The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When the field thins, Joe Biden still may be on top

Former vice president Joe Biden must prove that he isn't a politician of a different era. (Video: Danielle Kunitz, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Democratic insiders often seem to be on the lookout for former vice president Joe Biden’s imminent demise. Well, no gaffes yet, but just you wait! That green energy plan — which he hasn’t released — won’t be progressive enough, you can bet on it!

Perhaps the more progressive Twitterverse and the cable TV news commentariat are simply rooting for a more left-leaning nominee. Moreover, progressive media which trend younger may not grasp Biden’s appeal to older Democrats, who look for candidates with stability and experience.

The presumption that it is only a matter of time before Biden collapses may rest on nothing more than wishful thinking. The data suggest he has a broad base of support.

The RealClearPolitics average shows Biden (34.7) has twice the support that a sinking Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (17.7) commands. The old CW for Sanders was that he was a front-runner; the new CW is that he’s past his prime. “Bernie Sanders seems to be getting squeezed from two sides,” Chuck Todd explained on Meet the Press. “Joe Biden’s got in, his numbers grew. Bernie Sanders’ got lower. . . . [T]he less you were paying attention the more likely you were a Bernie Sanders supporter. The point being Biden took a bunch of soft supporters.”

With Sanders declining, he risks falling into a distant second with a tightlypacked group of contenders. In the RCP average, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) draws close to 10 points, Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) gets 8 percent and South Bend, Ind, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is at 6.2 with everyone else below 4 percent. The quartet not only carves up the not-Biden vote, but may work to keep them all of them below the 15 percent threshold, the minimum for winning delegates.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

However, even if one or more of this group falters, there is no guarantee someone else can consolidate the not-Biden vote. The Republican Echelon Poll, for example, found that in one-on-one match ups, Biden wins going away against Sanders (61/25), Harris (63/20), Buttigieg (65/17) and Warren (66/19). This is a single poll, a Republican one at that, but at this stage no single candidate seems capable of matching Biden’s appeal.

Biden’s opponents are further handicapped by President Trump’s predilection for attacking Biden, playing into Biden’s “we’re already in the general election” mode. In Trump’s latest outrageous barb he aligned himself with North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong Un to slam Biden:

When Trump invokes an enemy of the United States, Biden can play the grownup defender of sanity, democracy and decency. (A Biden spokesman retorted that Trump has “been repeatedly tricked in to making major concessions to the murderous regime in Pyongyang while getting nothing in return. Given Vice President Biden’s record of standing up for American values and interests, it’s no surprise that North Korea would prefer that Donald Trump remain in the White House.") Biden cannot not buy better coverage than that.

In sum, Biden is hardly invincible. The debates provide opponents with the chance to level the playing field and Biden with a chance to slip up. However, Biden’s stature gap, Trump’s obsessive focus on him, and the evenly divided — but limited — support of his top rivals give him a solid chance of winning the nomination.

Read more:

George F. Will: How the Democratic field is winnowing itself

David Byler: Black voters helped make Joe Biden the Democratic front-runner. Will they keep him there?

Paul Waldman: Trump is already set to use the government to destroy the Democratic nominee

E.J. Dionne: Can Biden be the helmsman who gets us past the storm?