Biden Is Still King of the Moderates -- But Will It Last?

ANALYSIS
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Throughout this primary season, poll after poll has indicated that Democratic voters are overwhelming focused on finding a candidate who can make Donald Trump a one-term president. By a 2-to-1 ratio, likely primary voters place beating Trump above selecting a nominee who shares their policy positions.

This overarching goal also serves as the main justification for former Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy. On the stump, in fundraisers, and on the debate stage, a central component of his appeal is his claimed ability to carry the moderates and independents necessary recapture the electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. His voters certainly seem to believe as much — in the most recent YouGov/Economist survey, 63% of his supporters valued beating President Trump over ideological alignment.

Yet in staking his case for the Democratic nomination on his electability, Biden bears the burden of proving that he is actually the general election winner he claims to be. While it is too early in the primary season to definitively answer that question, recent polling data contains some worrisome signs for the front-runner.

Since mid-March of this year, YouGov has been tracking the favorability of major Democratic presidential candidates in weekly surveys. Conveniently, its polling also measures favorability among various subgroups, including independents and moderates. If Biden is in fact the Democrat best suited to win over those voters, his net favorability among them should eclipse that of the other Democratic contenders.

As the graphs below illustrate, Biden does seem to pass that test at this point in the campaign. The blue dots in Figures 1 and 2 represent each week’s net favorability ratings — that is, the percentage of the sample with a positive opinion of the candidate minus the percentage with a negative opinion of the candidate — for the five most prominent Democratic candidates (Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders).

The dotted red line indicates the general time trend, while the blue shaded areas represent margins of error. Biden’s graphs (the top left corner of both figures) make clear that he is still the most popular Democratic candidate among moderate voters and does relatively well among independents.

However, his trend lines are pointing to a potential problem. Since announcing his campaign at the end of April, Biden’s popularity has steadily declined among the swing voters he argues to be best suited to win. Meanwhile, some of his prominent opponents seem to be making inroads with those groups.

Particularly notable is Warren, who is on an unmistakably upward trajectory. The Massachusetts senator started out the campaign as the least liked of the five among moderates and independents; since then, she has risen steadily, even equaling Biden’s net favorability among independents in the most recent poll. Harris has also gained among both independent and moderates in the wake of her June debate performance, while Buttigieg and Sanders have remained relatively stable.

If Biden arrests his decline among swing voters now, he could still credibly claim to be the Democrat best positioned to win in the fall of 2020. But if those numbers dip further, it would be especially concerning to him -- given than nearly two-thirds of his voters place electability above ideology. While most of the primary campaign has yet to unfold, Biden needs to end his slide among moderates and independents if he hopes to maintain his public image as the safest Democratic bet to defeat Trump.

David Brady is a professor of political science at Stanford University and the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Brett Parker is a JD/PhD student at Stanford University.



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