Bet on Biden

Joe Biden leads in the polls, but what are his chances of getting the nomination?

The website FiveThirtyEight created a model for the contest for the Democratic nomination. It has Biden in the lead (estimating a 44% chance of getting the most delegates as of today).

Biden looks even more likely than that to get the nomination.

1. The calendar favors Biden.

The first contest is the Iowa caucus. Pete Buttigieg has to win there. In national polls, he is in fourth place, about 20 percentage points below Biden. Iowa is his best state. If he can't win there, he can't win anywhere.

The second contest is New Hampshire. Candidates from neighboring states have an advantage there. Elizabeth Warren (from Massachusetts) has to beat Joe Biden. She doesn't have to beat Bernie Sanders, because he also has a home state advantage (Vermont). Since Biden is the only one without that advantage, anyone who loses to him there is in big trouble.

If Buttigieg doesn't win in Iowa (most likely losing to Biden or Sanders) and if Sanders and Biden take the top two positions in New Hampshire, that reduces to field to a two man race: Sanders and Biden.

2. FiveThirtyEight also noted that since 1972, the candidate who consistently led at the start of the election campaign won the nomination in all but four cases: Edmund Muskie in 1972, Gary Hart in 1988, Hillary Clinton in 2008, and Rudy Guiliani also in 2008.

Muskie and Hart made personal mistakes, acting out of character. Muskie appeared to cry at a press conference. Hart got caught in an extra marital affair. In both cases, the problem was that it was out of character. Hubert Humphrey had cried in public and it hadn't hurt him. Bill Clinton had been caught in an affair during the 1992 campaign and it hadn't hurt him. Biden has a long history of stumbling over his words, awkward touching, and making funny mistakes in his speeches. Those won't hurt him.

In 2008, Clinton and Guiliani made strategic mistakes. Clinton was over confident: she neglected the caucus states, thinking she could win in just the primary states. Guiliani skipped the early states, concentrating on Florida. By the time of the Florida primary, he had lost momentum. Biden won't make those mistakes.

3. The book The Party Decides argues that the party insiders, which includes not just the politicians but also the activists and pundits, greatly influence the choice of the nominee. That doesn't always work: Donald Trump defeated the party establishment. But most of the time that is how it works out. Biden has received more endorsements from party leaders (Governors, Senators, Representatives) than anyone else, especially from outside his home state.

The first three points are included in the FiveThirtyEight model. I don't think the next three are.

4. The website FiveThirtyEight pointed out that no Democratic candidate since 1992 has won the nomination without getting a majority of the black vote. That is Biden's greatest strength.

5. Polls show that Democrats care more about electability than about issues. That is new this year. In prior years, they cared more about issues than electability. Polls also show Biden doing better than the other Democratic candidates against Trump. Biden is the only one the voters said "has the personality and leadership qualities a President should have" with a by a margin of 49% to 48%. On the question "Do you agree or disagree with each on the issues that matter most to you?" Elizabeth Warren did worse than Donald Trump: Warren got negative 19% (37% minus 56%) while Trump got negative 18% (41% minus 59%). This gives Biden an important talking point.

6. I read somewhere that Presidential elections tend to follow a three election cycle: get the country moving again, good guys vs. bad guys, reconciliation. Here are some examples. In 1932, the issue was the Depression, a classic get the country moving again issue. In 1936, Roosevelt ran attacking "economic royalists" - good guys vs. bad guys. In 1940, with war threatening, he ran as the peace candidate. In 1960, John Kennedy explicitly used the slogan "get the country moving again". In 1964, Lyndon Johnson demonized Barry Goldwater: e.g. the "Daisy" commercial. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran as the candidate to bring the country together again. In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked "Are you better off than you were four years ago?", making a point of the economic difficulties. In 1984, Reagan mainly ran on the economy, but also talked about the "evil empire": the main Republican commercial said "there is a bear in the woods" referring to the Soviet Union. In 1988, George H. W. Bush ran on a platform "a kinder, gentler conservatism". In 1992, the cycle started again: Bill Clinton said: "it's the economy stupid". In 1996, he ran against Newt Gingrich: the issue was the showdown with the House of Representatives (the government shutdown). In 2000, George W. Bush was the guy you would like to have a beer with. He said: "I'm a uniter, not a divider". In 2012, it stared again: the issue was the economy. In 2016, Donald Trump led chants of "Lock her up". In 2020, the country will likely be tired of divisiveness. Biden could run on a platform: let's stop fighting, can't we all just get along?

Posted 2020/January/23