Whither Joe Biden? Or should that be, “Wither Joe Biden?”
While Washington is all abuzz with the not-quite-impeachment proceedings going on in Nancy Pelosi’s House, the rest of the country seems to be taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Go ahead with the inquiry,” we’re telling the pollsters, “but make it fair — don’t jump the gun on something so weighty.”
Democratic primary voters are, it’s safe to say, more committed to impeaching President Trump than the typical voter is. But they’re becoming less committed to onetime frontrunner Joe Biden — and the big money donors have noticed.
On Monday I reported to you that “Biden’s ‘Joementum’ is all going in the wrong direction.” Donors held a semi-secret confab late last week to hammer out a turnaround plan for the flailing former veep, but this week they’re doing something even more desperate: They’re leaking to the press.
The Hill’s Amie Parnes reports that Democratic donors — the kind with the fat wallets — are “increasingly expressing frustration” with Biden’s campaign. The complaints are wide-ranging, too, rather than being solely focused on Biden’s well-documented verbal diarrhea. In addition to his accustomed gaffes and tall tales (to put a kind spin on them), donors complained about Biden’s inconsistent debate performances, and his weak response to the growing Ukraine scandal involving him and his son, Hunter. Perhaps worst of all, Parnes writes that donors feel that Biden has “failed to make a clear rationale for why he’s running.” One anonymous donor confessed, “Look, let’s be honest. He’s a weak front-runner.”
Some of us saw this coming from the start — including maybe Biden himself.
Asked after a not-exactly-thrilling campaign stop in Iowa why he was running for president, Biden said, “I think it’s really, really, really important that Donald Trump not be re-elected.” The New York Times analysis of the event was even headlined “Does Joe Biden Want to Be Doing This?” In that piece, Mark Leibovich concluded that Biden’s weak reply was “more of a rationale than answer.” He also includes this gem from the nearly 77-year-old three-time presidential wannabe: “Could I die happily not having heard ‘Hail to the Chief’ play for me? Yeah, I could.”
For Democratic voters used to fiery stump speeches from Elizabeth Warren, Bernies Sanders, and even Pete Buttigieg, what a letdown Biden’s semi-enthused state must be.
Dem donors are doing more — or is that less? — than just making anonymous complaints to Hill reporters: They’re not writing checks like Biden is a front-runner. At just over $15 million, Biden’s third-quarter haul was about $10 million behind both Warren and Sanders, and nearly four million dollars behind Buttigieg. Last week we learned that the Biden campaign had dramatically cut back on buying digital ads. Was the cutback because the ads weren’t working? Has the Biden campaign been forced to economize when it needs most to make a splash? Or have they given up trying to reach the younger voters more likely to see digital ads?
None of those three possibilities look very promising for the candidate who was pronounced the frontrunner from the moment he announced his campaign. Even worse are Biden’s poll numbers. Biden is sinking fast in RCP’s Iowa average, down to 20.3% from a high of 28.5% just three weeks ago. He’s now in second place there behind Liz Warren. New Hampshire numbers tell a similar story, with Biden dropping to 23.2% in recent weeks, down from a commanding 34.5% in the crowded Dem field.
Going deeper than the headline numbers, much of Biden’s polling strength comes from black voters. In part that’s because of his old-school workingman appeal (which Ukraine and China revelations might be hurting), and because of the Barack Obama’s Veep halo effect. On the plus side for Biden, his main competitors, Sanders and Warren, have never enjoyed much support (and less enthusiasm) from black Democrats. But if Biden can’t generate enough heat to actually get black voters to actually vote for him, even his weakening poll numbers will start to look good once the voting starts.
But even if Biden does maintain his strength with African Americans, the primary calendar might not be kind to him in the opening weeks. Nominating season officially kicks off with the Iowa Caucuses on February 3, followed by New Hampshire and then Nevada — these are states where black voters are underrepresented. It won’t be until almost four weeks after Iowa — February 29 in South Carolina — that Biden will enjoy a Biden-friendly electorate. The headlines, if he underperforms in the first three votes, will be absolutely punishing. South Carolina, if it comes at all for poor Joe, might come too late.
Anything can happen in a field this wide, and Biden seems remarkably hale for a man of his age and with his history of health problems. But right now his presidential campaign has the stink of death around it.