Will Gaffes Hurt Biden’s Chances of a 2020 Win? Strategists Are Divided

August 19, 2019, 6:29 PM UTC

Strategists following the White House race are divided as to whether Joe Biden’s recent verbal missteps will unseat him as the Democratic frontrunner, but polls might be offering a more decisive direction.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released late last week shows the Delaware Democrat’s popularity dropped in the past 17 months from 54% positive responses in January 2018 to 34% positive now, and from 22% negative responses to 38% now. The survey of 1,000 adults was conducted August 10-14.

Whether or not the numbers will affect the primaries, the more than 20 Demoratic candidates who raised enough and polled high enough to take part in the first two rounds of debates are no doubt glued to every detail since the qualifying threshold for next month’s Democratic debate is even tighter. 

Add this to the gaffes Biden has made in the past two weeks. During a speech in Delaware Friday, he confused Burlington, Vt., with Burlington, Iowa. On August 10, Biden twice mistakenly said he met with the survivors of the fatal Parkland, Fla., school shooting, although it happened Feb. 14, 2016, more than a year after he finished his last term as vice president. On Aug. 8, he told a crowd in Iowa that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” later correcting “white” to “wealthy.” Some say the public is used to Biden making these kinds of errors, but others say these are not small bumps to be ignored.

The former vice president under President Obama will need to watch his step, predicts Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo, who worked with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

“I haven’t been living as long as Joe Biden but I do know what words are coming out of my mouth,” said Trujillo, who is based in Los Angeles. “It’s a very controllable thing yet his aides are saying it’s just Joe being Joe.”

Trujillo said that he knows Biden means well, but added that he hopes Biden gets more polished as the race unfolds. As time goes on and the top 20-plus candidates are winnowed down to 10, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democrats chasing Biden in the polls, will have a chance to catch up, Trujillo said.

“There are 22 or 23 people running for president (raising enough and polling high enough to get out in front of the public) and they’re not making these same mistakes,” he said. “They’re under just as much pressure and getting the same sorts of questions, so it’s sort of tough for me to listen to their spin or excuses when there’s 22 other folks doing it well and not making the same mistakes.”

Molly Mitchell, a democratic strategist based in Washington, did not feel as if matters were quite as dire. She pointed out that Biden’s place among the Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Trump is still solid in spite of the verbal gaffes.

“He’s still the frontrunner,” Mitchell said. “I think while the press has made a kerfuffle out of it, voters are more concerned about issues that are affecting them—those classic kitchen table issues—trade wars, health care, gun violence.”

Mitchell does believe, however, that Biden will need to make sure that his missteps don’t somehow get tied in with the fact that he is 76 years old, as questions have surfaced as to whether the former vice president has missed his opportune time as a White House candidate.

“I think Trump wants to position it as he may be too old or something and I think that’s more of a problem for Biden down the line,” Mitchell said. 

“The irony of course is they are very close in age,” she continued, referring to the fact that the president is 73, “so that’s sort of a false narrative to promote.”

GOP strategist Holly Turner agreed that Biden’s missteps are just not that serious, especially at a time in which the country has a president who appears prone to misstatements.

“A decade ago, the last time he ran (for vice president), any of these gaffes or misstatements would have been fatal for him, but I think just our country has changed,” said Turner, who is based in Washington. “President Trump has certainly normalized kind of this raw authenticity that we’ve never really seen before.”

She added that the gaffes are part of Biden. “I actually think it’s working for him now, especially with this particular field of candidates,” she said.

Turner also believes Biden, however, will have to watch his step with attempts to suggest he is too old for such a grueling race. But with people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 79-year-old California Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, the 81-year-old California Democrat, remaining relevant on the political stage, views on age appear to have changed.

“Seventy-six looks different on different people,” Turner said.

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