KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Biden’s endurance at the top of the Democratic race is reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s endurance in the 2012 Republican race.
— Despite considerable liabilities, Romney benefited — and Biden benefits — from splintered opposition and being the best fit for a significant bloc of party regulars.
— The Democratic field is far from perfect, but other fields that seemed weak have produced winning candidates.
How Biden endures
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Joe Biden doesn’t rhyme with Mitt Romney, although one of the words emblazoned on the side of Biden’s bus (malarkey) sort of does.
More to the point, we are beginning to wonder if the endurance of Biden at the top of the Democratic heap is beginning to resemble Mitt Romney’s endurance two cycles ago.
Despite his troubles, Romney seemed like the best bet to win the nomination for almost the entire campaign (except perhaps for when Rick Perry entered the race to great acclaim in August 2011).
The same may be true of Biden, although the race remains volatile. But Biden’s position is arguably stronger than Romney’s was at this time eight years ago.
In that 2012 race, Republican voters appeared at times quite willing to go with a different option than Romney. From late August 2011 through February 2012, Romney was surpassed no less than five different times in the national RealClearPolitics polling average, first by Perry, then Herman Cain, then Newt Gingrich (for two different stretches), and then, finally, Rick Santorum. Yet Romney always ended up back in the lead after his setbacks and emerged by the end of the first month of primary contests as the clear favorite to win the nomination (that year’s race started in January, not February). Romney benefited from split opposition as the primary season went along, with Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul all cannibalizing the non-Romney vote.
Biden, meanwhile, has consistently led national polling. For a brief time in early October, Elizabeth Warren effectively tied Biden in the RealClearPolitics average, but Biden has since regained a decent-sized lead — he’s in the high 20s, with no one else within 10 points of his lead: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg are all clustered within the low-to-mid teens.
Romney did always have a firewall in one of the lead-off contests: New Hampshire, where he enjoyed something of a home state advantage owing to his time as Massachusetts governor. That’s an advantage Biden does not have. In the first two contests, Biden trails in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, he leads in Nevada and South Carolina, which round out the February contests before March 3’s Super Tuesday kicks off a three-week barrage of primaries.
Democratic voters have been sampling their other options, but they have not coalesced around a clear alternative to Biden. Again, this is reminiscent of GOP voters’ inability to ever settle on a true Romney opponent. Sanders has often polled in second place, with solid support in many places but dominating support nowhere. While remaining among the top tier, Warren has faded in recent weeks, falling slightly behind Sanders nationally and ceding support most notably to Buttigieg, who at the moment appears to be enjoying his own polling surge.
Beyond the top four, the freest-spending candidates (by far) are two others: late-arriving Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, and wealthy activist Tom Steyer. Neither have been able to crack the top tier anywhere, although they have surpassed many other candidates who have far more formidable political resumes but far less money to spend.
Bloomberg, who could spend a billion dollars on ads without making a dent in his personal fortune, is pursuing an unusual strategy, declining to seek the breadth of donor backing currently required to qualify for debates and focusing on building his support nationally as opposed to in the early states. It is an unusual strategy that we don’t think will work — ultimately, we’re skeptical that Democrats are all that interested in buying what Bloomberg is selling, and whoever does well in the early states will bask in the glow of free media more valuable than Bloomberg’s paid variety — but Bloomberg’s level of spending may end up being unprecedented for a primary.
At the very least, Bloomberg’s efforts will provide a great experiment for political scientists to dissect the efficacy of overwhelming ad spending in a primary. We also can’t definitively rule out the possibility that Bloomberg will effectively be able to buy the nomination. That is very hard to imagine from our present vantage point, but future historians might be able to easily place such a development in the context of this era, which sometimes feels very much like a second Gilded Age.
If they need it, the other Democrats have some sharp arguments they can make against Bloomberg. That is perhaps most true for Warren, who has been railing against Bloomberg as a symbol of the kind of mega-wealth she would target with taxes in support of her policy proposals. Warren also can say, accurately, that if Bloomberg had his way, Warren would not even be in the Senate: The billionaire media mogul backed then-Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) against Warren in their 2012 contest. More recently, Bloomberg backed Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) in a crucial 2016 race.
The four polling leaders, and the two big spenders, are denying oxygen to the other candidates, of which there are many. That’s even after Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), former Rep. Joe Sestak (D, PA-7), and, most notably, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) dropped out of the race earlier this week.
Her exit arguably helps Biden the most. Not because Biden necessarily stands to inherit the bulk of Harris’s meager support, but because her exit removed someone who even in her diminished state seemed like a potential threat to him.
Harris saw her support spike after a well-regarded first debate when she went after Biden. But she slowly faded into near-irrelevance. The failure of Harris to sustain her success, or for Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) or new entrant Deval Patrick, the former two-term governor of Massachusetts, to have much of any success, helps Biden because the most plausible threat to Biden’s impressive support among black voters is, logically, a black candidate.
Biden’s top challengers right now — Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, all of whom are whites elected from northern cities/states — do not appear to have any obvious appeal to black voters, particularly older black voters. Poll after poll shows Biden, who served dutifully and effectively as the first black president’s second-in-command, with an imposing lead with African Americans. Nationally, Quinnipiac University pegged his support at 43% with blacks and The Economist/YouGov at 48%, with the next-closest candidates struggling to break double figures.
Polling in South Carolina, the first primary state that will feature a majority-black electorate, reinforces these national findings for Biden among black voters.
Could black support shift? Sure. Again, let’s keep an open mind. But the possibility of dramatic change isn’t the same as the likelihood of dramatic change. Biden could do poorly in both lily white Iowa and New Hampshire and still retain significant black support, so long as his leading rivals remain Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg. The real threat to Biden is if one of these three win both Iowa and New Hampshire — and maybe even more diverse Nevada too — thus establishing themselves as the clear alternative to Biden and building a broader base among Democratic voters, including African Americans. But the muddiness of the race right now — Ron Brownstein offers a great summation of the competing strengths and weaknesses of the leading candidates — leads us to think that the first few states may not render a clear verdict, which to us benefits Biden so long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff in the first two, overly white states. (And he could end up winning one or more of these first contests, too.)
The other threat to Biden, and one that at the moment seems plausible only in the wildest dreams of the candidates and their staffs, is Booker or Patrick winning one of Iowa or New Hampshire, giving black voters a black candidate to rally around. This far-fetched scenario seems even less likely for Booker or Patrick than it was for Harris.
Why are we so fixated on black voters? Because they form the bedrock of the Democratic Party, dominate the voting in many Southern states, and strongly influence the voting in many more.
The last Democrat to win the nomination without doing the best among black voters was Michael Dukakis way back in 1988, who lost the black vote to Jesse Jackson but won the nomination anyway. Additionally, and as the New York Times helpfully illustrated earlier this week, the Democratic delegate allocation rules give districts with large African-American populations extra delegates (that’s because these districts tend to be so Democratic, and the Democratic rules advantage this kind of party loyalty).
Here again, Biden’s positioning is reminiscent of Romney 2012, at least in a way.
Eight years ago, Romney benefited from the composition of his opposition: He existed in the mainstream middle of his party, and his eventual leading rivals — Gingrich and Santorum — both ran to his right (Jon Huntsman, who ran to Romney’s left, never became viable). As Dante Scala and Henry Olsen observed in a pre-2016 analysis of the GOP, Romney became “the most acceptable candidate available to mainstream moderate Republicans,” consolidating the backing of both moderates and a crucial part of the GOP electorate, self-identified “somewhat conservative” voters.
Biden remains the most acceptable candidate available for black voters, at least at the moment, and those voters also tend to be more moderate-leaning, too.
As Theodore Johnson noted in our recent book, The Blue Wave, the growth of liberal/progressive self-identification among Democrats has been driven by whites, not blacks. With Warren and Sanders positioned clearly to Biden’s left, with Buttigieg currently showing so little appeal to blacks, and with the black candidates either struggling or exiting, Biden’s position with black voters remains formidable.
If a better option had come along, the crucial mainstream of the GOP may have opted for that person over Romney in 2012. But no one ever did.
Likewise, if a better option presents itself to black voters, a significant share of those voters might abandon Biden for that person. As of yet, that better option has yet to materialize. Over the summer, Harris seemed like she might be that option. Now she’s not even a candidate anymore.
This is not to say Biden has been a strong candidate or has run a great campaign. He continues to show his age in public appearances and debates, and he is lagging his rivals in fundraising. That’s different than Romney, who raised the most among the Republicans in 2012 and had a well-funded Super PAC that his allies deployed to great effect at critical moments of the campaign (one wonders if the nascent Biden Super PAC could do something similar — he very well may need it).
The Democrats who fear Biden may not be up to the task of this grueling campaign could well be proven right, and if Biden were to be nominated only to lose to Donald Trump, parts of the left will make the same argument that parts of the right did in 2012: the party establishment sacrificed ideological purity and received nothing in return.
To be clear, Romney in 2012 — and Biden in 2020 — were and are very much candidates of the party establishment, even if much of the party establishment in Romney’s race, and Biden’s now, formally remained (and remain) on the sidelines at this point of this race.
Primary voters can sometimes be akin to someone hunting in the closet for the right pair of shoes, trying on and then quickly discarding different pairs before settling on the right one. Political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides have described this process as “discovery, scrutiny, and decline.”
Anyone with a closet that’s too crowded will grasp the concept.
For many Democrats, Biden is the proverbial old shoe: very worn and old-fashioned, but quite comfortable nonetheless. His goofiness might normally put people off, but Democrats can hardly be blamed for overlooking goofs given the lengths to which Republicans have brushed off the behavior of their incumbent president. Some aspects of Biden’s candidacy that prompt eye-rolling from experts and activists — namely, his insistence that he can work with Republicans even as the nation’s partisan divide has widened and calcified — are music to the ears of the less jaded.
Even after essentially an entire year of Democratic jockeying, Biden’s still the candidate to beat. That doesn’t mean he’s set to win the nomination — there are all sorts of plausible outcomes and nominees, perhaps even involving candidates who seem dead in the water now — but he’s been the leading candidate ever since he announced, and he still is.
The 20,000-foot view
It is easy to poke holes in all the Democratic candidates: Warren and Sanders probably are too far left, Biden is lacking in many ways, Buttigieg has no experience in high office, and many of the others have fallen totally flat.
Still, Democrats have had other modern fields that were criticized as lacking in talent or devoid of winners. A good example is 1976, when Jimmy Carter — an odd and unlikely candidate in many ways — swept aside all the DC-based candidates, including the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford, in the wake of Watergate. Or 1992, when Bill Clinton was considered a pushover for George H.W. Bush most of the year — and Clinton was the strongest of the weak field.
Then again, the critics in 1988 who referred to that year’s Democratic field as the Seven Dwarfs, including eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, ended up being prescient in their criticism.
It’s too early to tell for 2020. The ingredients are there for a Democratic disaster. But the ingredients are also there for a victory next November. Nothing’s carved in stone.
The Democratic delegate allocation rules must remain front of mind. All delegates are awarded proportionally, although 15% or greater support is required to win delegates. In crowded contests, there may be at most just a few candidates who get delegates. The lack of winner-take-all delegate allocation could prompt the process to drag out into June of next year, or maybe even to the convention. If no one achieves a majority of the delegates on the first ballot — something that hasn’t happened in a national party convention since 1952 — party leaders will become formally involved in the process as “superdelegates,” who are effectively sidelined under new Democratic rules unless the convention deadlocks. In such a scenario, the potential for bad feelings among the supporters of the losing candidates rises.
For the general election, it isn’t just who is chosen as the Democratic nominee. It’s how he or she is chosen, how damaged the nominee is from the process, and how fractured the party is once it’s over. Democrats being Democrats, some will be off sulking for a while. And some primary voters may disappear in the fall: It’s easy to imagine some supporters of the outsider candidates, most notably Sanders, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D, HI-2), and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, falling by the wayside, even if the candidates themselves dutifully get behind the eventual nominee.
Still, Trump is a great unifier for Democrats, and that effect will kick in come fall, maybe even summer. We still see the general election as basically a 50-50 proposition, which is reflected in our early Electoral College ratings.
Barring the Senate convicting Trump in an impeachment trial — or some other highly unlikely development — the president will be waiting for the eventual Democratic nominee as the general election season officially begins next summer.
— Larry J. Sabato contributed to this article.