I don’t want to overemphasize the importance of campaigns. The unemployment rate is above 13 percent, and may be as high as 16 percent; more than 120,000 Americans have died in a pandemic; and thousands upon thousands have joined protests against police brutality in the past few weeks. A majority of the public believes Trump has botched his response to all three of these events, and as a result he is polling badly.
Yet none of this means Trump cannot prevail. The first five months of the year have seen a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a nationwide uprising against racism in policing. The next five might yet see a Trump comeback, particularly if the economy recovers before November, if some unforeseen event turns the political landscape to Trump’s advantage, or if Biden himself implodes somehow. But up until this point, the former vice president has proved far more resilient than his detractors have expected, even surviving Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into implicating Biden in a crime that never occurred, an act for which Trump was impeached earlier this year.
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Although Democrats may take heart from Republicans’ difficulty in deploying their traditional culture-war playbook against Biden, that very difficulty illustrates how embedded racism and sexism remain in American society. Biden himself mused last year, “I think there's a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary. I think it was unfair. An awful lot of it. Well, that's not gonna happen with me."
Biden’s electability pitch was not just about being moderate relative to the rest of the primary field, but also about being a straight, Christian, white man, one whom Republicans would find difficult to paint as a dire threat to America as conservative white voters understand it. While Biden’s campaign struggled in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, one black voter told The New York Times, “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves. So yeah, we’ll back Biden, because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.” In the primary, Biden’s strength, particularly with older black voters, seemed to stem not only from his long-term relationships with black leaders or his association with Obama, but from voters’ perception that his background makes him ideally suited to halt Trumpism before it turns into the kind of decades-long backlash that followed the civil-rights movement.
Their bet on Biden as the candidate best positioned to neutralize Trump’s white identity politics appears to be paying off for the moment. Politico reported on Monday that the president is “surprisingly hesitant to engage his opponent—at least by Trump standards—and some advisers think he’s struggling with how to take him on.” It is not just that Trump’s supporters find Biden less threatening because he is a white man; the president himself feels that way. The notion of a Biden presidency simply does not provoke the visceral rage that Clinton and Obama did—not in Trump, and not in his supporters.