Biden builds primary strategy around general election
Former Vice President Joe Biden is running a general election campaign during the Democratic primary.
While other presidential candidates are running campaigns tailored to the Democratic base, Biden’s message, for the most part, is targeting centrists and independents, a move typically reserved for the general election.
While the strategy can be risky for primary candidates, Democrats say the strategy works well for Biden. He is currently well-ahead of his competitors.
“Biden’s strength has always been to fuse pragmatism and progressivism,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who has said that the former vice president has the best chance among all the Democratic candidates of defeating President Trump later this year.
“And the polling is pretty consistent that most Democrats want a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump and reflect their core values at the same time. Biden is trying to dominate that lane.”
A survey from Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll out on Friday showed Biden receiving the support of 30 percent of Democrats. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has drawn support from progressives, came in a distant second with 17 percent.
“Biden can stay the course because he isn’t hemorrhaging supporters and as the field of candidates decreases, he’ll find less competition to be the moderate in the race,” said Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and is a former aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
To be sure, Biden has had to move to the left at times during the primary battle.
The most notable example came in June, when he said he would support the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds for abortion.
Biden had taken a significant political hit when his campaign said he still supported the Hyde Amendment, which was once widely supported by centrist Democrats. The party has since moved to the left, and party leaders have been critical of what they view as an assault on abortion rights by GOP-led state governments.
But for the most part, Biden has moved to the center again and again during the primary season.
The most recent example came just last week, when Biden said he’d consider a Republican as his vice presidential candidate if he won the Democratic nomination.
“The answer is I would, but I can’t think of one now,” Biden said to applause from a crowd at a campaign event in New Hampshire. “Whomever I would pick were I fortunate enough to be your nominee, I’d pick somebody who was simpatico with me, who knew what my priorities were and knew what I wanted to do. We could disagree on tactics but strategically we’d have to be on the exact same page.”
Biden has repeatedly presented himself as a candidate who could work with Republicans if elected, an argument that has sometimes invited criticism from the left.
In June, he said it was wrongheaded to refuse to work with Republicans since there was little that could be done in Washington with such a view.
“If you start off with the notion there’s nothing you can do, well why don’t you all go home then, man? Or let’s start a real physical revolution if you’re talking about it. Because we have to be able to change what we’re doing within our system,” Biden said at the Poor People’s Campaign Presidential Forum in Washington.
Such arguments might turn off some Democratic primary voters, but they can help Biden with independent and Republican voters, potentially broadening his support in a general election and bolstering the campaign’s argument that he is the Democrat with the best chance of defeating President Trump.
It could also help Biden if he succeeds in the Democratic primary by making his pivot to the general election campaign an easier one.
“There is a general rule that you’re in a stronger position if your primary strategy and general election strategy are closely aligned,” said William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, who served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton during his presidency. “What you say during the primary will come back to haunt or hurt you during a general election.”
Galston pointed to Warren’s recent walk-back on “Medicare for All” and how she’d pay for it. Once a central part of her campaign, she has glossed over it in recent rallies after criticism across the Democratic Party.
“Her campaign began to realize it wouldn’t fare so well,” he said.
To that point, while polls have shown that the progressive wing in the party is growing steadily, a Gallup poll last year showed that 54 percent of Democrats preferred a party that moved toward the middle.
A string of recent polls has also shown that voters support the idea of compromise and bipartisanship.
A Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Civility Poll out in October found that 8 in 10 voters say “compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders.”
Advisers and confidants close to Biden insist that the play for centrists is not so much a strategy for Biden but simply who the former vice president is.
“He just believes in it,” said one ally close to the campaign. “He’s always believed in working across the aisle and being a pragmatist. He knows people understand rainbows and unicorns.”
Galston suggested the Biden campaign’s message is also meant to draw a distinction between Biden and Sanders.
“I don’t think the American people are ready for a revolution,” he said.
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