To his fiercest critics ranging from the ideological center all the way to the far left, Donald Trump is both a danger to the health of the republic and a living testament to the continued (if not resurgent) prevalence of racism and sexism in American society. Many commentators concluded after the 2016 election that Trump's political success represented his effective exploitation of popular animus against Latinos, Muslims, and Barack Obama. Some analysts also interpreted the unexpected outcome that year as reflecting antipathy toward the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the first female president, especially among the non-college whites whose disproportionate abandonment of the Democratic ticket in 2016 from Pennsylvania to Iowa turned out to be pivotal in the electoral college.
Democratic voters have largely accepted the argument that Trump is a unique menace to the nation whose electoral career has benefited from the existence of racist and sexist attitudes in the public. And many have drawn a natural inference from this premise: the Democratic Party should maximize its chances of defeating the president in 2020 by nominating an "electable" candidate to oppose him. What does electability apparently mean to these voters? A candidate who doesn't come across as an extremist, who doesn't threaten to push the hot buttons of race and gender, who promises to flip those all-important midwestern battleground states from red back to blue. A candidate like, say, Joe Biden.
The perception of Biden as an especially strong potential general-election candidate seems to have spread widely among rank-and-file Democrats since Trump's victory in 2016. And it's not hard to see why. Pundits in the mainstream media and a number of veteran politicians have spent the past three years arguing that the Democratic Party needs to improve its standing with white working-class voters in order to regain a national majority in the electoral vote count, and Biden is widely assumed to be an effective ambassador to that particular segment of the public.
This argument has been further reinforced by the rhetoric of many liberal and leftist commentators, who have become especially likely to emphasize the presence of ethnic and gender prejudice in the mass public and to identify it as the central source of Trump's political power. Democratic voters intent on defeating Trump are therefore receiving messages from multiple trusted sources promoting the view that a Biden type represents an especially shrewd choice of nominee.
In the days since Biden jumped into the presidential race and extended his lead atop preference polls of Democratic voters, voices on the left who normally stress the enduring presence of group biases in the American mass public have encountered growing evidence of a development that they do not appear to have fully anticipated. As it turns out, their own arguments can be interpreted to suggest that pragmatic Democrats should accommodate the sober reality of popular prejudice by nominating a white man like Biden to run against him. David Weigel of the Washington Post even reported meeting an Iowa voter wearing a shirt reading "A Woman's Place Is In the White House" who told him that she was supporting Biden in part because "a woman couldn't win."
Since Biden is hardly a favorite in young lefty and feminist circles, the head-on confrontation between a popular argument and one of its own apparent implications has resembled the sound of squealing tires careening across the internet. Whereas it was once problematic to minimize the role of racial and gender attitudes in Trump's political rise, now it is also apparently problematic to suggest that the existence of such attitudes might place female or non-white candidates at a relative disadvantage in a 2020 general election campaign. But it won't be easy to convince Democratic voters desperate for electoral victory that the second proposition is entirely consistent with the first.
Of course, nobody knows for sure at this stage whether Biden is indeed the strongest potential nominee in the Democratic race, or whether other candidates would pay a decisive electoral penalty for their racial or gender identity. There is also a clear difference in objectives between a significant bloc of Democratic voters who care above all about defeating Trump (and seem quite happy to make compromises toward that end if they perceive it to be necessary to do so), and activists or intellectuals who remain dedicated to other goals as well—breaking the presidential glass ceiling, increasing the demographic diversity of the political leadership class, moving the Democratic Party further to the ideological left—and are reluctant at best to put them off for another four (or eight) years.
But whenever we observe voters behaving in a strategic manner, it's worthwhile to identify the source of the assumptions that underlie their calculations. Citizens are unlikely to develop their sense of electoral practicality simply from their own intuition. The messages that they receive from party leaders and the news media—both in interpreting the results of previous elections and in making predictions about future contests—are critical in shaping their perceptions of poltiical reality. Given the content of the information environment in which most Democrats have spent the past three years, we shouldn't be surprised that many of them currently view Joe Biden, rightly or wrongly, as their surest bet to eject Donald Trump from the White House.