Joe Biden addresses a crowd in Columbia, S.C., on May 4. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Listen to the mainstream media and you’ll think former vice president Joe Biden is a defender of the status quo, out of touch with the increasingly progressive base that wants not only to jettison President Trump but also significantly change the economic and political structure of America. The media, perhaps eager for a horse race, gets the primary contest wrong in a bunch of ways.

First, Biden is leading by a mile in early primary polls. The older, moderate Democratic voters plus African Americans — some of the most dependable voters — love the guy, so far. If the Democratic Party had actually been captured by the far left, Biden would be trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and/or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rather than holding more than twice the vote share (36) than Sanders (16.4) and more than four times Warren’s share (8), according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Second, Biden in no way, shape or form has expressed the view that all the Democrats have to do is get rid of Trump. (That frankly sounds like what Sanders is saying about Biden, not what Biden is saying to voters.) He’s talking about reversing course of everything from voting rights to labor law to foreign policy to tax policy. Biden is more optimistic than many candidates about Americans’ attachment to democracy, decency and equality — but that’s not a defense of the status quo. It’s part of a hopeful message that the America we know and love has not been destroyed; we just need new leaders and new policies.

Third, the choice is not between coddling Republicans/making no change and burning the place down/remaking the country. It’s about what kind of change (capitalism with restraints or socialism?) the country wants and is ready for. No one in the Democratic Party yet has a satisfactory explanation as to what to do about Republican obstructionism. Want to get rid of the filibuster? There aren’t votes there. Want to change the electoral college? It’s most likely going to take a constitutional amendment. If a Democrat is going to reverse course and pursue big policy changes (e.g., a public option for Obamacare), he or she will need to be able to claim a clear ideological mandate, win the House and Senate and then figure out how to peel off enough GOP votes to make progress on his/her issues. That’s a lot of "half-loaf” wins, but that, frankly, is how policy gains are usually achieved.

Finally, Biden at present holds support from such an overwhelming share of the African American community, it’s hard to see how another candidate can win without siphoning off a significant share of those voters. Right not, it doesn’t look as if Sanders is capable of doing that. The Hill reports:

A Morning Consult poll released last week showed that 47 percent of black women said Biden was their top choice to be the Democratic nominee, while 18 percent said they preferred Sanders.

A separate poll from Quinnipiac University last week found Biden getting the support of 42 percent of nonwhite respondents. Sanders trailed Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), getting just 7 percent support among nonwhites.

For that reason, the real rival to Biden may come not from the far left of the party but from a candidate who can draw from African Americans, moderates and progressives. Maybe no one other than Biden can pull off that coalition-building. However, it is one reason that savvy political watchers continue to look to Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as not only the most engaging newcomer but also someone with both the money and crossover appeal necessary to defeat the former vice president.

We should underscore that the polls now are not predictive of results next February. They do, however, give one a snapshot of the race, one quite different from the “Bernie vs. Biden” or “moderate vs. left-wing” narratives you may read and watch. Politics is additive — and right now Biden has support from the necessary segments of the party to lead by double digits and be the true front-runner. The rest of the race will be about who, if anyone, can wrestle those voters away from him.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden makes the case: He’s the guy to kick Trump out

David Ignatius: Joe Biden is the best candidate to beat Trump

Kathleen Parker: Biden is empathetic and compassionate. But he’s not the obvious candidate.

Karen Tumulty: Joe Biden could be the best bet to beat Trump. But he might not get that far.

Jennifer Rubin: How Biden can rattle Trump