Biden Falls While Bernie Rises

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H., February 4, 2020. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

This is an excerpt from episode 189 of The Editors.

Rich: Xan, you are out there in Iowa, and wrote a piece about Joe Biden, and I think whatever differences and interpretation we have, we can all say with great confidence that this was a highly disappointing outcome for Joe Biden, it was previewed in some polling. Pretty consistently throughout the process, you’d have polls popping up where he is finishing and forth, although the last two weeks or so, there are a lot that hadn’t been second or slightly ahead. I was out there, I didn’t actually get to see Biden at any events, but you did and were not impressed.

Alexandra: I really wasn’t, honestly, I don’t want to be too mean to the guy, but he sounds so tired, so dejected, so forlorn. His rhetoric is meandering, he’s all over the place, he finishes maybe two thirds of his sentences all the way, others, he will cut himself off and go on to some other topic and he just doesn’t sound excited at all. He doesn’t sound like he’s glad to be there, he doesn’t seem like he really even wants to be president.

Honestly if there’s any emotion coming through at all, which most of the time there isn’t, he just sounds angry. He’s just substituting anger for any kind of enthusiasm you’d think the guy would have. And I think what we saw in Iowa was the result of that, he just couldn’t excite voters. And I think that our coverage of the primary, I guess it’s always this way because all you have is polls until people start voting.

But in national polls, Biden has been on top almost the entire time from the day he entered. Maybe he was overtaken like once in a couple of polls, by Warren. But by and large, he’s been on top. But if you look at these early primary, early caucus states, he really hasn’t been doing as well as you’d think those national polls would say. And I think it’s because when he’s on the road, when he’s campaigning, when he’s on the stump, he doesn’t sound exciting. And if you see them on paper, maybe he’s the establishment candidate, he’s the moderate, he’s the most safe option I guess. But if you see him in person, he’s just not exciting at all. He looks like an age gone by and for a lot of Democrats, his policies are too.

Rich: So Luke, is there any scenario that there are some people out there, Dave Wassermann, shrewd analyst on Twitter, says look, don’t give up on Biden yet, this is a caucus, a state, it’s not necessarily that favorable to him, has no African-American voters to speak of. And Nevada and especially South Carolina are coming up and they’re more favorable territory. So don’t get caught up in momentum stories, these races are largely driven by demographics and who owns what kind of voter. So don’t give up on Biden. Do you buy that at all?

Luke: No. I think it’s nonsense. It’s wish-casting in the absence of evidence. To be fair, the last time I was here, I was at my most bullish on Biden’s odds of winning at 5 percent up from zero. No, Biden’s done. He’s dead. He’s disintegrating in front of our eyes. As I said months ago, the guy can’t campaign, and he doesn’t own Black voters. This all stems from this mythological notion that culinary will deliver Nevada on a plate for Joe Biden, even though he can’t promise, he can’t crop credibly promise to deliver them anything because he can’t win. And he’s going to get his doors blown off in New Hampshire. So if you’re a black voter in South Carolina, what affective reason motivates you to throw your vote away on a dying candidacy on behalf of the 30-year bag man for credit card companies? There’s nothing intrinsically appealing about the guy, and this campaign’s turning into an act of elder abuse.

Rich: So Jim, address the top here. We have Bernie winning the most votes. It looks both in the first and the second round, but Buttigieg nearly ahead in delegates. Obviously if this had all come out on Monday night, you’d have a serious Buttigieg bounce, or at least the potential of one. And actually some of the New Hampshire tracking does show or even so a Buttigieg uptick. But what do you make the top two finishers?

Jim: I was going to say, I feel the state of the race is more unsettled now than it has been for most of the year. I had been pretty darn bullish on Biden for much  of 2019 and I think he really took it in his glass jaw Monday night. I think Bernie is now the de facto front runner. I think he’s probably going to win in New Hampshire possibly by a pretty sizable margin, and he’s probably going to do at least okay in Nevada, if not really well.

You add that up, he’s got three wins and then all of a sudden, South Carolina won’t matter as much. By the way, if Biden has three straight bad ones, I think those African Americans in South Carolina are going to start shopping around, say, “Wait a second. We can’t salvage this guy.” So who’s left?

I still think Buttigieg is a . . . sorry, Buttigieg. Apparently I pronounce it too harshly for some listeners out there. Mayor Pete, I’m still not quite convinced that he’s got the money to go the distance. He does seem like a very niche wine-track candidate, winning Iowa is very good, but let’s face it. He put a lot of resources into Iowa. You can’t replicate this thing on Super Tuesday. You can’t shake hands with people in diners in ten states at the same time.

Now he’s going to have the ads to run money, but I still, and he still has the argument of “It’s time for a new generation. All of these other candidates are old, all of these other candidates are very shaky.” It’s possible by default, but it just needs to be making this case for a year. I think if Pete Buttigieg was going to be the unifying candidate Democrats are ready to unite behind, it would’ve happened by now, and I think people look at him and say, “This kid is just not ready.”

Rich: MBD, we were off in our Iowa predictions. Everyone was, we were all one, two. And I said, “Ah, for all Bernie, Biden one, two is not going to happen.” My surprise was I thought Klobuchar was going to overperform and that Warren and Buttigieg would deflate and that that would give Bernie and Biden bumps up. It didn’t, Warren held up and actually ticked up a little bit, seems at the end, stealing some from Sanders, and Biden collapsed and actually helped Buttigieg rather than the other way around. But what’d you make of the finish such as it is at the moment?

Michael: Well, it’s ambiguous. I questioned whether Buttigieg has it to be the alternative to Bernie Sanders. I thought we were shaping up towards a Bernie/Biden just in a mutually reinforcing way where you’re picking your strongest left candidate and the strongest centrist candidate. While now Biden, former national poll winner has shown that when he goes somewhere to campaign, people run away from him.

And I agree with Luke that’s going to happen in New Hampshire. And I was wrong to finally give up the ghost and say he would do well. I had been a Biden skeptic from the beginning, only coming in late.


Rich: At first, we were all pretty low. Luke was really low—

Luke: I think I got the top five in order.

Rich: Did you?

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: In Iowa?

Michael: Yeah.

Rich: MBD, I’m telling you this percentage Biden from the beginning, you’re like at three.

Michael: It was very low.

Rich: I came up and come up. It was right thing to come out. I was at 15, but then I added another weakness.

Michael: In any case—

Rich: But Charlie, Jim,  and David French were wrong.

Michael: In any case, I think Buttigieg now has a real test in front of him, and we’ll see what he’s made of. I’m still bullish on Bernie. I think he has the strongest grassroots activist base throughout the country. I think that’s gonna ccount for a lot.

Rich: Charlie.

Charlie: A long time ago on this podcast, Rich, you said that we had to be careful about predicting great things from Joe Biden because he had shown every time he’d run for president, that he wasn’t very good at running for president. And this was the mitigating factor against his ostensibly good polls. And you have to wonder whether it’s true today. I’ve been watching the clips that I’ve seen of Joe Biden campaigning with an increasing frown.

I’ve been perplexed. He berated this guy in Iowa who was backing Tom Steyer. I think the guy was a state legislator. And the guy kept saying to him—

Rich: The guy who wanted the picture?

Charlie: Yeah. Well the guy said that he was against pipelines and that he was for Steyer, and Biden angry, immediately got angry. And he said, “Well go vote for someone else then!” And the guy said to him, “No, no. If you’re the nominee, I’m going to vote for you, campaign for you, but I just want to talk to you about pipelines.” And Biden put his hand on his chest. It was so—

Rich: And the guy was like, “Can I just have a picture then?” He’s like, “No!”

Charlie: It was so odd.

Rich: If Biden is the nominee, he’ll end up slugging someone on a rope line before it’s done.

Charlie: Right. He reminds me in a way of John Prescott who was Deputy Prime Minister and in England during the Tony Blair years. Someone threw an egg at him during a public appearance and he just clocked the guy. But of course, we all loved him for that because he deserved it. Within this case, the guy walked up to him and said, “Hello Mr. Biden, I’d love to talk to you about pipelines.” And Biden said, “What?” Puts his hand on his chest. Anyway, the point is that it’s been progressively odd watching Joe Biden campaign.

I am bad at this. As I say every week, I don’t know how Americans and voters think cause they don’t seem to think like I do politically and so I’ve tended to have ignored it. But you do wonder. And I wonder about Biden’s defense today as well and he stood up and he acknowledged that this has not been good for him. He said, quote, “I’m not going to sugar coat it. We took a gut punch in Iowa, the whole process took a gut punch, but look, this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve been knocked down.”

Now that’s a classic thing for Joe Biden to say, this isn’t the first time in my life that I’ve been knocked down. But it’s not as effective here. If you’re knocked down by Republicans, people in the other party, that’s one thing, people want to know you’re a fighter and you’ll get back up. If you’re knocked down by external events of the sort you might have to deal with if your president or Senator or what you will, then people might like the fact that you get back up.

But he’s been knocked down here by his own party. He’s been knocked down by voters who are broadly on his side. And I think that is slightly different, and I’m not convinced that that message is going to help resuscitate him, especially given that the other candidates are not weak. They don’t seem to be weaklings, especially Bernie Sanders.

Rich: So—

Charlie: Go on.

Rich: Sorry to interrupt Charlie. So Luke, Bernie, not clearly adding any people but he got his own people out and assuming Warren fades at some point, he’ll go higher. What’s the alternative to Bernie if Buttigieg can’t win black voters and Biden is falling down and can’t get up? Is it as Jim Geraghty has been saying for a while, Bloomberg?

Luke: Well, Mayor Pete’s gonna struggle to consolidate as the anti-Bernie because Bloomberg is out there waiting in the wings. If Pete over performs in New Hampshire and he’s managed expectations pretty well, so he might do that, then I think—

Rich: If he over performs a strong second or whatsoever?

Luke: I think it’s got to be a strong second. If he loses to Bernie by single digits, especially close single digits, then he’s definitely in contention to start making things happen. I think a lot of voters on super Tuesday are going to back who they think is going to win. People like to vote for the winner. It’s a peculiar bit of political psychology, but that’s the way it is.

MBD: What happens if . . . Is there any chance of Elizabeth Warren getting a look in New Hampshire as an alternative?

Luke: I don’t think so. I think fourth place is, or she was third, but she was just a hair above Biden, and it’s really not great. And I still think that Warren just shot herself when she flipped on health care because now nobody knows where she is.

MBD: I agree. But there’s this is casted New Hampshire tradition of rejecting Iowa. And if Iowa would change things up with Buttigieg, I just wonder if—

Luke: I would bet both Bernie and Buttigieg will be saying: “New Hampshire: Reject Iowa. Pick me.”

Rich: Xan, how bullish are you on Bernie?

Alexandra: Honestly, I’ve thought that Mayor Pete was a pretty strong candidate from the beginning and I think he sort of has this way of sounding like Biden, but having the policies, not quite of Bernie, but more progressive than Biden, then progressive enough to appeal to people who prefer the Sanders/Warren brand of being a Democrat. I think he has . . . maybe he won’t win New Hampshire. I think Sanders will probably win New Hampshire, but I think he’s worthy of second-place mentioned to Sanders and pretty close in these early contests. I think a lot of Democrats probably like Sanders, but I think a lot more are probably concerned about having a socialist at the top of the ticket still, honestly.

Rich: Jim I have mixed feelings about Buttigieg because the whole thing is completely preposterous. John McCormack, our colleague started calling him on the Corner, Former Mayor Pete, because he’s not even a mayor of a small town anymore. He’s a retired mayor of a small town. But on the other hand, what an achievement, with no political resume to speak of, to perhaps win the Iowa caucuses and make himself a serious factor in national politics is really an extraordinary feat. It’s just, how scalable is it, how sustainable is it and . . . Jim, I hate to say it, maybe what you’ve been saying about Bloomberg’s more plausible than I would have guessed at the beginning.

Jim: Well, it balances out what appears to be an overestimation of Biden for much of the year. I think it’s worth noting that Biden managed to hang on for almost the entirety of 2019 in his national front-runner status, dealt with all whole bunch of debates that didn’t go so great, endured all the slings and arrows. The only thing he couldn’t handle is when people started actually voting. And then all of a sudden it fell apart for him. And there are a bunch of Democrats who probably have to be asking, “why did Biden have to do this now?”

But the interesting thing about Pete Buttigieg is that he represents this, that you could make this argument of, ah, everybody already decided who they wanted before the process even began. You look back a year ago, you look at where Biden was, you look at where Sanders was, that’s nearly half the Democratic electorate.

They jumped on the bandwagons at the beginning of the cycle, and they haven’t been willing to budge except for Biden very recently. They weren’t really open to new faces, they didn’t want to shop around, they didn’t really give people a chance in the debates, Booker had good debate performances, Castro had good debate performances, Klobuchar, none of these folks got action from him except Pete who comes along and all of a sudden, he’s got this perfect, succinct McKinsey consultant presentation.

He always says exactly what he wants to say, he gets into it with Tulsi Gabbert here and there, and he holds his own. And he’s the one guy who says, “No, actually you could be a total unknown and rise in the ranks.” Now look, some of this helps from being the first major gay presidential candidate. Some of this, obviously that opened up a whole bunch of fundraising that was not there for a whole bunch of these other candidates. Almost every presidential campaign ends in defeat, disappointment, in some cases absolute humiliation, and a lot of Democrats have crashed and burned this year.

There’s always one that does well, they really beat expectations. I think last cycle you could say Bernie Sanders was in that category. Pete is probably going to be in this category where he’s probably not going to get the nomination, but he’d be the guy who came out of nowhere. Maybe you can put Andrew Yang in this category. Guys who shouldn’t even be here. And they’re like that Paul Rudd GIF who, “Look at us, who expected we would be here, not me,” this kind of this happy vibe to them.

And I think that by the end of this, Buttigieg is going to be able to say, “well, I did a really nice job. I wasn’t supposed to do anything and I finished second or third,” or something like that. That having been said, he still looks like you wouldn’t send him to buy beer without ID, and I just don’t think Americans are ready for a president who is significantly younger than them.

Luke: There’s one possibility that I think we should consider on Buttigieg because he could win this nomination. I don’t think he’s going to, but he could win it, which is, somebody observed the other night that Sanders is going to be the Goldwater of the Democrats. He’s going to ideologically reconstruct the party and in defeat define what they’re going to be going forward. But there is also the chance that Pete Buttigieg could fill that role.

It’s not given that you’re going to have a cross-racial working class, mostly urban Democratic Party in the mold that Sanders is creating, rather than say an upmarket neoliberal, publicly/state adducent employed education and health-care professional Democratic Party.

Rich: This is why Michael wants Buttigieg to win—

Michael: Yeah. I love the idea of polarizing against the Buttigieg Democrats. I think it’s a . . . I think it’s like you get the Tori coalition basically as much as you can here in America.

Rich: Luke, exit question to you. Rank one through six on likelihood to win the nomination these six candidates: Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Bernie, Warren, Klobuchar.

Luke: Sanders, Buttigieg, I’ll give Bloomberg a little bit. The rest are rounding errors.

Rich: Charlie Cooke?

Charlie: I think that’s about right. Except I would even at this stage say it’s possible Biden comes back. Less and less likely, but still possible. Dave Wassermann is a smart guy. I don’t want to completely go against his judgment.

Rich: Xan?

Alexandra: I would say Sanders, Buttigieg, and I agree with Charlie. I think Biden still has a fighting chance. He really does look bad, but I think there’s something too, being Obama’s vice president, that counts for a lot of people.

Rich: Jim Geraghty?

Jim: I’m going to really shake things up. Sanders, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and still Biden. But I think we can say Biden right now would be an Obama endorsement.

Rich: MBD?

Michael: Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren in case something funny happens this—

Rich: Something funny happens to Sanders or that she becomes the alternative to Sanders?

Michael: She becomes the alternative to Sanders.

Rich: Because she has more establishment cred.

Michael: Yeah. And more upscale people. So maybe New Hampshire spikes the Buttigieg thing next week and it becomes Warren’s the alternative.

Rich: I don’t think that’s crazy about Warren, except for the fact that I can’t see her winning New Hampshire or winning anything. Where is she going to win?

Michael: That’s the thing. She would have to be basically a tight second to Bernie in New Hampshire. So Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and then Bloomberg and then everyone else.

Rich: So I think it’s Bernie. You have to give Bernie the best chance at this point. And then after that struggle, I don’t know whether it’s Buttigieg, Bloomberg. I hate to have to say that I would have Bloomberg in the mix here or Biden. There is . . . I think I said this at some point, very early in the process. There is a moment where some of these establishment front-runner candidates who are flailing like John McCain or John Kerry or damn it, I’m going to carry my own luggage now, there’s no campaign left, it’s totally imploded, and I’m gonna speak from my heart and it comes to them.

The problem is it’s really late. McCain and Kerry that happened before people started voting and Kerry actually won Iowa in ’04, and McCain somehow skipped Iowa, but finished a surprise third there and then won New Hampshire’s. But Biden does have to go win somewhere, he’s not going to be New Hampshire. He’s basically semi-pulled out of New Hampshire unless something extraordinary happens in a debate, and the debate hasn’t been his strong point. And then how does the South Carolina firewall stand if he’s 0 for 3 coming in?

So Nevada might be really his last stance. So anyway, I guess I go Bernie, Buttigieg, hard to see him widening out but someone is going to have to widen out at some point, at least to some extent. So I’m going to say Buttigieg, Bloomberg over Biden just because I do think Biden is just fundamentally really a weak campaigner and not candidate for the moment, then Warren and Klobuchar.

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