaker based in Ames, plans to support Sanders after seeing him and Warren at Iowa State University over the weekend. Warren is a strong and serious candidate, she said, “but I really want a winner and I have a feeling people might not get behind her at this time.”

Kinstle said she’s “pretty sure" Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman president. “There’s a lot of backlash against female candidates,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy behind Donald Trump. We need to combat that with the same vehemence.”

After speaking at Iowa State University, Warren was asked by a reporter what she’d say to women who worry that she cannot win.

“I remember when people said that Barack Obama couldn’t be elected. I remember when people said Donald Trump couldn’t be elected. And look where we are today,” Warren said. “We are 10 months out; we’re going to stay in this fight.”

Despite the leads of Sanders and Biden, it remains far from a two-person race. A recent CNN national survey of hypothetical match-ups found Biden and Sanders leading Trump by 6 points, just outside the margin of error. O’Rourke held a 10-point lead over Trump, while Buttigieg, Harris and Warren were statistically tied with the president.

Some voters said Biden is weaker than he looks and that the party needs a political outsider to beat Trump. Yet others say electability shouldn’t be an issue because recent history has proved that it’s an impossible quality to pin down.

Anne Kinzel, a 63-year-old who plans to caucus for Warren in Iowa, said the electability argument is “absurd.”

“Nobody knows who’s electable. Nobody knew Donald Trump was electable,” she said.

Dave Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State, had a similar view. “We don’t know what electability means,” he said, adding that he’s leaning toward caucusing for Harris because he wants someone younger and who isn’t a white man.

Antonia Felix, an author and researcher who attended a Warren event Friday in Iowa Falls, said Biden has too much baggage due to his “insensitivity around women” and his decision to side with credit card companies on bankruptcy legislation.

“Why not go for a candidate without that baggage with the same progressive strength?” said Felix, who plans to support Warren.

Modern U.S. history supports her point. The last presidential candidate seen as a Washington insider to win was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Since then, establishment figures like Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain and Hillary Clinton all lost general elections, either to a perceived outsider or an incumbent president.

Other voters say a Democrat will crush Trump as long as the election is fair.

“Any Democrat, as long as the vote is fair and counted, will beat Trump,” said Tom Shearman, who is retired and lives on a farm near Jefferson, Iowa. “Give us a fair and legal vote and he doesn’t stand a chance. It’ll be a tsunami.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.