On Tuesday, Joe Biden, had the chance to right his campaign’s ship after weeks of negative polls and endless attacks from from an angry Trump campaign. Polls will tell us whether Biden was successful or not but it is clear the race is now Biden vs. Warren.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Biden has not dropped as his chief rival, Warren, has risen. Rather, Biden has stayed relatively stagnant as Warren has gathered steam, primarily from cannibalizing other candidates supporters.
There was always a possibility this could occur. Indeed, in numerous polls, Warren was the higher ranked choice for other candidates supporters than Biden was, suggesting Biden’s upside was limited compared to a newcomer (newcomer being relative for a 70 year old woman raised in academia and a sitting US Senator).
For Biden, Warren’s rise is worrying not just because she is statistically tied with him in the polls but also because she seems to have more room to grow. The party faithful seem to want unabashed progressivism while Biden has argued strongly against it. And while Biden has embraced some elements of the party’s fringe (ie. repealing the Hyde Amendment).
For months, Biden has argued the party should vote with their head vs. their hearts by building on the ACA, maintaining the strong economy and nominating a candidate who can most easily beat Trump. Hey, its me!
The problem is how Biden is doing this. Biden is not drawing out more Democratic voters or exciting his base. Rather, Biden actually is doing worse than Warren among Democrats but winning over more Independents and Republicans. Which would be great, except Democrats are really not interested in expanding their coalition in the age of Trump. They argue Trump fosters diversity while fomenting it themselves. What comes around goes around I guess.
Biden is still in a prime position. He always was a vulnerable front-runner and has not really seen his support erode. His challenge will be to expand his support beyond the mid 30 support he has.
It should be noted Biden might have a more immediate problem though – fundraising. The third quarter fundraising numbers revealed disappointing numbers for the campaign. Biden raised a respectable $15 million but compared to the $24.3 million Warren raised and $25 million Bernie raised leads to serious questions about the campaign’s strategy of focusing primarily on big donors.
Still, Biden’s poll numbers have not really budged despite all the twists and turns of the campaign season so far. Before the Ukraine story broke Biden was averaging 27 percent in major polls. As of this week, what do you think his polling average was? Yep. Twenty-seven percent.
What has changed is Warren has replaced Bernie as Biden’s primary competition. Some of it has come from Harris, who Warren was competing against for college educated women. Some of it might have come from Sanders. Arguably, Booker and Buttigieg have also bled support to her.
The good news for Biden is that Warren has already picked off a lot of low hanging fruit. Maybe she can pick off a few Sanders voters but he already has lost a lot of his 2016 support. Plus, Sanders support looks pretty sturdy and the endorsement of three of the four members of the “Squad” should help him keep progressives on board. Harris is now polling at one to two percent so not much left there.
The bad news is Warren has surpassed him on measures of enthusiasm, she tends to have better favorability ratings than he does, and, obviously, Iowa and New Hampshire are huge potential liabilities for Biden if he loses them.
But, Biden has never been the perfect candidate. Rather, he commands deep loyalty from constituencies that often receive little coverage from media elites, including seniors, non-college-educated whites, African Americans and moderates. These same voters are most likely to report paying attention to the campaign and maintain some of the most favorable views of Biden.
The biggest problem Biden faces is his support has not really expanded since he announced and 70 percent of Democrats who don’t have Biden as their first choice are cooling on him. This might not matter in the early states, but after it could pose the biggest liability for the Biden campaign.
Meanwhile, any assumption Biden’s campaign would fall apart was always naive for some of the reasons above. His record and tenure has been both a liability and success. Rather, it has kept him in the lead with around 30 percent support but it also means he is unable to build his support or stall an alternative to equaling him in the polls.
That is another blessing and a curse. Having 25 to 30 percent of support in primary at this point has not historically always led to a win. But, it has generally meant candidates polling around this number make it past the early states and are in the running later on. In short, Biden might not be the favorite for the nomination anymore but it sure looks like his train will be one of the last ones still on the track at the end of the day.
Biden’s campaign has significant hurdles to overcome but also strengths. The coming months should tell us whether the campaign is capable of overcoming their barriers and using their strengths…or whether Warren will permanently become the leader in the field as she plays on Democratic voters more combative tendencies.