Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) soared during the summer but has floated down to the mid-teens in national polling. The last time she led in an Iowa poll was late October. In New Hampshire, her neighboring state, she is in third in the RealClearPolitics average. In the latest WBUR poll in New Hampshire, she comes in fourth, with only 12 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, “Warren and Biden had 23% each in October" in Emerson’s Iowa poll. "While Biden held his numbers in [Emerson’s latest] poll, Warren fell 11 points. [Bernie] Sanders may have benefited from Warren’s loss of support, surging to 22% from 13% of the vote in October.”
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been soaring in early state polls but, nationally, he is in the 10 percent range and has yet to make headway with African American voters. Should he win both early state polls, however, he would be the prohibitive favorite.
Sanders (I-Vt.) is on the rebound since his heart attack, but any real prospect that the only self-identified socialist could become the nominee would likely send many Democrats running to whoever is still in the race.
Biden has a few things going for him. First, the entire Democratic Party reaffirms daily that President Trump engaged in impeachable conduct by trying to start a bogus investigation into Biden — whom he most feared as an opponent. If nothing else, Republicans have convinced most non-Republicans that you’d have to be nuts to think Biden was involved in corruption. Second, while Warren and Buttigieg have sniped back and forth about whose work for corporate America is more of a liability, Biden — “Middle Class Joe” — goes along unscathed. Third, by now, his debate performances are “baked” into his poll numbers. Mediocre performances now count as victories because they do not affect the polls. Fourth, not only have expectations been lowered for the debates, but no one expects Biden to win or come close in Iowa or New Hampshire. A “better than expected” finish in lily-white states would suit him just fine heading into Nevada and South Carolina. Fifth, no one has dented his support among African American voters. Finally, the depleted state of U.S. foreign policy (highlighted in Biden’s ad showing world leaders laughing at Trump), the collapse of functional and competent Cabinet departments, the horrifying lack of credible and ethical leadership at the Justice Department and the emergence of a fact-free Republican Party make a decent, highly experienced and trusted candidate more attractive.
I do not think Biden is the “favorite” or the “front-runner” because there is no favorite or front-runner at this point. In that respect, a smart political observer reminded me, the race may look more like the 2012 Republican primary in which one challenger after another rose in the polls to compete with Mitt Romney, only to fall back into the pack. In the 2012 GOP primary, and as it appears to be happening in this year’s Democratic race, the best known candidate benefited from a large field with a mix of serious and nonserious contenders.
While some may see similarities to 2012, others may look at Biden as a repeat of Jeb Bush in 2016, a front-runner who had money but was poorly equipped to sustain expectations or to handle a bully such as Trump. However, Biden enjoys broad and deep affection within his party, connects emotionally with voters, is associated with a president extremely popular in his own party (unlike Bush, who carried the burden of answering his brother’s many critics) and knows how to throw a punch or two. (By comparison, in December 2015, Bush was drawing 6 percent in an Iowa Monmouth poll behind Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, while a New Hampshire poll had him at 5 percent, good enough only for eighth place, and a national poll gave him a measly 3 percent. Biden is not remotely in that predicament.)
In sum, for all his well-known drawbacks as a candidate, Biden has remained in the top tier throughout the year, gotten some breaks (including a large field that prevents a one-on-one match-up) and managed to lower expectations for early contests. That’s not nothing.