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Joe Biden: tough seasoned candidate or bumbling geriatric?

March 28th, 2020

How to reconcile his stumbles with his success

I have not covered myself with glory during the 2020 US presidential election so far. To date, I have tipped, successively, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden for victory – and I’m not exactly convinced at the moment that it’ll be any of them.

To be fair, I don’t think my reasoning has been a million miles out. At the start of the year, I assumed that impeachment would leave Trump broadly unaffected and that the strong economy would ensure his re-election, aided by a relatively weak Democratic field and a structural Republican advantage in the Electoral College. There was always the possibility that the economy could falter during 2020 but on New Year’s Day, that was just a hypothetical known-unknown in the mix; on balance, it didn’t look that likely.

However, Trump’s clearly complacent, arrogant and inadequate response to the Covid-19 outbreak made me reverse that assessment. His early inactions (partial Chinese flight restrictions apart) and wishful, dismissive attitude to it convinced me that he stood a high chance of being blamed for the outbreak becoming as bad as it was likely to – not least because those early inactions were likely to foreshadow his later attitude and decisions, as they have. His comment about ‘churches packed for Easter’ still speaks of a president who doesn’t understand the gravity of the developing situation.

As was also predictable from early on, once an outbreak became established in a country, the only alternative to a near-universal domestic epidemic was a shut-down of the economy and society in affected regions – which would come with a terrible economic toll.

On the face of it, the US is now suffering an even more severe outbreak than Europe: the US has gone from 5,000 to 100,000 reported cases four days faster than the combined EU figure and with the patchy lock-downs and continuance of domestic US flights, chances are that trend may well continue. That said, the number of reported cases is not an entirely reliable metric.

The economic data, by contrast, is more reliable – and awful. Words struggle to explain how dreadful this week’s unemployment claim figures were, with 3.3 million signing on: close to FIVE TIMES the previous record. A Reuters-Ipsos poll yesterday found that 23% of the US workforce had been laid off or furloughed during the Covid-19 outbreak. Those are not numbers against which you win re-election; those are numbers Herbert Hoover would recognise.

It is true that Trump’s approval ratings have risen during the epidemic but the election is more than seven months away. That’s more than enough time for the gloss to come off and for the Democrat’s to attack his decision-making. This should very much be their election to win.

Until we get to the candidate. For a long time, I expected that to be Joe Biden. The national polls were clear through 2019 that his initial lead wasn’t just about name recognition but there was genuine positive support too. Name-recognition candidates do not survive as front-runner in the months before the primaries begin if there isn’t substance there too; Biden did.

What changed my opinion was not the Iowa result (an unrepresentative state ‘voting’ using a cumbersome and undemocratic system), so much as clips of Biden’s campaigning: he looked utterly worn out. Against a rampant Sanders, I didn’t really see a way back if that was representative of where Biden was. Question was – question is – is that representative?

And there now is the crux of the 2020 Democratic nomination campaign. The 77-year old Biden has had more than enough mental stumbles along the way to raise serious questions as to whether he’s suffering from a degenerative mental condition. It’s true that Biden has never been the most verbally sure-footed politician and as such, his slips can be to some extent discounted as Joe-being-Joe. But only to some extent.

However, against that we have to weigh the fact that he has beaten two dozen rivals, including several heavyweight opponents. He has come through eleven debates, most as front-runner, without suffering any terminal gaffe and through most of them without any meaningful damage at all. The most recent of these was a two-hour head-to-head with Sanders: you do not emerge ahead from something like that if you’re suffering from dementia.

(It should be noted, as an aside, that Biden has not yet won the nomination. Sanders remains in the race albeit 300 delegates behind and with a 20% deficit, going on current polls. However, the Covid-19 epidemic has forced so many states to move their primaries back that more delegates will now be determined in June than in April and May combined and New York may well join that flight, back-loading the contest even more. There is potentially time for Sanders to recover – but it’s a very uphill task).

So, where does this leave us? My instinct is still that Biden will win and that while he’s far from a shoo-in, he’s also stronger than a lot of people give him credit for. The fundamentals look very poor for Trump and while he’s a master at negative campaigning, he’s never had to run against the background of his own record before – and chances are that record has two very serious failures this year not yet incorporated into the polling and approval figures.

But there are two known-unknowns we have to recognise. Firstly, he’s an elderly man engaged in a demanding campaign, meeting many people in the middle of a pandemic. There are clearly risks there given the fatality rate of Covid-19 sufferers among male 70-somethings. (This of course also applies to Sanders and Trump). And while I think Biden’s reputation as ‘gaffe-prone’ is exaggerated – there was nothing during his eight years as Vice President that caused serious embarrassment – there’s always the potential for a campaign-ending howler.

At evens, Trump remains a clear lay. Biden ought therefore to be value at 5/4 and is, even if it’s a bet I’d feel uneasy about. So despite the maxim that things don’t usually happen in politics out of the ordinary as often as media and pundits would have you think, there may still be value down the list. Sanders is now out to 50/1, which I think underestimates his strength and Biden’s vulnerability. Likewise, Warren at 250/1 looks over-priced should something happen (Cuomo as flavour of the month is too risky to justify 50/1, I think).

Biden remains an odd candidate: unusually weak for someone who’s dominated the polls for most of the last year and has a commanding lead in delegates. He should still be odds-on favourite and yet there’s more than a nagging doubt at the back of the mind as to the state of his.

David Herdson