When Joe Biden first ran for Senate in 1972, 40 percent of Democrats believed that whites had a right to segregate neighborhoods.
Today, he seeks the presidential nomination of a very different Democratic Party, one that is increasingly progressive, diverse and well educated. Few analysts consider him a clear favorite, even though his consistent early support in the polls would seem to merit it.
If Mr. Biden wins, it will be in part because older Democrats still have the votes to decide the party’s nomination in favor of a relatively moderate, establishment-backed candidate, as they have done in the past. He enters with a lead in the polls because of support from those voters.
His candidacy, of course, faces many questions besides whether there’s still a constituency for his moderate, working-class brand. He is also 76 years old, and he has often been considered an undisciplined, even gaffe-prone, campaigner.
In some cases, Mr. Biden’s nearly 50-year record in Washington isn’t merely moderate, but out of step with the mores of today’s Democratic Party.
For most of the latter half of the 20th century, Democrats struggled to hold conservative, white working-class voters together in a coalition with African-Americans and the party’s liberal elite. Republicans didn’t make it easy: They tried to peel away the conservative white Democratic rank and file, often with success, by appealing to their views on race, crime, welfare, religion and more.
This was not a coalition of ideologically consistent, progressive voters. It can be difficult for today’s policy-driven activists to imagine, but many were voting Democratic mainly because of identity and interest — they saw themselves as union workers, African-Americans, white Southerners, the poor. They were strong, lifelong Democrats mainly because of who they were, not because of what they believed.
What they believed was often very different from what many Democrats believe today.
Nearly 40 percent opposed interracial marriage when Mr. Biden first sought a Senate seat, according to the General Social Survey. Nearly 80 percent opposed legalizing marijuana and believed same-sex sexual relations were wrong. Over all, three-quarters of Democrats were whites without a college degree, and about half of Democrats were moderate or conservative whites without a college degree.
Mr. Biden has been criticized recently for having opposed busing in the mid-1970s. At the time, Democratic-leaning voters opposed busing by 79 percent to 21 percent, according to the General Social Survey. Over all, it was about as popular with Democratic voters as the Trump tax cuts are today.
White voters without a degree were still a majority of the party’s voters in the early 1990s, when Democrats were seeking to co-opt Republican messages on welfare and tough-on-crime policies. By then, the share of Democrats who believed that whites had a right to segregate neighborhoods had dropped to 15 percent, from 40 percent in 1972. But 15 percent is still a significant share, about as large a share as Hispanics represent today in the party. Self-identified moderate and conservative Democrats outnumbered liberals by two to one.
A Pew Research report from 1994 offers a striking look at the Democratic coalition at that time. It was an early edition of Pew’s running political typology series, and it included four Democratic-leaning groups under the headline “The ‘Not So’ Left.” Some groups were characterized as “socially intolerant,” or as holding “strongly conservative views on race and social welfare programs.” Even “New Democrats” rejected liberal views on race.
Today, self-identified liberals equal or even outnumber moderates and conservatives within the party. White voters without a degree represent just 30 percent of Democratic-leaning voters, according to an Upshot analysis of Pew Research surveys from December 2017 to September 2018. Pew’s typology now includes an ideologically consistent, liberal group.
There is no doubt that this is not the Democratic Party of the early 1990s. But it is not the Democratic Party of “woke” social media either. It is somewhere in between.
Mr. Biden, for instance, recently faced criticism after accusations that he touched some women in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. It was a crisis for his bid, or at least it seemed that way if you closely followed news reports or were active on social media. But a recent Fox News poll found that just 15 percent of Democrats said they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the criticisms, while 51 percent said they weren’t concerned at all.
Today, the Democratic Party is in transition. Over all, it is roughly divided between its past and its future, and split about evenly between white voters with and without a college degree, between voters older or younger than age 50, and between self-identified liberal and moderate voters.
The fairly even splits make it hard to argue that any particular kind of factional candidate, whether a moderate or a democratic socialist, has an inside path to the nomination.
As much as the Democratic Party has changed, there’s still a group of Democrats who hold fairly conservative views on some issues, like the nearly 30 percent who oppose marijuana legalization or say same-sex sexual relations are almost always or always wrong. Beyond them, there’s a broader group of voters who hold progressive or liberal views but aren’t exactly progressive activists. A majority of Democrats say political correctness is a problem, for example, according to data from the Hidden Tribes project.
None of these examples suggest that Mr. Biden will cruise to the nomination. But they at least complicate the case that he will face a particularly stiff electoral penalty for his conduct.
And Mr. Biden brings strengths to the race as well. He enters with substantial good will from having been President Obama’s vice president. He starts with the advantage of being seen by many as the most “electable” Democrat in a year when the party’s voters are desperate to defeat President Trump.
Ultimately, Mr. Biden seems as if he would benefit in this primary campaign if today’s divided Democratic Party is still a bit more like its past than its future.