The Democratic presidential primary—and the Democratic coalition itself—are both in an unpredictable place as Vice President Joe Biden weighs a 2016 bid with increasing seriousness. The buzz intensified when it was reported that Biden held a private meeting with populist-progressive superstar Elizabeth Warren over the weekend, prompting speculation about the potential potency of a Biden-Warren ticket among Democratic voters. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Biden is now “leaning toward” entering the race, as Hillary Clinton continues to falter.
If Biden decides to jump in, the race will immediately get much more interesting—and not only because of gaffe-prone “Uncle Joe’s” inevitable verbal slip-ups. A Biden run would be interesting because of what it might reveal about the coalition that makes up the modern Democratic Party. While Hillary Clinton is looking to reconstitute the Democratic coalition that nominated Barack Obama in 2008—a coalition heavy on young people and, especially, minorities—Team Biden is reportedly imagining a primary support base among white working-class voters and independents. (Ironically, this is the same constituency that Clinton chased after during her first presidential run—only to be outdone by Obama’s rainbow coalition). From Thursday’s WSJ:
With Mrs. Clinton slipping in polls, Mr. Biden could introduce another challenge to her campaign by drawing away key voters: working-class Americans and independents. Both groups have moved away from the party in recent elections, and Mr. Biden fares better with them than Mrs. Clinton, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken this summer.
“He has a reach that other Democrats don’t have at this stage,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who worked on the survey…
Jim McQueeny, a former Democratic strategist from New Jersey, said Mr. Biden could win the support of blue-collar workers, such as steelworkers, mechanics and factory workers, by capitalizing on “the feeling that he understands their issues” more than Mrs. Clinton does.
“It’s mostly white, it’s mostly male but it can be very powerful,” Mr. McQueeny said. “Hillary has a challenge with these people,” he added.
Critics argue that Biden is mulling a campaign strategy for winning the nomination of a party that no longer exists. White working-class voters and independents—relatively moderate constituencies that were an important part of Bill Clinton’s 1990s support base—have drifted sharply away from the Party under Barack Obama’s more unabashedly liberal leadership. Building a bid for the nomination around these voters might seem to be a lost cause at time when the Democrats’ working-class base is diminishing and the party is growing more diverse and liberal. Still, the white working class represents a sizable, if shrinking, part of the Democratic primary electorate, and could help create a path to the nomination for Biden if Clinton’s email struggles take a turn for the worse.
Moreover, as Ross Douthat has written, “presidential candidates inherit coalitions, yes, but they also shape them.” Joe Biden clearly can’t single-handedly restore the Democrats’ status as a party of working class unionized workers—those days are long gone—but it is not impossible to imagine the back-slapping moderate-on-abortion pol from Scranton, Pennsylvania charting out a more working-class friendly path to the nomination than that which carried his boss in 2008, and which Hillary Clinton is trying, rather more uneasily, to win over this season. A Biden run would be informative—not only because it would boost the level of competition in a shallow Democratic field, but because it would help clarify whether the Democratic Party can appeal to a slightly broader constituency, or whether the Obama coalition is here to stay.