- Former Vice President Joe Biden’s signature off-the-cuff speaking style has helped him cultivate a down-to-earth image, but his frequent gaffes have raised some questions about his viability as a candidate.
- During the Iowa state fair, Biden made a series of eyebrow-raising misstatements in a row that had the Internet collectively cringing, including mistakenly saying that "poor kids are just as smart as white kids."
- Biden’s various controversial statements haven’t hurt his poll numbers yet, largely because his base is made up of older and African-American voters who tend to be more moderate and less concerned with gaffes.
- "When it comes to Biden, people might think his head is out to lunch but they know his heart is in the right place," one Democratic strategist told INSIDER.
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Former Vice President Joe Biden’s signature off-the-cuff speaking style has helped him cultivate a down-to-earth image, but it can also get him into trouble.
Biden has been a self-admitted gaffe-machine throughout his entire political career, but his tendency to twist his words into a pretzel or make controversial comments has received more scrutiny than ever as he competes in a historically crowded field.
The former vice president was mocked for flubbing the address of his campaign website in his closing statement during the second Democratic debate.
And during the weekend of the Iowa state fair, Biden made a series of eyebrow-raising misstatements in a row that had the Internet collectively cringing, including:
- Accidentally saying that "poor kids are just as smart as white kids" while speaking to the Asian-Latino Coalition of Iowa. He later corrected himself and said he meant to say that poor kids are just as smart as wealthy kids.
- Saying he valued "truth over facts" at another event.
- Mixing up former British Tory leaders Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister in the 1980s, and Theresa May, who was PM until earlier this year.
- Claiming that while he was vice president, he met with survivors of the Parkland, Florida mass shooting — which happened in February 2018, over a year after he left the White House.
Biden’s camp predictably dismissed the criticism and concern over his gaffes as a primarily media-driven narrative that doesn’t translate to Democratic voters themselves — and to some extent, they’re right.
Biden has remained the frontrunner of the Democratic race throughout multiple controversies, including changing his position on a controversial abortion-related rule after public backlash, accusations that he inappropriately touched multiple women, and fondly remembering his time working with notoriously pro-segregation Senators.
Out of the entire Democratic primary electorate, Biden’s base is least likely to be bothered by gaffes
While his poll numbers slightly dipped after the first Democratic debate, Biden has maintained above 30% of the vote in Morning Consult’s survey. Biden similarly holds a plurality of around a third of support among voters above the age of 50 and majority support among African-American voters, with 51% of black voters in South Carolina backing him in a recent Monmouth poll.
"Joe Biden isn’t the frontrunner because he’s first in the polls, it’s because of who he’s polling well with," Ford O’Connell, a veteran campaign strategist and adjunct professor at George Washington University‘s Graduate School of Political Management, told INSIDER in a Wednesday interview.
"Biden has the majority of support with African Americans, particularly African-American women and seniors. The reason why that matters is because those two groups traditionally turn out the most in Democratic primaries," he added.
Older voters, in particular, are less likely to see Biden’s gaffes as a major impediment to his candidacy, and will likely continue to support him as long as he is the most viable candidate to take on President Donald Trump.
According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis from earlier this month citing recent polling from Gallup and YouGov/HuffPost, older voters’ support for Biden is primarily motivated by wanting to get Trump out of office by any means possible, whereas younger voters prioritize nominating a candidate who aligns with their policy positions.
Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute, further wrote in late July that "black Democrats tend to be more moderate than white primary voters. Biden is the best-known candidate currently occupying that lane."
Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist and principal at a strategic communications firm Group Gordon, characterized some of Biden’s recent gaffes as "somewhere between mind-boggling and shocking" in an interview with INSIDER — but also said he didn’t see them "having a significant impact on the race."
"Voters tend to focus on whether they liked the person, what they stand for, and the substance of the issues," Gordon added. "With the proliferation of the Internet, people are more informed than they used to be. When it comes to Biden, people might think his head is out to lunch but they know his heart is in the right place."
O’Connell said that Biden’s gaffes will only become a campaign problem if they fundamentally threaten his perceived electability.
"Either the Democratic electorate has to believe that he can’t go up against Donald Trump or someone else has to prove that they can," O’Connell said of Biden. "Until that happens, he’s going to be the nominee."
Commentators disagree on whether Biden’s gaffes are fair game
Both Gordon and O’Connell noted that Biden’s gaffes pale in comparison to Trump’s own frequent propensity to similarly gaffe (like when he recently misstated the location of a recent mass shooting in Ohio), and make outright false statements and/or highly inflammatory comments in his own public appearances.
"Joe Biden’s biggest enemy in terms of winning the nomination is Joe Biden. And it’s not because he’s making gaffes, it’s the type of gaffes that question his fitness and whether or not he can go toe to toe with Donald Trump," O’Connell said.
Several Biden staffers and other political commentators similarly denounced criticism of Biden’s gaffes as petty and playing into Trump’s hands. In instructing the media to "lay off" Biden, Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman argued that Biden’s misstatements have no bearing on what kind of president he’d be.
But AlterNet’s Cody Fenwick pushed back on Waldman’s argument, writing on Thursday that while some of Biden’s slip-ups are undeniably honest mistakes, his other gaffes and comments on sensitive topics like race and gender could "reveal troubling prejudices" — like touting his work with pro-segregation senators — about his implicit attitudes on those topics.
Fenwick argued that in the context of a Democratic primary, Biden needs to be fully battle-tested and scrutinized at every level before taking on Trump.
"Not only would it be bad for Democrats to put forward a candidate who share some of Trump’s failings, but this choice would also make it more difficult for that candidate to attack the president on these grounds," Fenwick wrote.
Some of Biden’s close allies are even concerned about the increased frequency of gaffes, according to a report in The Hill, and have even suggested limiting the number of his public appearances and especially those that occur during the afternoon and evening, when he is more likely to be tired and make questionable gaffes.
But David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and host of "The Axe Files," publicly disagreed, tweeting that it was "bad advice."
"You can’t cloister the candidate and win. He either can cut it or he can’t, and the only way he can prove he can is to be an active and vigorous candidate," Axelrod argued. "He’s running for president of the United States, for God’s sake!"
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