The Warnings Against Biden Alternatives Are Mostly Meritless
They're based on the same simple misunderstandings about public opinion that skewed elite perceptions in 2020.
When I wrote yesterday’s piece arguing Democrats owe their rank and file some candor about the poor state of Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, I thought it was important to note that Biden himself has stipulated that many Democratic politicians could beat Donald Trump in November. I also framed the piece intentionally around the implication that he will be the Democratic nominee unless he chooses not to be. If his polling doesn’t turn around, but he keeps his feet planted in the race, then that’s the election we’re going to have—a weakened Biden vs. Donald Trump unbound by the rules. No cavalry will ride in to dislodge him even if he’s clearly likelier to lose than alternate candidates.
All of that said, I think many liberals have come to think about the risks of “changing horses midstream” and the difficulty finding alternatives who poll better against Donald Trump in empirically unsound ways.
The objections I’ve seen fit into at least one of the following categories:
Biden polls better against Trump than Kamala Harris does;
There’s scant head-to-head presidential polling of other Democrats, but what limited data we do have suggests Biden’s doing better than (or at least no worse than) some of the party’s rising stars;
Republicans and the mainstream media will find a But Her Emails/But His Age-style liability to fixate on no matter who the Democratic nominee is. Implication: Our intuition that a savior candidate would have an easier go of it than Biden is illusory;
Biden polled slightly better against Trump than the other leading presidential primary candidates in 2020, and only ended up beating Trump narrowly—ergo, only Biden could have beaten Trump, and a similar logic applies today.
Those first two observations are narrowly true. The third is a reasonable guess, but not necessarily true (some politicians are easy to define negatively; some liabilities are more severe than others). The fourth is a fallacy. But they all suffer from cribbed thinking about what experience and survey data can tell us, and are thus much more bearish about how a Gretchen Whitmer-led campaign, or even a Harris-led campaign, would fare than I think is warranted.
THE NAME OF THE GAME
Let’s start with that last bullet point.