Former Vice President Joe Biden still holds a healthy polling lead over his closest challengers in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination race. Yet two prominent pollsters have suggested that Biden’s position may be “deceptive,” and other Democrats are planning on the frontrunner’s collapse.
“It’s a deceptive lead, because it really doesn’t get tested until we get down to a narrower race in which, at some stage, people are going to have to say, ‘Is he our guy or not,'” Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean, told Politico.
“I’m not sure how strong a front-runner Biden is [because] people are sort of waiting and seeing,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.
Biden supporters are also far more nervous than they should be, given the frontrunner’s polling lead.
“There’s a clear worry among Biden supporters that he can’t be the front-runner from June of 2019 through July of 2020 … that eventually the gaffes will pile up and he’ll come down,” Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor and vocal Biden supporter, told Politico. Rendell said many Biden backers are “nervous as hell.”
The frontrunner has always faced key obstacles. At 76, his age is a clear issue, and the blood in his eye during the climate debate last week only reinforced those worries.
A long-running series of gaffes may also tank his candidacy. Biden recently doubled down on a story about pinning a Silver Star on a war hero in Afghanistan that The Washington Post debunked. In recent weeks, the frontrunner: claimed the Heritage Foundation said Trump’s tax cuts didn’t work; claimed that he was vice president during the Parkland shooting last year; said that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids;” mixed up Margaret Thatcher with Theresa May and Angela Merkel; claimed that 40 students were shot at Kent State in 1970 — rather than the 13 who were shot; claimed that Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed in the 1970s — rather than in 1968; and more. He mixed up the locations of the tragic shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Biden’s opponents in the 2020 Democratic primary keep waiting for him to falter. Their advisors compared Biden’s 2020 race to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. Clinton tanked after Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses that year, proving that he could win and that Clinton was more vulnerable than she appeared.
“It’s like the corpse is already rotting,” an adviser to one of Biden’s competitors said. Many Democrats support the frontrunner on the theory that he is the best hope to defeat Trump in 2020. So “if you take any drop in [polling] support, you might bleed.”
Yet the very hope that Biden’s support will crater may help prop up his leading position. Rendell said that uncertainty about the frontrunner’s lead is attributable to “a little bit of wishful thinking by his opponents. He’s not as weak as his opponents think he is. He’s not as weak as his supporters think he is.”
Patrick Riley, a Democratic lawyer and Biden supporter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said there are “just so many candidates around this time.” He noted that Biden “hasn’t obtained over 50 percent.”
The 2016 Republican primary may be instructive in this regard. Donald Trump held a consistent lead, but remained under 50 percent. Supporters of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hoped that as the field narrowed, one of them would emerge as the clear winner, unseating Trump. As it happened, Trump cruised to victory.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may each hope to emerge ahead of Biden, but even if one of them drops out, it is far from clear their support won’t go to the frontrunner. Biden is the second choice for supporters of Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and he is a close third choice among supporters of Warren.
Democrats may be stuck with Joe Biden in 2020 just as Republicans saw themselves as stuck with Donald Trump in 2016.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.