Can Biden coast to victory?
So far, so good
Given the gigantic stakes, Joe Biden is running a fairly low-key campaign for the presidency. His events are relatively infrequent and very small — part of a strategy to emphasize the danger of the coronavirus pandemic. In several key states, like Michigan, the campaign has very little presence on the ground at all, and is not doing any in-person canvassing. It is raising a ton of money and spending hugely on ads, but the ads are also rather anodyne, most promising vaguely to restore a modicum of decency and professionalism to the White House.
In other words, Biden is largely following the strategy of his primary election, in which he coasted to victory on the strength of his reputation and the anxious fears of the electorate. As much as it is distasteful for leftists like me, who strongly opposed him and his passive style in the primary, to admit, it seems so far that the strategy is working.
Biden has had a comfortable lead in every national poll for months, and he is leading in all the swing states he would need to win, plus some others for a margin of error. The race seems all but frozen in ice — neither the party conventions, nor Trump's regular outbursts of bug-eyed madness, nor the recent media focus on street violence in places like Kenosha and Portland, have appreciably moved the race. The FiveThirtyEight polling average had Biden up by eight points at the end of July, and today he is up by seven. It seems almost all people have basically decided who they are going to vote for, and nothing could change their mind.
Now, Trump absolutely could still win. Virtually any incumbent has a chance, many swing states are quite close, and Trump is telegraphing a strategy of rampant cheating and vote suppression that can't be measured in advance. Future events might move public opinion in a way past ones have not. But conversely, the objective condition of the country is worse than it has been since 1932, and it is not out of the question that Biden could win a historic blowout.
Importantly, as Jim Newell points out at Slate, much of Biden's polling strength is based on an unusual group: seniors. Trump won people over 65 by about 9 points in 2016, and Democrats have been losing this demographic for many years, but Biden has made astounding inroads. A poll from last month had him leading 65+ Americans by 17 points. "That would represent a shift of 26 points among the oldest measured demographic from 2016," Newell writes (though more recent polls have Trump doing better). As he argues, much of this simply must be about COVID-19, which has hit older people very, very hard. Trump's catastrophic bungling of the pandemic has killed at least 200,000 people, most of them elderly, while many conservative propagandists are scoffing that they would have died anyway in a desperate bid to shift blame from Trump. Naturally that has dented his popularity, and redounded to Biden's benefit.
Something Newell doesn't mention is the role of gender. Some of the seniors Newell spoke to have suspiciously thin reasons they didn't vote for Clinton — one mentioned Benghazi, while another (a woman) said simply, "I don't have a reason, I don't know … I just didn't like her." It surely must be that some (not all, mind you) of the astoundingly vitriolic hatred of Clinton on the right comes from simple sexist stereotyping, as exploited by conservative media.
Incidentally, it is rather peculiar that many liberals have convinced themselves that Trump won purely because of a racist backlash to the first black president instead of sexism, when Barack Obama won re-election and Clinton lost as the first woman candidate. Though it is definitely true that many, many people were driven around the bend by Obama, I think it is fair to conclude Clinton also suffered a nontrivial penalty from her gender.
In any case, insofar as those things are problems for voters, Biden is a straight white man, like every previous president but one. That may give him a point or two in the polls — at least relative to someone who is like him except a different identity. As Newell rightly argues, different politicians have different strengths, and can thus assemble different winning coalitions. Obama, for instance, probably lost some older people due to racism, but more than made up for it by activating younger people and minorities.
So here we have a possible glimmering of a successful Biden coalition: People under 45, minorities (though fewer of those groups than Obama got), people with college degrees, and seniors. In political terms at least, Biden has been extraordinarily lucky this cycle — these groups have more or less fallen into his lap without him having to campaign at all, and circumstances have made a traditional campaign less important than any election in decades. The election is clearly going to turn on perceptions of Trump's handling of the pandemic and economic crash, and even right-wing media can only do so much to spin that disaster.
But if and when Biden takes office, he won't be able to rely on luck nearly so much. That coalition is so broad that he will not be able to help betraying some of them — either the younger lefties who want serious reform, or the elderly Trump-phobes who simply want things to go back to how they were in 2016 without any more disruptive change. Coasting to victory is one thing, but presidents have to act.