Why Can’t Biden Move to the Center?
It’s all about college-educated voters and activists.
Why can’t Biden move to the center decisively, thereby enhancing his chances of beating Trump this November? You’d think something like this would be in order now, given how dreadful the polls currently look for Biden. In the RCP running average of trial heats, he is behind Trump by a little under 4 points. By comparison, at this point in the 2020 campaign, Biden was ahead of Trump by over 5 points. And in 2016, Clinton at this point was ahead of Trump by around 3 points.
More bad news: the latest tranche of swing state polls has Biden behind in every single one. The Morning Consult release has Biden behind Trump by 10 points in North Carolina, 8 points in Georgia and Nevada, 5 points in Michigan and Wisconsin and 3 points in Arizona and Pennsylvania. Moreover, the Morning Consult data show that, as the economy has declined somewhat as voters’ main issue in these states, immigration has moved up by a similar amount and is now voters’ second most important issue in five of the seven states. And Trump is preferred over Biden by wide margins on the immigration issue in each of these states: by 24 points in North Carolina, by 23 points in Nevada, by 22 points in Wisconsin, by 20 points in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and by 16 points in Michigan.
And, as the release notes:
Swing-state voters are more likely to blame Biden than anyone else for the increase in migrant crossings. Across the seven states, 41 percent blame the incumbent president and 35 percent blame his party on Capitol Hill, compared with 14 percent each who blame congressional Republicans or the Trump administration.
OK then! Seems like corrective action is in order. Lately of course, Biden has been trying to do just that. Famously (and somewhat disingenuously), he has recently stated that he would “shut down the border right now and fix it quickly” if only his hands were untied by passage of a bipartisan border deal.
Some have wondered whether this move by Biden could function as a sort of “Sister Souljah moment,” indicating a decisive break with the party’s left on this issue and more generally. I'm doubtful. Bill Clinton's purpose in the original Sister Souljah moment was to signal to the political center that he was a "different kind of Democrat." He did this by going after a specific person whose words embodied what he wished to dissociate himself from. I don't think Biden is really committed to being a different kind of Democrat, just a somewhat more palatable one. And I don't think he really wants to go after some specific person or group to forcefully dissociate himself from quasi-open border views in and around the Democratic Party. That limits the salience of his repositioning both in the general political discourse and to voters’ perceptions of him and his party.
And it's a steep political hill he has to climb on this issue, as the data cited above and much else indicates. Truth be told, it's a bit late in the day to finally be moving on this issue and only under duress from the Republicans. The border debacle has been unfolding throughout Biden’s term and the political damage has been accumulating. A big part of the problem is that there are a lot of Democrats who didn’t—and don’t—really want to do much about border security. Rather than being dismissive of concerns about illegal immigration—cheered on by activist groups and the party's progressive left—it now seems obvious Democrats should have taken them more seriously from the very beginning.
That said, it's still worth striking a tougher stance on border security even if it can't quite function as a Sister Souljah moment (at least as far as Biden appears to be willing to take it). It's the beginning of a move in the right direction and could help Biden modestly even though a big liability on the issue is likely to remain. Given that the impending bipartisan deal on the issue is unlikely to get through Congress, Biden should consider what executive actions he could take to strongly signal a new, tougher approach to border security, which I suspect would be more convincing to voters than the apparent plan to pillory the Republicans for tanking the deal, which is bound to come off as the typical Capitol Hill blame game.
As to the inevitable question on whether he would lose more support on the progressive left than he would gain in the center: my view is that, on this issue as one so many others, the progressive left is a paper tiger. They just don't represent that many voters and are only able to convince people they do because they purport to represent large groups of voters like youth, Latinos, etc. They don't. There are many more voters who the Democrats can reach in the center (including among the very demographic groups progressive leftists allege they represent) than there are likely defectors among progressives. The net for the Democrats is likely to be strongly positive. And the more decisive the action, the better the net.
So what’s likely to stop Biden? The answer is simple: the liberal college-educated voters and activists who punch so far above their weight in the Democratic Party. They are already screaming bloody murder about what Biden has said and indeed the whole general idea of getting tougher in any way at the border. The reliably ultra-progressive Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, fearless leader of the House Progressive Caucus, recently characterized the whole business as a rank betrayal of Democratic principles:
The president would just do very well to remember it has never worked for Democrats to just take up Republican talking points and think that somehow Republicans are going to turn around and thank us for it. That’s just not going to happen.
Jayapal represents Washington state’s seventh congressional district (Seattle) which has a partisan lean of +67 points (!) Democratic. It also happens to have a median family income of $170,000 (!!), the seventh highest among congressional districts, as well as the seventh highest concentration in the country of adults with college degrees. Given that 2024 is shaping up to be a working class-driven election, it seems like Biden would be well-advised to ignore political advice from the likes of her and her allies.
But that’s the problem: it’s very hard for Biden to ignore these voices who both loom large in the party and strenuously resist any and all moves to the center. He’s under enormous pressure from the party’s left and “shadow party” (as John Judis and I have termed it) of activist groups, think tanks, foundations, publications and websites, big donors and prestigious intellectuals—college-educated all!—not to move in that direction. Case in point: even while Biden has been talking tougher on the border, he caved to pressure from climate activists and halted permitting on liquified natural gas (LNG) exports, a decision that makes no policy sense. This does not exactly scream independence from the party’s left and their unending demands that their policies, even if unpopular and impractical, should be the Democrats’ priority.
Biden should instead heed the words of veteran Democratic pollster, Stan Greenberg, who recently wrote in an op-ed article titled “Joe Biden will have to dump the elite if he wants to beat Trump”:
Donald Trump locked up the Republican nomination last week, and President Biden’s campaign faces an uphill struggle to defeat him. He needs to rediscover “blue-collar Joe” and break out of the elite bubble.
Trump is running an effective campaign that has deepened support among working-class voters in the primaries and the general election. He has shown he understands how angry people are about spiking prices, elites growing richer, rising violent crime and a flood of refugees.
Biden’s approval rating, meanwhile, is stuck below 40 per cent….Yet the White House, pundits and progressive commentators are all trapped in the same elite bubble that keeps them from seeing what is happening to most Americans.
Sounds like good advice. But to implement it, Biden needs to stop pandering to the college-educated voters and activists who don’t want him to move to the center. The stakes are high.