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Biden would certainly like to be seen as an incumbent. First, politically, he is reaching for the mantle of his old boss, Barack Obama, who remains broadly popular among Democrats and the general population. Second, ideologically, he has presented the Donald Trump presidency as an appalling anomaly (in contrast to candidates like Warren and Buttigieg, who frame it as a symptom of long-running maladies in American society). The Biden project imagines erasing the past four years and pretending as though Biden ran and won the 2016 election as Obama’s immediate successor.
Ersatz incumbency helps to explain some of Biden’s troubles, too. When incumbent candidates are challenged, their rivals lay out a similar set of complaints: The incumbent is too cautious in both his policies and tactics; he is too dependent on the coalition of the past, and will fail to turn out new and occasional voters; he is yesterday’s news, and the opposition will shred him for it. These are all critiques that have been thrown at Biden, and perhaps his critics are right about what will happen in a general election. If Biden is an incumbent, maybe he’s a little like Jimmy Carter in 1980, with the rest of the field, like Ted Kennedy, to his left, and Trump (in casting he would enjoy) in the role of Ronald Reagan.
But Carter was a true incumbent; maybe more useful analogies are to other quasi-incumbents. Consider Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. Gore was the sitting vice president, and despite his differences with Bill Clinton as the administration wore on, he was Clinton’s heir apparent. That was enough to clear the field of other Democrats—almost. Former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey ran against Gore, attacking him mostly from the left (even though Bradley’s Senate record was broadly similar to Gore’s).
Bradley’s run was serious enough that Gore tried to paint himself as an underdog in the race—an act of expectations-setting that the press didn’t really buy, nor did Bradley, who insisted that he was the real underdog. Gore won easily in Iowa, but Bradley came within a few points of tying Gore in New Hampshire. Then came Super Tuesday. Gore, buoyed by support among black voters, crushed Bradley. That effectively was the end of the race. Two days later, in the South Carolina caucus, Bradley pulled less than 2 percent—a major drop-off for a candidate who’d drawn 16 to 46 percent in every previous contest.
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That’s the best-case scenario for Biden. The less rosy one is 2008. Hillary Clinton’s claim on quasi-incumbency was a little different and weaker; there had been eight years of a Republican president, though Clinton had been first lady in the last Democratic White House. Like Gore, Clinton was relying on black voters to help her hold off a challenge from Barack Obama, who—it is perplexing to remember now—was accused of being not black enough or unable to win. But by the South Carolina primary, Obama had proved his viability, and he won the state with the help of a large majority of African American voters. From there, it was a long and acrimonious march to an Obama nomination.