The Ice-Cream Theory of Joe Biden’s Success

It’s hard to get excited about vanilla, but it’s even harder to get angry about it.

Biden grinning as he holds an ice-cream cone
Nic Antaya / The Boston Globe / Getty

One of the most revealing statements of the 2020 presidential campaign wasn’t uttered by the candidates. It came instead from a former Republican congressman. “It’s difficult to attack vanilla,” griped Florida’s Carlos Curbelo, lamenting the failure of GOP attacks against then-candidate Joe Biden. Curbelo probably intended to deride the former vice president as milquetoast. But he inadvertently landed on the key to Biden’s success: No one hates vanilla. Biden’s flavor of politics is not everyone’s favorite, but it’s one that most people are happy to accept.

Biden won in 2020 by 7 million votes, but the criticisms of his candidacy have not changed. To the president’s detractors, many of them Democrats, he is old, uninspired, and bland. He lacks the dynamism needed to excite younger voters, and his resistance to radical change fails to meet the moment. But this critique fundamentally misunderstands Biden’s appeal: He wins because he’s banal, not in spite of it. That’s because his brand of politics is the perfect counter to the acquired taste of today’s Trump-led Republican Party.

Consider the contrast between Biden and his opposition: For the 2022 midterms, GOP primary voters nominated a parade of Trump-endorsed conspiracy theorists who denied the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Say what you will about these candidates and their views, they did excite the base and certainly weren’t boring. Yet nearly all of them lost, ceding competitive swing states in the process. It turned out that what energized Republican partisans repelled the independent voters the party needed to win elections.

Biden embodies the opposite approach. He excels at being an acceptable candidate to the maximum number of general-election voters, even as he inspires only middling enthusiasm among his party’s loudest voices. This quiet cultivation of consensus—rather than crowd-pleasing bombast—is how Biden won the White House. He is vanilla in a world of pistachio and rocky road, unobjectionable to most people and unlikely to trigger any allergies. This is often more about Biden’s affect than his aspirations: Even when he is pursuing ambitious policies, he tends to cast them in common-sensical rather than revolutionary terms.

Pundits and activists have never warmed to Biden, but that’s because they are connoisseurs forever seeking fresh flavors. Biden understands that most voters do not live and breathe politics, and that they prize reliability over novelty. Many Americans just want an unobtrusive president who won’t demand their constant attention, especially after years of experiencing the opposite.

Being basic has its benefits: According to The Cook Political Report, polls show that Biden overwhelmingly wins voters who “somewhat disapprove” of him, whereas Trump loses the same set. For the dissatisfied, the president is a safe bet; his predecessor is a turnoff. In the frustrated words of the Fox News host Jesse Watters, “There’s not a ‘Hate Biden’ vote that’s out there. You know, when Trump’s on the ballot, there’s that ‘Hate Trump’ Democrat vote? People just don’t feel the same passion against the guy.” It’s hard to get excited about vanilla, but it’s even harder to get angry about it.

Biden’s intentionally inoffensive formula is superior to Trump’s abrasive one, as the 2020 and 2022 elections demonstrated. And yet, with Trump currently on track to secure the 2024 GOP nomination, Republicans are poised to repeat their mistakes. A recent CBS survey found that 75 percent of GOP primary voters who back Trump are doing so because they believe that “he actually won in 2020.” By contrast, polls have repeatedly found that large majorities of Americans believe that Trump lost. The former president’s loyalists are seeking to serve exactly what the broader electorate is not willing to consume.

This is where Biden’s anodyne affect becomes an asset rather than a liability, especially today. By taking conventional but popular positions that resonate with both Democrats and independents, Biden makes himself the dependable choice. And by receding into the background and letting his opponent do the talking, Biden ensures that the coming campaign cycle centers on the other side’s profoundly unpopular positions. When the only alternative to vanilla is rum raisin with a side of insurrection, the unassuming starts to look quite attractive.

Because Trump is peddling a product that is toxic to a majority of voters, there’s no need for a flashy candidate to compete with him for the spotlight. Biden doesn’t want to drown out Trump’s wild conspiracies and petty cruelties—he wants independent voters to hear them and remember why most of them rejected Trump twice at the ballot box. In a very real way, Trump is the Biden campaign’s best surrogate.

In recent months, the likely Republican nominee has been arrested, gone on trial for civil damages in a rape case, and snatched a reporter’s phone after the journalist asked him questions he didn’t like. Trump regularly makes extreme statements that thrill his supporters but alienate more moderate voters. At a recent conservative conference, he declared, “The sinister forces trying to kill America have done everything they can to stop me, to silence you, and to turn this nation into a socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxists, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants.” The longer the campaign continues, the more Trump will remind audiences why they dislike him. He is, in other words, the anti-Biden.

None of this means the president won’t lose to Trump in a 2024 rematch, which polls project to be perilously close. But it helps explain why Biden continues to outperform expectations, despite obvious shortcomings such as his age, propensity for gaffes, and history of failed presidential campaigns. It’s understandable that certain Democrats want someone with more flavor to be their standard-bearer, but the trick to being a consensus candidate is to avoid giving voters reasons not to vote for you. That’s Biden’s specialty—and Trump’s weakness.