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Joe Biden: Chameleon


Source: Yoon, H. (2020). The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/us/politics/biden-backs-free-college.html

Addison Naylor


The year was 1988. Joe Biden, the youthful Senator from Delaware, entered the Democratic presidential primary on a platform of generational change. Now, in 2020, the 77 year old nominee is running as a candidate for a party that is more diverse than ever. What does this mean for the Democrats? That Joe Biden represents this change? Or, that electability - rather what is perceived as being electable - has become the defining feature of his nomination?


What Is Electability?


Electability is the ability to be elected over someone else. However, it is arguably more complex than this definition. Since Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, the Democratic party has been fixated on the removal of Trump from office. Trump’s victory was, in part, centred around three states in the 'Rust Belt’ of the USA - Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin. These states were all won by under 1% of the total vote and yet significantly helped deliver Trump’s electoral college success. For Democrats, electability has become a candidate's ability to win over this 1% of rust belt voters and succeed in the electoral college.


Biden is not a candidate chosen for his firm policy standpoints. Rather, it is his chameleon-like ability to evolve to suit the contemporary Democratic party platform that has allowed him to attract the hypothetical rust belt voter. For Trump in 2016, mobilising the rust belt vote meant tapping into frustrations of the urban, industrial middle class who were frustrated with unemployment and globalisation, especially with the loss of domestic manufacturing jobs. In 2020, Biden must adopt a different strategy, and instead capitalise on the Belt’s minority population, and young college-educated voters frustrated with Trump’s turbulent brand of governance. Biden’s changing policy positions throughout his political career, and willingness to change his policy position is an asset in the upcoming election, making him ‘electable’ to any voter.


By examining Biden’s history and support on issues concerning women, race, climate and the LGBTQ community, his electability - his ability to appeal to anyone, and most importantly the precious Rust Belt voter - can be examined.


Biden’s Policy Evolution


Among female voters, Biden has a checkered history. Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the hearings of Anita Hill which were widely criticised for their improper treatment of Hill by an all-male committee, with allegations of a flawed investigation by not calling further witnesses. Biden has also supported the Hyde Amendment which banned federal funding of abortion services until only recently. However, Biden announced early during the primary that he would select a female running mate and recently chose Kamala Harris as his vice presidential candidate. Biden currently has support among female supporters of 59% compared to 35% for Trump.


With black voters too, Biden has had a varied track record. During the ‘tough on crime’ period of American politics in the 1980s, Biden voted in favour of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking crimes - a policy that has contributed to an especially high level of black incarceration. Despite this history, Biden now supports comprehensive criminal justice reform designed to reduce the level of incarceration among black communities. With the Black Lives Matter movement pertinent in the American consciousness, Biden’s approach to criminal justice is likely at the forefront of consideration among voters. Biden currently has support among black voters by 92% compared to 5% for Trump. This vote is essential should Biden succeed in the Rust Belt.


Biden has also changed his positions among same-sex marriage. In 1996, Biden supported the Defense of Marriage Act – a law which prohibited the federal government from recognising marriages among same-sex couples. As recently as 2006, Biden stated that marriage was to be between a man and a woman. However, he was one of the first members of the Obama Administration to come out in favour of same-sex marriage and currently holds, per some polls, a 43% lead among LGBTQ voters compared to Trump, demonstrating his argument of electability.


Despite this, on some issues Biden has been less variable. Three weeks ago, Biden released his climate plan – a two trillion-dollar strategy to boost clean energy and lead the US on a path to net zero emissions by 2050. Biden has long been a pioneer of climate initiatives. He introduced the Global Climate Protection Act to the Senate floor in 1986, one of the first bills to address the issue of climate change. Environmental protection has historically been popular among voters and continues to be so, suggesting that Biden has not needed to adapt his environmental position to remain electable, especially to younger college-educated voters.


Is Biden Electable?


The Democratic party attracts a diverse voter base with disparate views on climate policy, the role of government and economic redistribution. Often, it seems that the desire to remove President Trump is the Democrat's most unifying party ambition. Nonetheless, Biden appears to be popular among Democratic voters. Per a New York Times/Sienna College poll, primary supporters of Bernie Sanders now back Joe Biden at a margin of 87%, compared to 4% supporting Trump. Among Elizabeth Warren supporters, Biden now has their support at 96% compared to 0% supporting Trump. He has received endorsements from progressive activist groups like MoveOn and even conservative Republican-aligned groups like The Lincoln Project


The question arises whether these margins are driven by support for Biden or by a dislike of Trump. Polling shows a margin of 69% of Trump voters are ‘very enthusiastic’ of Trump but only 34% of Biden voters are ‘very enthusiastic’ of Biden. In the polls, the electability argument for Biden seems to be holding strong. Even if Biden voter’s are anti-Trump rather than pro-Biden, he may still be electable so long as the desire to see Trump removed is enough to get people into booths, and especially into the booths of the Rust Belt. There are still over three months until election day. Whether Biden’s chameleon-like abilities will make him the electable candidate that Democrats want him to be, will be laid bare come November 3. 

Addison Naylor is currently studying a LLB(Hons)/Global Studies degree at Monash University and has a keen interest for domestic US politics and international affairs

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