COLUMBIA, South Carolina — “Electability” was the watchword of Joe Biden’s first week on the presidential campaign trail.
Many of the Democrats who turned out at his events in Iowa and South Carolina were already committed to him as their first choice in an overstuffed primary field, or at least leaning toward him. These voters largely agree with the conventional wisdom that the 76-year-old former vice president is best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in 2020.
But the conversations often betrayed a tentativeness about it all. There was a sense of settling — that they are no longer falling in love with their candidate, as the old political axiom about Democrats goes, but falling in line. In doing so, some seemed to be talking themselves into the idea of President Joe Biden, even if he’s not perfect.
“Well, he has experience,” Barb Schuller, a Biden supporter from Sherrill, Iowa, told BuzzFeed News after seeing him last week in nearby Dubuque. “I wish he was 10 years younger.”
Biden is counting on his familiarity — eight years serving with the nation’s last Democratic and first black president — carrying him. He is also emphasizing his centrist and pragmatic abilities to work across the aisle while simultaneously scoffing at the notion that he should cede any ground to new voices on the left. “I have the most progressive record of anybody running,” Biden said in March, before he was an official candidate.
As examples of Biden’s progressive bona fides, a campaign spokesperson noted his close relationships with organized labor, his advocacy of marriage equality when it was still politically risky, and his recent comments urging an end to systemic racism. Biden, the spokesperson said, also “can point to a record of tangible, concrete progressive policies that he not only championed but became law,” such as the Violence Against Women Act.
But even Biden admirers have their doubts.
“I’m pretty much leaning toward Joe, but there are so many candidates, and they’re all going to come through Columbia at some point or another, so we’ll see,” Erin McCuien said Saturday as she waited in line for Biden’s speech in South Carolina’s capital. “But for me, we need somebody with his strengths. You know, he was the vice president for eight years. He can come in here and fix what is broken right now. And maybe pick a vice president that’s a little bit progressive? Because I don’t know if Joe is quite progressive enough, you know what I’m saying?”
McCuien isn’t the only voter who believes Biden needs a running mate to his left.
“I think Joe Biden is more of a uniter than a divider, and his electability is very important,” Biden supporter Travis Lincoln said before the Columbia event. “Now, I do think that having someone progressive directly under him would benefit not only him but also the progressive Democrats that are coming up, because I think they’re really looking toward changing the narrative, such as Bernie [Sanders] tried to do last time.”
Biden projected a frontrunner’s image last week in tightly controlled settings. He hardly deviated from a stump speech he debuted April 29 in Pittsburgh, allowing only for localized or personalized alterations, depending on the audience. He always hung around afterward for handshakes and backslaps and selfies, but he took no questions from voters during the events, and few from reporters.
One piece of traditional retail politicking — a stop for ice cream in Monticello, Iowa — included a brief interaction with a small pool of preselected reporters. When asked about Sanders, who has been critical of Biden’s moderate ways, Biden defended his record.
“We got plenty of time to respond,” said Biden, according to the pool report, passing on an opportunity to return Sanders’ fire. “I’m not going to get in a debate with my colleagues here.”
Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont, is Biden’s main competition in early polls after pulling the Democratic Party left with proposals such as Medicare for All, which other 2020 candidates have embraced. Biden prefers a milder “public option” approach that would let Americans buy government health insurance.
“I like the public option,” Greg Easley — an Iowa voter deciding among Biden, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren — said before Biden’s appearance last week in Cedar Rapids. “I would love to have Medicare for All. But how do we pass that now? We don’t.”
Others similarly rationalized some of Biden’s positions and behavior.
His support for tough crime legislation in the 1990s that disproportionately punished people of color? “I know he’ll take some heat from some of the legislation that was passed during the Clinton era as it relates to African Americans,” said Lincoln, who is black. “But I do believe that times have changed, people change, and with that, I think he has the wherewithal to do what’s right.”
His treatment of, and passive apologies decades later to, Anita Hill, who accused then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during hearings chaired by then-senator Biden? “A lot of people have evolved,” said Easley. “He’s always looked out for women’s rights.”
His handsy tendencies that have made some women uncomfortable? Easley again: “Obviously he’s a huggy man. He came from my generation. I think he’ll probably watch out and be more careful.”
The Bernie factor weighed heavily on Biden backers and leaners.
“Four more years of Trump? I don’t think this country can take four more years of Trump,” Tony Cox said at the Columbia event. “I’m more liberal than Joe Biden is, but I would be willing to support him over somebody who’s too far to the left who would be unelectable.”
Was Cox talking about anyone in particular?
“Bernie might be a problem,” he replied. “I like Bernie. I like a lot of his policies. But that would be an issue with me, yeah, whether Bernie’s electable or not.”
There was that word again: “electable.”
“That’s key for me, oh yeah,” said John Day, standing not far from Cox. “I believe it would be a mistake for the Democrats to nominate Bernie Sanders, because he would probably lose. I think Joe Biden has the best chance of preventing the Democrats from making that mistake.”
Sanders, 77, has authoritatively asserted his electability at campaign events and welcomes the clash with Biden, to a point. Asked about his differences with Biden at a town hall forum Sunday in Spencer, Iowa, Sanders started with some polite words.
“I like Joe,” he said. “And I want to make this point: that I hope very much, and I believe it’s the case, that the many — and we’re up to 20 Democratic candidates — we’ll disagree on issues.” (The number of Democratic candidates is actually now at 22.)
Sanders, once a Senate colleague of Biden’s, then contrasted Biden’s past support for foreign trade deals, Wall Street deregulation, and the Iraq War with his own opposition to each.
“So I don’t want to go on and on,” Sanders concluded. “Joe is a very decent guy. He is a friend of mine. We have differences of opinion, and you all will make your own decisions.”
Ruby Cramer contributed reporting.