Five Reasons Pundits Underestimated Joe Biden

The people who chatter online didn’t see his popularity coming.

Joe Biden
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Joe Biden is much more popular among voters than the left’s intelligentsia anticipated, with staggering leads in every poll of Democratic presidential candidates. Why did so many journalists and Twitter pundits fail to foresee his success?

One reason, Jonathan Chait argues, is that the social democrats who support Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the conservatives who find them useful villains, shared an incentive to overstate the influence of leftists among Democrats and to understate the relative strength of moderates.

Writing on the same question, Michelle Goldberg declared, “Left-wing Twitter isn’t a microcosm of the Democratic Party. It’s just a small, noisy fraction of it.”

During a discussion I joined on Left, Right & Center, the Daily Beast columnist Keli Goff suggested another possibility. She shared that her African American family members are more enthusiastic about Biden’s candidacy than she would have guessed.

She theorized that their support wasn’t issue-based.

“To succeed in primarily nonblack spaces––you only do it when you have really good allies,” she declared. “And I think that one of the things Biden gets credit for, rightly or wrongly, is this idea of being the blue-collar white guy who helped give Obama legitimacy with some of the blue-collar, white, male voters who voted for Obama-Biden and then crossed over for Donald Trump. I think African Americans give credit for that. Especially when the Obama campaign was really struggling, not always fairly, with some of these race-baiting attacks, sending Biden out on the campaign trail to fight some of those fights made a difference.”

To those plausible factors I’d add a few theories of my own (note that they do not reflect any judgment on my part that Biden is, or is not, the most electable Democrat):

  1. The median Democratic voter is most interested in what a candidate is likely to do. Can Biden beat President Trump? If so, what will he accomplish in office? The left intelligentsia puts more relative importance on abstracts such as purity and symbolism. What are the most problematic things a pol has said? Has he ever been on “the wrong side of history”? Would his victory “normalize” anything problematic? How would his rise bear on questions of representation? Social media skew toward the concerns of intellectuals, while many Democratic voters care very little about such things.
  2. Across races, genders, and age cohorts, Americans strongly dislike what they call “political correctness” and like what strikes them as “authenticity.” Among Democrats with national name recognition, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders seem among the least politically correct and the most authentic. Looking at economic ideology alone, one wouldn’t have expected Sanders to lose so much support in polls when Biden entered the race––on the traditional political spectrum, they’re in very different “lanes.” But on an anti-racism spectrum that runs from woke identitarianism to color-blind universalism, they both occupy centrist terrain.
  3. As Matt Yglesias noted in his Vox article “The Great Awokening,” during the past five years, “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” On social media, however, members of the left intelligentsia often justify their views in part by characterizing them as amplifying or even deferring to voices of color–– even when the median African American, Latino, and Asian American hold more centrist positions. Observers are sufficiently misled as to expect that the Democratic Party, where voters of color are an important and growing constituency, will soon mirror the left-intelligentsia. But most voters of color are closer on policy to Biden than to Ocasio-Cortez. Centrist voices of color are just underrepresented in social and digital media.
  4. Among left intellectuals, it is conventional wisdom that America is a deeply racist, sexist, heteronormative country where structural forces disadvantage women and people of color at every turn, including in political campaigns, where marginalizing double standards are everywhere. It is conventional wisdom that privileged cis white men start on third base in any endeavor they want to accomplish. And it is conventional wisdom that Trump represents an existential threat to the country, rendering us all unsafe. After almost four years in which all three messages pervaded mainstream and social media, a faction of Democratic voters has concluded that nominating a privileged cis white male affords their party the best odds of defeating Trump and saving America.
  5. Barack Obama and Donald Trump could hardly be more different, but even casual observers can see one big similarity: their shared inability to get much of what they wanted through Congress. The next Democratic president will be similarly constrained. Given that reality, is it really so clear that Biden would accomplish fewer progressive goals on health care or climate change than Sanders or Elizabeth Warren? I suspect he is acceptable to so many Democrats in part because they believe the answer is no.

The 2020 presidential election will be just the second one in the current social-media landscape. “It is hard to exaggerate the degree to which the platform shapes the minds of professional political observers,” Chait says. “Part of Twitter’s allure to insiders is that it creates a simulacrum of the real world, complete with candidates, activists, and pundits all responding to events in real time. Because Twitter superficially resembles the outside world’s political debate—it does, after all, contain the full left-to-right spectrum—it is easy to mistake it for the real thing. But the ersatz polity of Twitter doesn’t represent the real world.”

To adequately serve its civic function, the American press has to do a better job of guarding against the distorting effects that the platform has on its coverage. Failures to foresee Biden’s popularity are, in that context, a cautionary tale.