When Joe Biden answered the first question put to him at the debate in New Hampshire by admitting he “took a hit in Iowa and I’ll probably take a hit here,” political experts from both parties had their jaws drop. For a man who had been running successful campaigns for 40 years to admit he was going to lose wasn’t even a rookie mistake. It was inexplicably stupid.
Try to understand that admission in the context of Biden’s mixed feelings about running for president in the first place. As veteran political reporter Sam Stein writes in The Daily Beast, Biden’s low-energy campaign suggests his heart really isn’t in this race.
For a candidate staring down another major setback—one that could irrevocably derail his presidential ambitions—one would expect Biden to be infused with a sense of urgency and desperation. But none of that was apparent on Saturday morning. And the lethargy that has come to define his campaign has begun to have an effect on voter perceptions.
“I had a hunch, watching the debate last night, that maybe, just maybe, his heart was not in it,” said Jim Barry, who had come to New Hampshire from Buffalo, New York. “This was a call to duty for him. But it doesn’t feel like he actually wants it.”
“2008 was his time,” said Kevin Both, who also was from New York, and who had traveled there with Barry. “Now, there’s not much gas left in the tank.”
Biden is 77 and beginning to show it. His mental faculties aren’t as sharp, and his energy is suspect. There was, as Stein points out, no “urgency and desperation” in either his debate performance or in his speech Saturday morning. He’s like a boxer coming out for the 12th round after having taken a beating; he’s on his feet, but not really in the fight.
How much longer will his support hold?
At some point soon, establishment Democrats will have to face the reality that Biden, for all his personal virtues, probably doesn’t have what it takes to win the nomination in 2020. After Biden’s 10 months as an uninspiring active candidate, it seems folly to believe that all it will take is a campaign shakeup or a new stump speech to turn things around.
Sure, this dire verdict may be premature. For the moment, Biden is holding onto his African American support in the February 29 South Carolina primary and leading in most national polls. But those numbers may look different next week if Biden limps home in fourth or even fifth in New Hampshire. In politics, universally known and liked former vice presidents don’t win by losing badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
If not Biden, then who?
Establishment Democrats are already trying to answer that question. Mayor Pete has his attractions — mostly, he’s not quite as radical as Sanders or Warren — but his obvious limitations as a mayor of a small city and the lack of enthusiasm among minority voters are forcing many Democrats to look beyond Buttigieg to Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar is rising faster than Buttigieg, finishing a distant third in the new Emerson poll, but ahead of both Warren and Biden.
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Does Biden even bother going on to South Carolina if the New Hampshire primary finishes up like this? Biden is an old-fashioned pol and would return the loyalty of those who stuck with him by giving them a chance to vote for him in the one state he still has a chance.
But beyond that, there is no campaign. And the only question left for Biden is the timing of his exit.