The Democrats' Amazing Gaffetastic Frontrunner: A Disappearing Act?
After two unimpressive debate performances and a week of rather incredible gaffes, former vice president Joe Biden is still atop the polls, for now. It seems the Democrats' amazing gaffetastic frontrunner is here to stay, but he shouldn't get his hopes up.
The latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll found Biden in the lead in the early voting state of New Hampshire, but that support may be rather soft. While 21.4 percent of likely Democratic voters said they would choose Biden, a full 20.8 percent said they were "undecided." While Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) trailed Biden with 16.8 percent, 13.6 percent, and 8 percent respectively, any of them could catch up quickly when there are so many undecided voters.
This poll came before the most recent — and embarrassing — string of gaffes in Iowa last week. On Thursday, Biden said, "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," and then attempted to save the situation by adding, "wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids." Earlier that day, he had referred to former British Prime Minister Theresa May as her predecessor from forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher — and he has done that before, too. He also encouraged Democrats to "choose truth over facts."
Even The Washington Post's Aaron Blake called him out on these, quoting Biden's 2020 competitor New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who warned about "the racism and sexism behind 'electability.'"
The gaffes continued, however, with Biden claiming that there are "at least three" genders — before grabbing a young lady's arm when she asked, "What are they?" Then he claimed to have been vice president in 2018 when the shooting in Parkland, Fla., took place.
What gaffe will Joe Biden say next? As de Blasio's response suggests, other Democrats will likely attack the frontrunner for similar gaffes, suggesting they betray racism or sexism. Such political attacks may chip away at the former vice president's support.
It may take more than gaffes to unseat the frontrunner, however. Democrats in 2020 seem to have the same problem Republicans did in 2016: there are many politically attractive candidates, but none so well-known as the frontrunner. In 2016, celebrity Donald Trump sucked the air out of the room, and it was difficult for any other Republican to gain enough votes to challenge him, partially because there were so many candidates to choose from.
In the 2020 race, Barack Obama's former vice president started with a powerful lead. Many other Democrats could develop a strong following, but they have yet to really emerge — and the fact that so many candidates are running makes it less likely for any one candidate to leap ahead of Biden.
In 2016, Republicans competed for roughly the same kind of voters in the primary. In 2020, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are fighting over the hard-left policy wing. Sanders, the 2016 runner-up who stands in second behind Biden in many polls, would seem a natural pick for the nomination, but Democrats want someone younger and more inspiring. Iowan Democratic chairs have said Bernie Sanders' campaign is "running on fumes" from 2016. Warren appears to fit the bill as his replacement, but Sanders still has enough support to keep her well behind Biden.
Kamala Harris appears to represent the intersectional candidate. She checks all the boxes: black, Asian, a woman. But she has flip-flopped on criminal justice reform, attempting to reject her tough-on-crime record as attorney general in California (a record that also includes weaponizing the law to silence conservatives).
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg could become the young, inspiring leader of a new pro-LGBT religious left, but this media darling is having trouble catching up in the polls. After the El Paso shooting, the media seems to have shifted back to former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas). Buttigieg may be the better Beto, but those two likely hurt one another by being in the race together — just like Sanders and Warren.
The large number of viable candidates is Joe Biden's best friend in the 2020 Democratic primary. So long as there are so many options, that block of undecided voters is likely to vacillate from one to the other, and may end up supporting Joe Biden because he seems most "electable" — he is both well-known and well-respected, even if his gaffes will take a toll on him.
Democrats may stay divided through the primary, leaving Biden without one clear challenger to keep him from taking the nomination. But that same plethora of candidates may seriously weaken the former vice president as the other Democrats turn on the frontrunner in a desperate attempt to pull ahead of him.
Democrats may need the gaffetastic frontrunner to pull off a vanishing act, but with so many other candidates in the race, they may not be able to say goodbye to Joe Biden until November 2020.
Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.