Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton Generate Very Different Emotional Responses from Republicans

Joe Biden speaks at a rally with striking Stop & Shop workers in Boston, Mass., April 18, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

I enjoyed Jonah’s piece on the home page detailing the differences between Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. This paragraph deserves further amplification and explanation:

But while Trump’s attacks on Clinton were surely effective at times, Trump was aided enormously by the fact that Americans, particularly Republican and Republican-friendly ones, were skeptical or outright hostile to her already, thanks to decades of experience with, and criticism of, her. Trump didn’t define Clinton as much as she did.

Jonah then notes that Biden occupies a different psychological space than Hillary does. This is so very true. One of the things that many political writers learned (or should have learned) in 2016 is that we needed to get our heads out of the charts and graphs and experience the actual world around us. That’s what Salena Zito has long done, for example, and she was one of the first journalists to describe the populist discontent and potential disruption bubbling in the Midwest. And she did it by talking to people and hearing their stories.

As many readers know, I live in Trump country. During the 2016 cycle, I lived in Maury County, Tenn., and it voted for Trump by a 68-29 margin. I’ve since moved one county up, to Williamson County — a suburban county — and it went for Trump by a 65-30 margin. But there’s a key difference in the two places. Maury County — a rural county — is fiercely pro-Trump and fiercely anti-Hillary. Williamson county, by contrast, was more fairly-described as fiercely anti-Hillary. In fact, Williamson County was the only Tennessee county to vote against Trump in the Republican primary. A plurality of its voters chose Marco Rubio. Only 27 percent chose Trump.

In 2016, the Democrats nominated the one person — aside from a term-limited Barack Obama — who was most likely to cause wavering Republican voters to hold their nose and vote for Trump. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the Republican distaste for Hillary unless you experience it. To this very day, I can read comments and posts describing me as literal scum for not supporting Trump against her. I’ll speak across the country — often about topics not directly related to 2016 — and people will come up to me, angry, to argue with me about Hillary. And I not only didn’t vote for her, I repeatedly wrote that she should have been indicted.

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So, is there any corresponding grassroots intensity against specific Democrats in 2020? As of now, there is not — in part because no single Democrat is as well-known as Hillary was in 2016. Republicans had been fighting the Clintons for a full quarter-century. There is, however, a lot of concern about socialism and woke cultural intolerance. To the extent any Democratic nominee embodies the full leftward drift of the #Resistance, look for quite a few wavering suburban voters to come back home to the GOP in 2020. That’s not to say that a woke Democrat can’t win, but a woke Democrat will awaken at least some of the Republican intensity we saw in the GOP fight against Hillary.

Biden not only doesn’t generate the emotional response Hillary did, his nomination would constitute the Democrats broadcasting to the world that they have not (yet) embraced socialism, and they have not (yet) fully-embraced the woke culture of the Online Left. So how would the Republicans generate the kind of Flight 93 urgency that helped Trump (very narrowly) beat Hillary? I’m not sure. In fact, if Joe Biden can win his way through the primaries, he’s almost lab-engineered to beat Trump. He doesn’t cause Republican panic, he has the potential to connect with white working-class voters in a way that Hillary couldn’t in 2016, and he has a potential to connect better with black voters than Hillary did.

But all of this for now remains in the realm of the potential and hypothetical. Hovering over Biden’s huge polling lead (in both primary and general election polls) is the knowledge that we’ve seen Biden run for president before, and it wasn’t good. Perhaps he’s better now. Perhaps he can be more disciplined, and he’ll be tough enough to endure the slings and arrows of more than 20 competitors, all aimed at the front-runner. And perhaps he can win without tacking so far left that Republicans can plausibly paint him with the Bernie brush. All of that remains to be seen, but if Biden emerges from that crucible, Trump will face a very different challenge than he faced in 2016.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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