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Joe Biden is a boring candidate. That's why he is doing well

Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti
Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Despite a seemingly unending series of gaffes and unimpressive performances in the two Democratic primary debates so far, Joe Biden retains a solid lead in almost all polls. He’s been consistently between 10 to 20 percentage points ahead of his main rivals nationally and also enjoys comfortable margins in Iowa and New Hampshire. By most counts, even if Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s projected scores were to be combined – which almost never happens when a candidate drops out – it still wouldn’t be enough to match Biden’s projected score.

The reason for this is to be found in what many consider Biden’s main weakness. He’s an old-school candidate, with a policy platform and campaigning style that seem to belong to another political era. Even Barack Obama originally chose him as vice-presidential candidate to reassure electors with a message of compromise and reliability. And that was nearly 12 years ago – before anyone even thought Donald Trump could stand a chance as president!

But the point is not that the Democratic party’s electorate is somehow more moderate than its vociferous left-wing seems to believe. If the last six electoral cycles are anything to go by, Democratic voters have demonstrated a keen appetite for “Change!” and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for status quo candidates.

The core of Joe Biden’s popularity lies in the fact that he is the candidate that presents the most marked contrast with President Trump’s governing style. Here, it’s not the policies that count. In terms of policy outcomes, Trump has pursued a rather traditional Republican agenda, cutting taxes and nominating conservative judges to the Supreme Court. But that’s not what people see in his Presidency: the next election is going to be a referendum on his polarizing persona and abrasive political style.

Sanders’s and Warren’s policy platforms are more removed from Trump’s than Biden’s, but they are also perceived as highly divisive candidates. And this is not the kind of change most anti-Trump voters are looking for. What they want, is a return to order and civility.

The paradox is that the mainspring of Biden’s support is therefore also a form of protest voting. It’s a protest against the politics of perpetual scandal and polarization. Protest against protest, if you will – which translates into a call for a return to order.

Nor is this the first time something of the sort has happened. Just as in the case of the rise of far-right populism itself, Americans can learn something from European political experiences in this regard.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, many voters who were tired of the political adventurism of the inter-war period opted for a ‘safe’ form of political centrism. This is why what followed fascism in Germany and Italy was not a swing to the far-left, but rather a sustained period of Christian Democratic hegemony. One of the German CDU’s most famous political slogans from the time was, precisely: “No Experiments!” (Keine Experimente!)

More recently, François Hollande based his 2012 Presidential bid in France on the message that he would be “a normal President” (un Président normal). He was running against Nicholas Sarkozy: another highly abrasive incumbent, who broke many of the established codes of political correctness at the time. On this message, Hollande handily defeated Sarkozy – even if French voters soon tired of their “normal” President too.

Hollande’s example also illustrates some of the potential problems with the idea a ‘return to civility’ in the aftermath of Trump. Protest against protest shares the same limitation as protest voting in general. Since it lacks a positive political vision, it remains parasitic on what it is protesting against. So, it fails to deliver on the electorate’s demand for change, and soon ends up disappointing its supporters.

This suggests that Biden’s old-school style may be more of a weakness as President than as candidate. In contrast to Trump, his very moderation appears as radical change. But if and when he were to become President, policy outcomes would begin to matter again. And, more of the same under the guise of radical change is not what voters are in search of.

Luckily, it’s still a long way to Iowa. A lot can still change. But, what Democrats need to forge, if they want to truly turn the page on Trump, is a candidate – or ticket – that represents change in both content and form. Neither equally confrontational methods with a different policy content, nor outmoded policy alternatives in a reassuring package will do the job.