California, the most populous Democratic state, moved up its state primary to early in the 2020 calendar, making it much more pivotal to the nomination process than in previous elections.
However, what struck me most was not the handful of Democratic presidential hopefuls who were in California this weekend but the one who wasn’t.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner who leads by a significant double-digit margin in nearly every poll, decided to skip the event and instead headlined the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Ohio gala.
To be sure, Biden’s decision to skip the event in California is no surprise. Since entering the race, the former vice president has approached the White House race differently from the 23 other Democratic presidential contenders.
Since solidifying his position as the clear frontrunner in the race, Biden has been notably selective about his public appearances and has also taken advantage of his status as the frontrunner to focus on swing-states that will be crucial to winning in the general election.
Indeed, Biden’s decision to skip California last weekend is indicative of his strategy – while 14 other Democratic candidates took the stage in a solidly blue state to speak to fellow Democrats, Biden spoke in a swing-state that President Trump won by 8 points in 2016, though was won by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Put simply, this is the best – and only – strategy for the Biden campaign.
Biden stands out as one of the most moderate candidates in an overwhelmingly progressive Democratic field and has the challenge of appealing to a progressive electorate, many of whom criticize Biden for his middle-of-the-road stances on issues such as health care.
To be sure, as the campaign season progresses, the progressive further left candidates will use Joe Biden’s moderate stances and his reluctance to uncritically embrace a radical agenda as a primary attack point against him.
The few moderate Democrats that did go to California, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, were immediately booed for merely warning that the Democratic Party was moving too far left.
Further, several progressive candidates in California took veiled shots at Biden to the joy of the California crowds.
“Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges … the time for small ideas is over,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“We cannot go back to the old ways. We have got to go forward with a new and progressive agenda,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who trails Biden in second-place by a wide double-digit margin in most polls.
Biden rarely, if at all, responds to attacks from other Democratic contenders, and has focused much of his energy on developing a compelling, empathetic, center-left narrative that stands as a persuasive alternative to President Trump’s.
Further, Biden’s solidified status as a frontrunner not only enables him to streamline his focus to the general election but also allows him to focus on high-dollar fundraising, which he clearly appears to be doing successfully.
While the Warren and Sanders campaigns have dismissed high-dollar fundraising on the principle that money in politics is intrinsically evil, there is nothing inherently wrong or foolish with courting high dollar donors – the problem only arises when candidates rely heavily on special interest money, and the two should not be conflated.
Biden’s fundraising has allowed him to spend a considerable amount of money on social media campaigns – so much so that he is outspending President Trump $1.2 million to $900,000.
Although it is early in the campaign season and the first Democratic debate is still weeks away, Biden’s candidacy thus far has been encouraging to me as a moderate Democrat. His inclusive, center-left agenda and clear ability to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump makes him the strongest Democratic candidate to come out of the gate.
However, only time will tell whether the former vice president has the ability to appeal to enough of the Democratic primary electorate in order to emerge the ultimate victor.