Opinion: Joe Biden, meet Jeb Bush
The recent Democratic presidential candidate debates at the Fox Theatre in Detroit made two things crystal clear. One, the road to the White House in 2020 will go through Michigan. And two, Joe Biden is the Democrats’ version of Jeb Bush.
The latest polls have Biden well out in front of the Democratic presidential primary field. Quinnipiac has Biden leading Sen. Elizabeth Warren 32% to 21% in their national poll. Politico/Morning Consult has Biden defeating Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 33% to 19%. So, why do I predict Biden will soon be losing?
National polls measure name I.D. They are notoriously bad at predicting primary winners. Remember when polls had Bush defeating every Republican in 2015? Polls at this point are meaningless. The only thing that matters is how Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa and Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire are planning to vote.
Biden is a lot Jeb Bush — a decent person who is willing to compromise and work with members of the other party to get legislation passed. Problem is, there is no constituency for the hard, slow process of governing.
Most voters still want results over rhetoric, but most voters don’t vote in primaries. On average, only 10-20% of folks will show up in the primary to determine who will be on the ballot in November. Only the true believers show up to vote in primaries.
In the case of the Democrats, the believers are those who are livid at President Trump, tired of compromises with the Republicans and ready for a full-throated liberalism to take back the White House and the United States Senate.
These Democratic primary voters are not interested in a go-along, get-along mentality, nor do they want an incrementalist approach that is willing to accept half a loaf now in order to make limited progress. That is so old school — so Biden.
They want universal health care, not just the return to Obamacare for which Biden pleads. They want criminal justice reform that undoes virtually all of the tough-on-crime legislation Biden voted for during his time in the U.S. Senate. They want someone who embraces the Me-Too movement and women’s empowerment, not someone who dismissed Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination fight. They want tough environmental and labor protections in all trade agreements, not the Trans Pacific Partnership that Biden supported while serving as vice president.
There is no question that Biden has lots of supporters and lots of donors — just like Bush did in 2015. Bush, in fact, raised more than $100 million. And those millions of dollars got Bush all of 2.8% in the Iowa caucuses. For primary voters, it’s not about money.
Like Bush, Biden will continue to do well in all the polls right up to the point when the first votes are cast for the next Democratic presidential nominee. And like Bush, Biden will soon learn there is no love for pragmatism in politics anymore. The fall will be fast and hard.
Rusty Hills is a lecturer in public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He previously served as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, and as a senior adviser to Attorney General Bill Schuette and Gov. John Engler.