Joseph R. Biden is slipping in the polls, and Democratic voters say the key selling point for his presidential bid — that he is the most “electable” candidate — is sexist, ageist or simply flat-out wrong.
It is a startling takedown of the former vice president, who presents himself as the candidate best equipped to save America from such vile traits.
“It is sexist. It is ageist. It is ridiculous,” Zoie Larkins, an 18-year-old college student from Vermont, said of the electability argument.
The perception that Mr. Biden would be a prohibitive favorite took another hit in the past week when former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signaled he was considering a bid of his own, apparently convinced that Mr. Biden and the other Democratic candidates aren’t capable of ousting Mr. Trump.
Howard Wolfson, a longtime aide to Mr. Bloomberg, said the former mayor is “increasingly concerned” that the current field of candidates isn’t well-positioned to defeat Mr. Trump.
Yet much of the criticism that Mr. Biden is old, white and male could also be aimed at Mr. Bloomberg.
Mr. Biden said he would welcome Mr. Bloomberg to the race and boasted that he has a unique coalition of support that includes women, young people, minorities and working-class people.
“The Democratic Party is a big tent. In order to be able to win, you have to be able to reach out and win parts of all the constituencies,” Mr. Biden told reporters in New Hampshire. “Look at all the polls. I’m ahead across the board, on average.”
Mr. Biden and his allies have argued that his rapport with working-class voters and his comparatively moderate positions will be needed if Democrats want to win back Rust Belt states and save the “soul” of the nation from the racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House.
Long considered a strength, that perceived electability is weakening in recent polls, including in a recent Quinnipiac University poll in Iowa that showed Mr. Biden slipping to fourth place behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
“For Iowa caucusgoers checking the electability box as their top quality in choosing a candidate, there is no one candidate with a clear edge,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Mary Snow. “Biden, Warren and Buttigieg are tied among those ranking a 2020 win uppermost in their decision.”
Other surveys suggest that Democratic voters are starting to see other candidates, even far-left contenders such as Ms. Warren, on equal footing with Mr. Biden in terms of their prospects in a general election.
Mr. Biden tied Ms. Warren at 23% in a recent Monmouth University poll, with Mr. Sanders close behind at 20%.
The former vice president also scored a 7.3 “electability” rating, down from 7.7 in June. Ms. Warren was at 7.1, up from 6.4 in June, and Mr. Sanders was at 7.0, up from 6.5 in June.
Melissa Harris, a Sanders supporter from Catharpin, Virginia, said she doesn’t think Mr. Biden is the most electable candidate in the field.
“I think that’s safe white man bulls– . I do,” Ms. Harris said. “I think it’s completely like ‘last white man standing,’ regardless of how inadequate he is. And I don’t think that he’s the right guy for the job at all.”
Another septuagenarian white man very well could enter the field with Mr. Bloomberg, who is taking steps to launch a presidential run as a Democrat after saying in March that he planned to sit out the race.
Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent turned Democrat, would seemingly occupy space in the more moderate lane, where Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg are among candidates jockeying for position.
Mr. Trump said Friday that there is no one he would rather have as a challenger than “little Michael.”
“He’s not going to do well, but I think he’s going to hurt [Joe] Biden actually,” the president told reporters.
Still, some Democrats are holding out for something better.
Laura Cowell, a local party leader in Prince William County, Virginia, said she hasn’t settled on a candidate but that the party would do well to look for more diversity in its nominee. She cast doubt on Mr. Biden’s viability.
“I am pretty tired of old white men, and I can speak for a lot of my friends that feel that way, too. We are done with old white men,” Ms. Cowell said. “His electability? I don’t know. I mean, Warren [is giving] him a good run — she really is. And Buttigieg is still out there, so I think it’s pretty early.”
Peggy Chenoweth of Gainesville, Virginia, said she could see the argument that “electability” is code for needing to nominate a white man to take on Mr. Trump.
“There’s a nostalgia with him that goes back to the Obama era,” she said of Mr. Biden. “I’m not sure that that’s necessarily the best way to go, but there’s definitely [a] likability factor.”
The 2020 Democratic field has several black candidates, including Sens. Kamala D. Harris of California and Cory A. Booker of New Jersey, a Hispanic candidate in former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and an openly gay candidate in Mr. Buttigieg.
Ms. Chenoweth blamed Mr. Trump for helping create a national atmosphere that could make it more difficult for the broader public to embrace those kinds of candidates.
“As much as I would love to say that the country’s ready for a homosexual president or ready for a woman president, I don’t know. I really don’t, because you’ve seen such a wave towards anti-Semitism and racism,” she said.
Ms. Harris, the Sanders supporter, said calls by the senator from Vermont for “radical change,” which might have seemed fringe during his 2016 presidential run, are becoming increasingly mainstream.
“He’s less fringe every four years, right? The things he’s saying now are mainstream,” she said. “I think that Joe Biden is a part of the political machine, and I do think Bernie Sanders will move toward radical change. I get we don’t do radical change well as a nation, but I do think that we need radical change.”
Others said the idea of electability had less to do with sexism or some kind of implicit prejudice than with voters’ comfort with Mr. Biden.
“I think people just know him and are more comfortable with him right now than with all the other candidates to choose from,” said Irene Burns of Catharpin, Virginia. “I don’t think it’s sexist. I know he’s an old white guy, and I keep saying when all the old white guys are gone, maybe they’ll fix health care and gun control.
“But they don’t go away,” she said with a laugh.
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