The trajectories of dueling political campaigns can be fascinating—in the 2016 Democratic primary, for instance, aside from minor polling deviations, Hillary Clinton steadily lost support from the moment Bernie Sanders entered the race, while Sanders steadily gained. In the end, of course, Clinton’s starting advantage was too high, and she won the nomination before enduring a similar dynamic in the general election against Trump that ended in electoral college defeat. A lot of this owes to name recognition—when everybody knows you, it’s easier for voters to make up their minds at an earlier date, whereas an unknown quantity has a much higher ceiling. It’s the same reason why Sanders can’t possibly gain 43 points of support over the 2020 primary campaign as he did in 2016. People know him now, his starting point is higher, and he’s not going to take anyone by surprise.
So, let’s talk about Joe Biden, who entered the presidential race Thursday morning, and starts off either as the frontrunner or a very close second behind Sanders, depending on your preferred poll. The current state of the primary can be summarized as “Biden and Sanders can win, Buttigieg rising, everyone else stagnant or dead,” though with nine months standing between now and the Iowa caucuses, it’s still wide open. So now that Biden’s in, and his campaign is tangible rather than just pure potential, which way will he go?
The argument for Biden gaining support is pretty simple—when the other moderate candidates like Harris and O’Rourke drop out, their supporters will flock to Uncle Joe, giving him the majority he needs for all the primaries that remain.
Which may happen, of course. But it’s worth noting that the same mindset pervaded the Republican primary in 2016, when it was taken as gospel that Trump would lose (even after the first few primaries) because the last establishment candidate standing would inherit the votes from everyone else. That didn’t happen—Trump’s support only grew as others dropped out, and it became clear that the RNC vastly underestimated his anti-establishment appeal. Campaigns work on momentum, and the wishful thinking that votes would re-align nicely based on assumed ideological orientation turned out to be totally and completely wrong.
Another theory, and one with a lot more supporting evidence, is that Biden’s support has already plateaued. I am not covering new ground here when I say that Biden has a tough road ahead—this argument dates back at least to 2017. The central premise is that Biden is a relatively abstract candidate at the moment, and one who gives comfort and reassurance to a certain kind of voter based on his persona as Obama’s avuncular VP. When this rather hazy vision meets the reality of a grueling, invasive campaign, he can only lose support.
While trying to parse which narrative is more likely to come true, it’s important to look at Biden’s previous runs for president. In 1988, he had to drop out because of multiple incidents of plagiarism and lying about his academic record. In 2008, he was known primarily for his gaffes, and withdrew early after a fifth-place finish in Iowa. To put it very charitably, he has not proven himself a strong presidential campaigner.
The bigger problem, though, is his record. Right now, people are only beginning to talk about his treatment of Anita Hill, or his work on the ‘94 crime bill, or his votes to gut welfare, or his vote for the war in Iraq, but they will be soon. And they’ll be talking more and more about the uncomfortable way he’s touched women throughout his career, or his disdain for young voters, and they’ll undoubtedly be talking about things we don’t even know yet.
Finally, there’s the mood of the electorate—as Biden’s campaign video made clear, he’ll be running as the anti-Trump “return to decency” candidate. But simply running against Trump’s personality isn’t enough, as Clinton found out to her detriment. The prevailing mood on the left is not just anti-Trump, but anti-establishment, and Biden will be outflanked by almost every other candidate on his left. As ideas and policies spread, he’ll be behind the progressive curve at every turn.
Primaries are ugly, general elections are uglier, and in the modern age of hyper-exposure, they’re custom-built to destroy idealistic perceptions of any candidate. To gain steam, you need a populist platform and low-to-medium initial name recognition. Biden has neither, and it’s why his current level of support—hovering between 25 and 35 percent—will likely be as good as it gets.