After a week’s worth of media focus on a series of gaffes and misstatements by former Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic voters are reacting by … apparently not giving much of a damn.
Granted, there hasn’t been a ton of polling this week. But what data we have looks just fine for Biden. His position in Morning Consult’s weekly tracking poll — first place with 33 percent of the vote — is unchanged. In HarrisX’s tracking poll for ScottRasmussen.com, he’s at 28 percent, which is up 3 percentage points from a week ago. He’s down 1 point in YouGov’s weekly poll, and he did get some middling numbers in New Hampshire this week. But Biden also got a good poll in South Carolina.
Not that you should necessarily have expected any differently. Biden has survived more serious problems — a rough first debate, a group of allegations about inappropriately touching women — only to see his numbers rebound from any decline (if they were even affected in the first place). So it probably would have been optimistic for Biden’s rivals to expect a handful of verbal gaffes to move his polls, especially given that Biden already came into the campaign with a reputation for being gaffe-prone.
Some influential Democrats are focusing on those gaffes for another reason, though: They see them as a sign of Biden’s advancing age. (Biden is 76 and would be 78 upon assuming the presidency.) Whether those Democrats are genuinely concerned about Biden’s age insofar as it might affect his performance against President Trump, or whether they’re using it as an excuse to promote the candidacies of younger Democrats who they happen to like better anyway, undoubtedly varies from case to case.
A lot of rank-and-file voters do have concerns about Biden’s age. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in February found that 62 percent of voters had reservations about voting for someone aged 75 or older. Other polls have also shown advanced age to be a concern among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.
But there hasn’t been much discussion of age from the other candidates. Eric Swalwell brought it up explicitly in the first presidential debate, when he urged voters to “pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.” Rather than echo Swalwell’s argument, however, Kamala Harris tried to defuse the situation by suggesting that discussions of age and generational change were tantamount to schoolyard insults. “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table,” she said.
Maybe anti-Biden Democrats — and the other candidates — think they’re being coy by using Biden’s gaffes as a proxy for concerns about his age. No reason to get tarred with allegations of ageism, they figure, or to risk offending older voters who turn out in big numbers in the primaries. (Also, if the candidate they prefer to Biden is Bernie Sanders, they have the further problem that Sanders is a year older than Biden at 77.)1 Show rather than tell, as the maxim goes: Plant a few seeds and let voters build a narrative about Biden’s age on their own, without having to give them the hard sell.
This strategy might even work! It’s still fairly early, and Biden’s age is perhaps his biggest risk factor — bigger, in my view, than his policy positions, which are often more in line with the views of the average Democrat than those of the more liberal candidates.
But especially in the era of Trump — who, of course, has already begun to question Biden’s mental fitness — there might also be something to be said for saying the quiet part out loud. In a poll conducted shortly after the first debate, some Democratic voters explicitly used Swalwell’s “pass the torch” language when asked an open-ended question about why they didn’t want to vote for Biden. And they were much more likely to explicitly mention Biden’s age than to use vaguer responses, such as that he was “out of touch.”
There’s also risk to anti-Biden Democrats in drawing voters’ attention to gaffes or other incidents that voters view as relatively minor. Biden remains an extremely well-liked figure among Democratic voters; 75 percent of them have a favorable view of him, according to Morning Consult’s latest polling. So three-quarters of the electorate is going to start with a predilection against sympathizing with critiques of Biden. If those critiques aren’t really bringing the goods and instead seem like petty grievances, those Democrats may conclude that the case against Biden is a lot of hot air.
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Meanwhile, if the false alarms continue — as in, Democrats on Twitter or on podcasts predict Biden’s demise and the polls are unmoved — the media may come to view Biden as a Trump-like “Teflon” candidate who isn’t greatly affected by gaffes and scandals. That could reduce their appetite for covering them in the future — even if more serious ones occur than what’s taken place to date.
Elizabeth Warren’s supporters have a similar issue — Warren is 70 — although is a fairly significant difference in life expectancy between a 70-year-old woman and a 76- or 77-year old man.
Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight. @natesilver538