Joe Biden’s moment: Why his improbable candidacy may finally work

In many ways, Joe Biden is the antithesis of President Donald Trump. The former vice president exudes empathy, amid his own struggles with stuttering and multiple family tragedies. He was, while in the Senate, proudly at or near the bottom of the rankings for personal wealth. He didn’t attend elite schools. 

But arguably just as important, as Mr. Biden takes the virtual convention stage Thursday night to accept his party’s presidential nomination, he is also not Hillary Clinton.

Four years ago, Mrs. Clinton lost white, non-college-graduate voters to Mr. Trump by a whopping 37 percentage points. Today, Mr. Biden is losing them by a far smaller margin, and leads Mr. Trump overall by about 8 percentage points. 

Many analysts saw an element of sexism in some voters’ resistance to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. But her presidential bid likely suffered as a result of her image as part of the Beltway elite, right as a long-building populist backlash was cresting.

She also entered the race having already been effectively demonized in conservative media outlets. Mr. Biden, by contrast, has been a much harder figure to define, with a public persona that’s more along the lines of “Uncle Joe” who sometimes says the wrong thing. 

Washington

Joe Biden is, in crucial ways, the most improbable major-party presidential nominee in modern American history. 

He’d be the oldest first-term president by more than seven years. His prior presidential campaigns, in the 1988 and 2008 cycles, ended early amid serious stumbles. And he has a very long public record – 36 years as a United States senator and eight as vice president – providing his opponent with almost endless fodder for attacks. 

He’s also a white man in a rapidly diversifying nation that, especially now, is acutely aware of the privileges that attach to being white and male, perhaps more than at any time since the 1960s. 

Yet as former Vice President Biden takes the virtual convention stage Thursday night to accept his party’s presidential nomination, he may end up being just what the Democrats need, political analysts and allies say. 

In many ways, Mr. Biden is the antithesis of President Donald Trump. He exudes empathy, amid his own struggles with stuttering and multiple family tragedies. He was also, while in the Senate, proudly at or near the bottom in terms of personal wealth. He didn’t attend elite schools. 

But arguably just as important, he’s also not Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee who fumbled away the presidency in part by losing the white working-class vote – big. 

“Hillary Clinton in particular, for better or worse, right or wrong, did not connect with people in the way Joe Biden has,” says David Redlawsk, political science chair at the University of Delaware, Newark. 

Four years ago, Mrs. Clinton lost white, non-college-graduate voters to Mr. Trump by a whopping 37 percentage points – 66% to 29%, according to the exit polls. That demographic was especially important in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the three “blue wall” states that Mr. Trump won to pollsters’ surprise, handing him the presidency. 

Today, Mr. Biden is still losing white non-college voters to Mr. Trump, but by a much smaller margin – 40% to 55%, according to the latest Marist poll. Two and a half months before the Nov. 3 election, he leads Mr. Trump overall by about 8 percentage points. 

Bobby Juliano, a retired consultant and former labor lobbyist, knows both Mr. Biden and Mrs. Clinton well. The key difference, he says, is that Mr. Biden is himself in public, whereas Mrs. Clinton was more guarded. 

“When you’d have lunch or see her, she was much warmer – great sense of humor, huge laugh – than the more public persona,” Mr. Juliano says. “For whatever reason, there was a reluctance to show that side. Huge mistake.”