Biden also appears more moderate than Clinton because, as I’ve previously argued, Americans generally deem male candidates less threatening. In gauging a candidate’s ideology, voters often seize on cultural cues. In his book Politics Lost, the journalist Joe Klein notes that in focus groups during the 1976 campaign, white voters insisted that Jimmy Carter opposed school busing even after being shown a speech in which he said he supported it. They claimed he was lying to win black votes. Carter overperformed among culturally conservative white voters because those voters couldn’t imagine that a white male governor of Georgia was truly progressive on race.
Biden benefits from stereotyping in a similar way. His race, gender, and age incline voters to view him as moderate. But race, gender, and age don’t explain everything. Despite being old, white, and male, Bernie Sanders still convinced Democratic-primary voters that he was significantly further left than Elizabeth Warren.
The other reason voters perceive Biden as moderate is that on issue after issue, he’s adopted policies that are strikingly progressive while stopping just shy of the specific formulations that might leave him vulnerable to Republican attack. On criminal justice, for instance, Biden has proposed abolishing cash bail and mandatory minimum sentences, and creating a national roster of police officers who abuse their position—all policies that place him to the left of the 2016 Democratic platform. But, to Trump’s dismay, he hasn’t proposed defunding the police.