“I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify.” Joe Biden Nov. 7, 2020
Without question, progressive Democrats and conservatives Republicans attract the lion’s share of media attention. Firebrands seek the spotlight as they repeatedly taunt the opposition while captivating a loyal and large social media following.
In the era of Twitter, Facebook, and partisan news, rallying the base yields tangible results. The rapid ascendancy of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seem to validate the tactics.
Yet amid the heated political rhetoric and social media rants, an old-school backslapper won the greatest prize in American politics. Joe Biden does not electrify large crowds nor does his social media posts generate avid followers. He prioritizes building personal relationships and applies a cautious, consensus building approach to governance. His career spans nearly a half century, entering the U.S. Senate in 1973 long before cable news and desk top computers. On inauguration day, Biden will be 78 years old.
Why did Biden win?
Americans prefer centrist presidents
Consider recent presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama. They campaigned as moderates and often governed that way as well.
In George H.W. Bush’s nomination acceptance speech, he called for a “kinder, gentler nation”. Pulitzer prize winning author Jon Meacham, who wrote Bush’s biography called him “the last gentleman”. Bush enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, extended the Civil Rights Act, and expanded environmental regulations.
Bill Clinton presented himself as a centrists and was open to adopting Republican ideas – so called triangulation politics. Once elected, Clinton signed into law significant bi-partisan legislation including NAFTA, Defense of Marriage Act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
George W. Bush championed compassionate conservatism, which envisioned the core responsibility of government to care for its people. The philosophy helped Bush secure two terms and draw significant support from suburban and Latino voters. In the 2000 election, observers noted that on some key issues, Bush appeared much like a centrist Democrat. Bush’s rhetoric emphasized respect, civility, and decency both in the political arena and in society.
Barack Obama extended Bill Clinton’s New Democrat coalition, campaigning as a bridge-builder and unifier. In his popular book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama underscored the importance of centrism and condemned the ridged activists on the far right and left for impeding progress and alienating many Americans. His campaign speeches attacked partisan warfare in Washington, and he secured the votes of millions of Independents and conservative Democrats in the primaries and general elections. Obama then selected the moderate Joe Biden as his Vice President.
In this context, the aggressive posture and incendiary language of Donald Trump appears to be an aberration. And Joe Biden’s victory an extension of an existing trend.
A Presidency for all Americans
From the beginning of his campaign, Biden occupied the center lane. It was not a tough sell. It’s Joe Biden’s trademark – the man you can count on, the man that reaches across the aisle.
In every primary debate, Biden literally stood in the center – contenders placed on either side. Progressive rivals criticized his moderate positions on immigration, health care, welfare, and the Green New Deal. Memorably, Kamala Harris attacked Biden for his past work with segregationist senators and his opposition to desegregation busing.
The attacks resonated but never gained traction. As the pandemic struck the nation, and uncertainty spread, Democrat primary voters quickly sought refuge in the Biden camp. They may have preferred other candidates, but Joe Biden represented stability, empathy, and decency. He would arrest the runaway polarization. Biden’s moderation and big heart offered a perfect contrast to Trump’s egocentric, callous politics.
Several months later, in November, millions of Americans came to that same conclusion.
Again, this is nothing new. Bush’s kinder and gentler vision, Clinton’s New Democrat approach, GW Bush’ compassionate conservatism, and Obama’s hope and unity are messages of moderation designed to elevate the better angels of our nature. It’s a successful formula.
Biden was right
He would be the man to fashion a broad base of support anchored in the middle of the political spectrum. There would be no blue or red states, but only the United States. He would represent everyone. Biden repeatedly said he would “govern as an American president” – de-emphasizing his party affiliation. He told reporters he was “not a fan of court-packing,” and voiced support for law enforcement: “Let’s get the facts straight, I not only don’t want to de-fund the police. I want to add $300 million to their local budgets to deal with community policing to get police and communities back together again.” For both hot button issues, Biden distanced himself from the progressive wing and adopted the moderate position.
It worked. Exit polls show that Biden significantly improved the moderate vote from 2016 by 12% – Clinton received 52% and Biden 64%. Moderates comprise approximately 40% of the electorate. In addition, Biden was able to win a majority of Independents in 2020. Something Hillary Clinton could not do.
Finally, Biden secured a majority of suburban voters – a large and important voting bloc. Just over half of all voters in 2020 classified as suburbanites. Notably, Biden bettered Hillary Clinton’s percentages in key battle ground suburbs including those around Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Phoenix. In short, the moderate suburban vote favored the centrism of Joe Biden. Just as Biden had promised.
Biden’s centrist base – % voting for Democrat candidate 2016 & 2020
Political success requires a mixture of chance, skill, and opportunity. Four years ago, Donald Trump exploited the opportunities. This year, Joe Biden did the same.
Like Trump, Biden will face many challenges. The partisan rancor that so dominated the terms of recent presidents will not magically disappear. The twin health and economic crisis are made even more difficult to manage with a divided elite and polarized mass public.
Campaigns of course make promises, promote principles, and advertise strong leadership. Yet governing demands diplomacy, responsiveness, and the capacity to set aside principles for the sake of compromise. We shall see how Joe Biden governs as President.
But, for now, it’s safe to conclude that Joe Biden – the quintessential political journeyman, showed that centrism remains fundamental to winning presidential elections.