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Can Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Dent Biden's Electability Edge?

Somebody better lay a glove on him, and soon.

If he can be made to look hesitant, frail, and confused, that is likely to spark some fear in Biden supporters that he simply wouldn't be able to handle a gruelling campaign and presidency. (Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Rex)

If he can be made to look hesitant, frail, and confused, that is likely to spark some fear in Biden supporters that he simply wouldn't be able to handle a gruelling campaign and presidency. (Photo: Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Rex)

Thursday evening will feature another Democratic presidential primary debate, and praise be to a merciful God, this time there is only one night and one group of contestants. Finally all three of the major contenders in what is rapidly coalescing into a three-person race—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—will confront each other face-to-face.

The major question for the evening will undoubtedly be whether anyone can take Biden down a peg — particularly in his perceived edge in a general election matchup against Trump. Despite a very rough last few weeks of campaigning, he remains far ahead of either Warren or Sanders in most polls (though a few have found both tied or ahead).

It will be a hard sell just on data, as the evidence on so-called "electability" is all over the place. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found all three of the top Democratic candidates beating Trump handily—Biden by 16 points, Sanders by 12, and Warren by 11. This order generally tracks with previous polls, though with a larger margin. It certainly appears that just about any Democrat ought to have a reasonable chance against Trump.

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It is rather odd how Sanders has consistently polled as the second-strongest candidate against Trump, despite being the most left-wing candidate in the race. Indeed, a recent poll of Texas (Texas!) showed him doing best of all, defeating Trump by six points as compared to four for Biden. Now, one should not assume Texas is in the bag, of course, but it certainly provides evidence for the proposition that Sanders' radical politics have not harmed him much in national perceptions.

I would hazard a guess that this comes largely down to class affect. Biden and Sanders have wildly different politics and records, but both project a sort of outsider working-class persona. Warren has quite similar positions to Sanders on most things, but comes across as much more intellectual and professional. Looking at the diverse class and racial background of Sanders supporters, we might reasonably surmise that people with less education and income—people who are usually less committed politically—tend to be attracted to people who don't seem like educated elites.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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