What’s different for the Joe Biden who announced his 2020 US presidential candidacy today?
One key factor: Donald Trump.
Biden’s first presidential run in 1988 petered out almost as soon as it began, after he was caught plagiarizing another politician’s speech.
In his second bid, in 2008, the seven-term US senator was among the Democrats trounced in the Iowa caucus by the newbie candidate he had called “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” (Barack Obama would go on to win the election and become vice president Biden’s boss.)
This time, though, polls show the gaffe-prone, folksy septuagenarian as the clear Democratic front-runner, leading the rest of an exceptionally diverse pack of 2020 candidates by a large margin. Now 76, he would be the oldest president to be inaugurated if he wins. (Trump is the current record holder.)
As the 2016 Republican victor, Trump has upended the political landscape in ways that burnish Biden’s strengths and downplay his weaknesses. Through the Trump-era lens, the Uncle Joe rejected by Democratic primary voters in the past appears to stand a pretty good chance. Here’s why:
Trump has blurred the lines
Biden, has a propensity for putting his foot in his mouth—and his hands where he shouldn’t. The internet is full of Biden gaffe lists, and images of him squeezing, close-hugging, and hovering over uncomfortable-looking women. These look like inconsequential slips next to Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comments and frequently offensive rhetoric.
By force of his crassness, the president has dulled Americans’ capacity of being shocked. Biden benefits from that.
Biden offers a serving of Regular Joe
Trump’s election revealed the extent to which Democrats lost touch with their traditional white, working-class base—and how much they need it. Trump’s wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, formerly reliably blue, propelled him to the White House even without winning the national popular vote.
Biden—raised in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania—is well positioned to court Obama voters who switched to Trump in those key states. Recent Emerson polls show he has big leads in two of the three.
A Democrat Republicans can vote for
The majority of Republicans still support Trump, but some are defecting over his behavior in office. Biden has a better chance of earning their votes than many of the Democratic primary candidates who lean further left.
He’s earned a reputation as centrist, with a bent for bipartisanship. He even appeared to side with a struggling Republican candidate during the midterm elections—to the detriment of his Democratic opponent. Biden later shook off criticism about the incident with a joke about liking Republicans. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he said.
One in three Republicans like him back, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Americans crave a move to the center
Trump’s victory inspired a new generation of young, diverse, and liberal Democrats to run for office—and win. Their high visibility obscures another variety of Trump backlash: a move towards the center.
A large portion of the American public say they are exhausted by polarization and favor compromise, according to polling and analysis conducted by More in Common, an international nonprofit. More than half of self-identified Democrats want their party to become more moderate, not more liberal, they have told pollsters.
Meanwhile, the majority of Americans, appear to want straight-talking leaders—80% say political correctness is a problem, according to the More in Common study.
Given this backdrop, it’s not surprising that a middle-of-the road Democrat who doesn’t mince words would be polling well. Biden has the highest favorable ratings—80%—of seven potential Democratic nominees Gallup poll respondents considered. (The rest, from most to least liked: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar.)
That, of course, doesn’t mean he’ll win, as early party front-runners from Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton to Herman Cain and Rudy Giuliani can attest.