The Hollow Frontrunner

Former Vice President Joe Biden takes selfies with supporters at a “Get out the Vote” event in Sterling, Va., November 3, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

On paper, Joe Biden is surviving. He’s still leading the national polls, albeit by a smaller margin. His cash on hand isn’t great, but he’s not running on fumes. He still appears to have South Carolina as a firewall. His national organization appears flawed and not well organized, but at least he has a national organization.

Off paper, Biden needs a good night in New Hampshire next week or he’s toast. You can have a bad night in Iowa or New Hampshire, but not both, and two disappointing losses would probably set off a domino effect. A South Carolina win won’t matter as much if Biden has flopped in the preceding three states and looks shaky in the following Super Tuesday states.

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Three things are happening to Biden simultaneously.

First, poll respondents who had him as their “default setting,” or weren’t playing too much close attention for much of 2019 are now paying close attention. In some states, respondents are seeing Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg ads everywhere and when a pollster calls, that’s the name that pops into their mind.

Second, it’s one thing for a Democrat to shrug off Biden’s weaknesses as a candidate — the gaffes, the meandering speaking, the sense that he’s well past his prime — in the summer before the primary. It’s another thing to ignore them when those Democrats have to actually bet the presidency on Biden beating Trump in a slugfest general election. The primary is real now, and it’s tougher to for Democratic primary voters to pretend those flaws don’t matter. It wasn’t rust; this is just the way Biden is on the stump now.

Third, the primary is no longer Biden vs. “the crowd” of 20 candidates. It’s Biden vs. Bernie Sanders vs. Elizabeth Warren vs. Pete Buttigieg vs. Mike Bloomberg. Nobody seems like a unifying figure such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, and Biden suddenly doesn’t seem like a head-and-shoulders better or safer choice than the other options . . .

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