Biden Is The Democrat Front-Runner, But Should We Back Him?

Biden Is The Democrat Front-Runner, But Should We Back Him?

The 19th and most significant Democrat candidate to date has declared for 2020. Amid a blaze of publicity, Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign with a direct pitch for what opinion polls suggest over half the country want. Rather than policy specifics, the former VP declared his priority was simple - to rescue the country from Donald Trump.

Polls already favored Biden, and bookies immediately installed him as effectively joint-favorite alongside Bernie Sanders at +375 for the nomination and +850 to win the general election. But are either the polls or market a useful guide at this early stage?

Early Primary Polls Are Extremely Unreliable

The last two opposition primaries produced wild political betting heats. At least half a dozen Republicans went favorite before Mitt Romney prevailed in 2012. In 2016, Jeb Bush dominated with early with the top political betting sites but failed to finish in the top-five. At this stage, Donald Trump was 33/1 and runner-up Ted Cruz over 100-1.

Early polls are unreliable because most candidates are barely known. Biden and Sanders have much greater name recognition than the likes of Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg. That will change once the TV debates start, imminently. If good enough, they will move up in the ranks.

Nevertheless, name recognition is a key advantage. The debates will likely be anarchic as lesser-known candidates desperately try to be noticed. Few will cut through and when the field whittles down around the turn of the year, the front-runners will be well-placed.

Of the market leaders, I rate Biden’s chance much higher than Bernie Sanders for the reasons laid out here a few months ago. The media are already framing a shootout between candidates in their 70s, and Trump has already created a nickname - ‘Sleepy Joe’.

Biden’s Bipartisan Appeal Is a Rare Asset Nowadays

Rarely for these divided times, Biden is seen as a bipartisan kind of guy, with friends across the aisle. For emphasis, he chose The View for his first interview - a mainstream daily show on which he famously grieved with Meghan McCain following the death of his son and more recently her father.

She will likely endorse him and represents the type of Republican voter that preferred her late father’s brand of conservatism to Trump. To be certain of victory in 2020, Democrats need to retain the suburban switchers that powered their best mid-term result since Watergate.

Whereas many alternative Democrats risk alienating that key segment with radical policies, Biden is a safe, centrist pair of hands. He was number two to a president that left with strong approval ratings and remains America’s most respected man.

Indeed, history genuinely turned on his decision not to run. The polling evidence from 2016 suggested he would thrash Trump and fare considerably better than Hillary Clinton. In stark contrast to her, Biden cuts through in the blue collar, rust-belt states that critically went red.

Historic and Current Polls Show Biden Trouncing Trump

Boosted by name recognition, I suspect a similar trend will emerge in due course and Trump’s approval has fallen in every state since 2016. Of the few so far, Biden leads by 7.5% compared to, for instance, Buttigieg trailing by four. With around a fifth remaining undecided though, neither is a reliable guide.

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If Biden does poll consistently better than his rivals, he will be hard to dislodge. The most important trait will be electability - the ability to beat Trump.

So far, so good. But there are negatives. Were it not for the left’s urgent need to remove Trump, Biden wouldn’t be a frontline candidate. He would be regarded as too old and out of step with the direction of the party’s travel.

Rivals Are Certain to Attack His Centrist Policies

While the rest line up to back Medicare for all or free tuition, Biden is relatively conservative. He will be attacked for supporting past wars. These issues will be the meat of the forthcoming debates and he could soon be on the backfoot. If identity politics come to the fore, his limitations are obvious. Although, in fairness, polls dominated by two old white men suggest the importance is overstated.

In fact, I reckon this primary electorate will be more moderate than is often given credit. The anti-Trump backlash has been evident since 2016, fueling a vast rise in engagement and turnout. It is a broad coalition that includes leftists, independents and even disillusioned conservatives. Socialists will probably be a minority.

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Previous Failed Bids Suggest a Poor Campaigner

A greater concern for Biden backers is his history. He failed abysmally when twice running previously for president, and is famously gaffe-prone. There is little to suggest he’s going to stand out in the debates and, like any politician of his age, there is baggage.

Having apparently emerged unscathed from a recent micro-scandal regarding unwelcome physical contact with women - it seemed politically motivated - a shadow was immediately cast over his candidacy by Anita Hill.

In 1991, Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden and his committee have been widely criticized for their treatment of her. Just before declaring, he phoned her after 26 years to express regret. That sort of clumsy move - convincing nobody while reviving an ancient story - does not bode well for his ability to cope with the 24/7 news cycle.

So should we bet or not? Of the two options, +850 to be Next President represents much better value than the nomination because I reckon he’d be heavily odds-on in a head-to-head. He is worth getting onside at those odds, if only to cover stakes on alternatives, because they will likely shorten. However, we are nowhere near the stage for confident predictions and big bets at single-figure odds just yet.

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