WASHINGTON — Joe Biden begins his presidential campaign with a lead over the crowded Democratic field and a simple message the nation can immediately grasp: I can stop the madness. I can beat Donald Trump.
That doesn't mean Biden will necessarily win the nomination, which depends on a host of factors, including how well the 76-year-old former vice president performs — and whether a party eager to turn a generational page is willing to embrace him. Age is an issue for Biden, no question. But at least he can boast of being younger than his closest competitor in the polls, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is 77.
As he made his announcement, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Biden led all comers with the support of 29.3 percent of Democratic voters. Sanders was second at 23 percent— with everyone else far behind.
Four candidates who are bunched between 8.3 percent and 6.3 percent in the RCP poll average — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former congressman Beto O'Rourke — might be considered a second tier, I suppose. But at this point it's a pretty low tier. If the race were a skyscraper, that group would be on the mezzanine — with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker struggling to join them. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and the rest of the multitude remain stuck, for now, on the ground floor.
State polls tell much the same story. Warren did well earlier this month in a poll of Democrats in her home state of Massachusetts, as did Harris in a poll in her home state of California. But in those surveys, as in all others I can find, Biden and Sanders were well ahead of the pack.
Familiarity has a lot to do with it — Biden has been on the national stage since before most Americans were born, and Sanders came close to beating Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016. Things could change dramatically after the debates begin and voters get to know the cast of characters.
But my guess is that electability, or perceived electability, is also playing a role in boosting Biden to an early lead. The one thing that must be accomplished in 2020 is the defeat of President Trump. In the announcement video he posted on social media Thursday, Biden called it a "battle for the soul of this nation." He said the question was whether Trump's tenure would turn out to be an "aberrant moment in time" or an eight-year presidency that "forever and fundamentally" coarsened, cheapened and divided our society.
Biden's video focused on Trump's reaction to the 2017 rally of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville, which led to the murder of an innocent counterprotester, Heather Heyer. Trump reacted by saying there were "some very fine people on both sides."
At that point, Biden said, "I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in my lifetime." He said that is why he is running for president.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Democratic candidates can't just be anti-Trump — that they must talk primarily about bread-and-butter issues such as health care, the opioid crisis and the hollowing out of the working class. Indeed, Democrats do have to offer solutions. But to be silent about Trump is to tiptoe around the elephant in the parlor. The single biggest issue, for the health and prosperity of the nation, is getting him out of office.
We will hear much in the coming months about which candidates appeal to which components of the electorate. Biden potentially could do very well with two widely disparate groups in particular — the white working-class voters in the Rust Belt who gave Trump his 2016 victory; and the African Americans without whose support no one can win the Democratic presidential nomination.
But is he too moderate for a party that has moved leftward in recent years? I think Biden should invite a group of the fiery first-term Democratic women in the House to lunch. Instead of trying to hug them, he should listen to what they have to say. If he fails to make a real effort to understand how the party has changed, his first day on the campaign trail may turn out to have been his best day.
There's nothing wrong with his calculation of the stakes, however. The Democratic nominee has to be someone who can stand up to Trump and ultimately beat him. Biden says that's what he'll do.
Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.