Former Vice President Joe Biden formally entered the 2020 race for the White House on Thursday with a video that portrayed him as ready and raring to take on President Donald Trump and win the “battle for the soul of this nation.”
But the Democrat must first win his party’s nomination.
Biden, 76, of Wilmington, Delaware, currently enjoys frontrunner status in nearly every poll but can’t take for granted that he’ll stay on top, political observers say.
“The expectations are higher for him,” said Christopher Galdieri, an associate professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, an early-primary state. “If he comes out of the gate and he stumbles in fundraising or in endorsements, that’s going to be damaging in a way that’s different for anybody else but Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders, an independent Vermont senator and 2016 presidential candidate, is trailing Biden in the polls but also has double-digit support and currently leads the Democrats in fundraising.
Here are key factors that could determine whether Biden prevails or fails in the primaries:
Biden, who served three decades in the U.S. Senate and then eight years as second-in-command under President Barack Obama, is atop the polls due in large part to universal name recognition, experts say. His favorability ratings are high as well.
“Every single living, breathing Democratic primary voter knows who he is,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic pollster and consultant. “He’s been around. He certainly has the experience to do the job well.”
National polls also consistently show that Biden performs best among the Democratic contenders in a head-to-head with Trump. Many Democratic primary voters who said they are undecided have told Newsday that a top criterion for them is a candidate’s chances of unseating Trump.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), in an early endorsement of Biden, similarly looked to the general election. “In order to accomplish the urgent task of defeating President Trump, Democrats must win Pennsylvania,” Casey said in a statement. “Joe Biden can and will win Pennsylvania if he is the Democratic nominee for President.”
Biden’s team said Thursday that he has spoken with and expressed regret to Anita Hill, who testified at 1991 confirmation hearings of future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that Thomas sexually harassed her. The law professor had worked under him at two federal agencies.
Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, faced criticism for how Hill was treated by the all-male, all-white panel. His role has come under greater scrutiny in this #MeToo era.
Hill in a New York Times report said she was not satisfied by her conversation with Biden earlier this month and called for “real accountability.”
Affectionate style with women
The former vice president last month was forced to respond to accounts by women who said his physical style of interaction made them uncomfortable. Lucy Flores, a former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Nevada, had said he kissed the back of her head at a 2014 event.
Biden in a video said that in his years of handshaking, hugging and expressing affection, he never believed he acted inappropriately, but: “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully.”
He then joked in the days later at an electrical workers event that he had “permission” to hug a union leader and a boy who were on stage.
Monica Klein, a Democratic strategist who works with female candidates and was a regional press secretary with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, called Biden’s response out of touch. “The way he treated Lucy Flores and the way he treated Anita Hill and his general attitude toward women definitely turns a generation of women off who feel disrespected by him,” Klein said.
Biden, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, who speaks frequently about his hardscrabble upbringing, may have the blue-collar credentials to help the Democrats win back white working-class voters in the parts of the industrialized Midwest that voted for Trump in the last election, Bannon said.
His ties to the bellwether state of Pennsylvania also are unique in the packed field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls. Biden is set to kick off his stumping on Monday in Pittsburgh with a visit to the Teamsters Local 249 banquet hall, sending a clear signal that he’s courting blue-collar labor votes.
“Donald Trump barely won Pennsylvania,” CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said on the network. “Biden, although he is from Delaware, is really knocking things off in Pittsburgh. He is going to have AFL-CIO people everywhere around him. He’s going to have firefighters, policemen. Those are the base of Joe Biden.”
Biden would be 78 at his inauguration, if elected. Trump, 70 at his inauguration, currently is the oldest president ever to assume the office. Biden began his Senate career nine years before Pete Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in this cycle’s Democratic presidential primary, was born.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in March found only 37 percent of respondents said “someone over 75” was desirable as a presidential candidate.
Biden, already known to be gaffe-prone, must be wary of perceived “senior moments” on the trail, Galdieri said.
Record on race issues
Biden in the early 1970s sought to balance supporting the desegregation of schools with opposing busing, or transporting black and white students outside their neighborhoods in efforts to integrate schools. Then, in 1994, he championed a crime bill that led to a crackdown that contributed to mass incarceration that disproportionately impacted people of color.
But he also served for two terms as vice president to Obama, the country’s first black president, and is the subject of countless memes based on their close friendship. Black voters have come to associate Biden with the popular Obama, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University associate professor of political science.
Position as a moderate
Biden presents as a centrist Democrat in a time when the national party is shifting to the left and includes young stars such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Biden’s closest competition at this point in the primary, Sanders, is a self-declared socialist.
Political observers say Biden will appeal to a very important part of the Democratic electorate, the bloc of older, moderate, white working-class voters who will be alienated by the more progressive wing of the party.
The far-left Justice Democrats group that helped Ocasio-Cortez win her House seat tweeted Thursday that Biden is “out-of-touch with the center of energy in the Democratic Party today.” It said, “The old guard of the Democratic Party failed to stop Trump.”
Biden was a defender of Obama, who was willing to say things and go to lengths that the president would not.
“Biden has the personality to go back and forth with Trump. He’s willing to go to combat with Trump,” Bannon said. “Biden gives as good as he gets.”
Trump earlier this month tweeted a doctored video that showed Biden speaking while another Biden massages his shoulders with the message: “WELCOME BACK JOE!” Biden responded in a tweet that read: “I see that you are on the job and presidential, as always.”