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Polls suggest that Americans are more comfortable with candidates close to the ideological center. In surveys this year, respondents consider Biden more moderate than Trump. That’s a reversal from 2016, when Americans viewed Trump as more moderate than Hillary Clinton. One reason for this shift is that Trump’s image has changed. By November 2016, after a campaign in which Trump had publicly opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare, slammed the Iraq War, and denounced America’s campaign-finance system as corrupt, voters perceived him as less conservative than every other recent incoming Republican president except George H. W. Bush. But by early 2018, after a first year in office in which Trump promoted a hard-right economic and cultural agenda, his moderate reputation had already faded. It has never returned, which makes Biden look more moderate by contrast.
Biden also appears more moderate than Clinton because, as I’ve previously argued, Americans generally deem male candidates less threatening. In gauging a candidate’s ideology, voters often seize on cultural cues. In his book Politics Lost, the journalist Joe Klein notes that in focus groups during the 1976 campaign, white voters insisted that Jimmy Carter opposed school busing even after being shown a speech in which he said he supported it. They claimed he was lying to win black votes. Carter overperformed among culturally conservative white voters because those voters couldn’t imagine that a white male governor of Georgia was truly progressive on race.
Biden benefits from stereotyping in a similar way. His race, gender, and age incline voters to view him as moderate. But race, gender, and age don’t explain everything. Despite being old, white, and male, Bernie Sanders still convinced Democratic-primary voters that he was significantly further left than Elizabeth Warren.
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The other reason voters perceive Biden as moderate is that on issue after issue, he’s adopted policies that are strikingly progressive while stopping just shy of the specific formulations that might leave him vulnerable to Republican attack. On criminal justice, for instance, Biden has proposed abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, and creating a national roster of police officers who abuse their position—all policies that place him to the left of the 2016 Democratic platform. But, to Trump’s dismay, he hasn’t proposed defunding the police.
On education, Biden has proved more skeptical of both standardized testing and charter schools than the Obama administration. He’s also called for tripling federal assistance to schools that educate poor kids, and for making college free for families earning less than $125,000—pledges Clinton did not make four years ago. But he has refused to adopt Sanders’s controversial call to make college free for everyone.