The biggest problem for advocates of a Joe Biden presidential bid is this: How does he differentiate himself in any meaningful way from Hillary Clinton? Both are firmly rooted in their party’s establishment, are at their heart political pragmatists rather than ideologues, and are close to the same age.
New polling from Quinnipiac University in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania provides a clue as to where Biden might be able draw a sharp — and winning — contrast with Clinton: on honesty.
Clinton’s problems with the electorate on questions of whether she is honest and trustworthy have been well-documented. And the Q poll suggests they aren’t getting better. Clinton has the worst ratings of any of the candidates tested on the question. In Florida, 35 percent of respondents said she is honest and trustworthy, and that was her high-water mark! In Pennsylvania, 34 percent said the same, while in Ohio it was 33 percent.
Biden’s, by contrast, were the highest of any pol tested by Quinnipiac. In Florida, a stunning 71 percent said Biden was honest and trustworthy — double Clinton’s numbers on this question — and even 63 percent of Republicans agreed. Just 19 percent of Floridians said those words don’t apply to Biden.
As our own Philip Bump noted, Biden is almost certainly at his high-water mark in polling at the moment. There’s intense interest in whether he will run for president, and that attention has largely focused on the death of his eldest son in May and cast the vice president as a deeply sympathetic figure. That would almost certainly change somewhat — or maybe more than somewhat — if he ran for president.
That said, I do think that the massive gap on the “honest and trustworthy” question provides an opening for Biden to differentiate himself from Clinton if he ran. Like it or not, the perception of Clinton (and the Clintons more broadly) is that they are always pushing the limits and forever calculating what position to take through the lens of politics. (Worth noting: In politics, calculating a position to make it the best politics possible could well just be a survival instinct.) And again, for better or worse, Biden is widely viewed as being deeply authentic — as close to a real person as you can get in a politician who has risen to his level.
Should he run, Biden would do well to play up the idea that he might not always take a position that everyone in his party will agree with, but they will always know he is being honest with them about where he stands. Remember that Clinton was cruising to the Democratic nomination until a debate in Buffalo in the fall of 2007. She was asked by the late Tim Russert her position on giving undocumented workers drivers’ licenses and offered up a totally political (and largely unintelligible) answer. Her opponents — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — pounced, casting the moment as a perfect encapsulation of her forever-calculating personality. Things went downhill for Clinton from that point forward.
If Biden could find such a moment in this race, the attack would land with even more power since Clinton’s numbers today on being honest and trustworthy are far worse than they were eight years ago. People are ready and willing to see Clinton in that light — particularly if someone they trusted made that case.
The question: Is Biden willing to go directly after Clinton in such a personal way? It’s one thing to disagree on an issue, it’s another to seek to question a candidate’s commitment to veracity. The problem for Biden is that there is NO path to the nomination for him that doesn’t go directly through Clinton because of the similarities in their appeals to Democratic voters. If he is unable or unwilling to question Clinton — and keep up the drumbeat for weeks and months — he will not win. And he will not really have a chance to win.
Clinton’s perception problem on being honest and trustworthy opens up a path for Biden. But is it one he is willing to walk down?