Former vice president Joe Biden is in for the 2020 presidential race, and in doing so he has largely settled a field of about 20 serious Democratic candidates. To some, it also means having a candidate they feel comfortable describing as a bona fide “front-runner.”
“Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that he would run for president,” the New York Times alerted, “becoming an instant front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2020.”
“Biden Enters Democratic Campaign for President as Front-Runner,” Bloomberg News headlined its piece on the launch.
CNBC highlighted Biden’s “commanding” lead in polling — a highly questionable premise that we’ll get to — and said he “instantly became the front-runner in a crowded primary field.”
There are fair arguments to be made that this label applies to Biden at this early juncture of the race. Saying someone is a front-runner isn’t the same as saying they will win or even that they are currently the favorite. But the word means even less in 2020 than it does in your average presidential race.
I’ll first disclose that I have used this word to describe Biden before. It’s an easy shorthand to signify whoever is leading in polls and has the biggest stature — both boxes that Biden checks. And strictly speaking, the front-runner is the person who is . . . well, running in front. If Biden currently has the most support in just about every poll, he is running in front of everyone in this metaphorical horse race.
There are huge reasons to be wary of thinking he’ll stay at the front of the pack, though — arguably more than just about any supposed front-runner in recent memory.
There is, of course, the fact that both of Biden’s previous presidential runs have floundered. There is his baggage from spending about 80 percent of his adult life in national political office — much of it in a different era where he took actions that look considerably unprogressive today. There is also the recent controversy over his physical interactions with women.
But the two biggest things I keep coming back to are name ID and Hillary Clinton.
The two leading candidates in most polls are Biden and Bernie Sanders. It’s no coincidence that they also happen to be the only two candidates pretty much everyone is at least somewhat familiar with. Gallup and Monmouth polling shows around 3 in 10 Democrats haven’t formed an opinion of Elizabeth Warren, about 4 in 10 don’t have one of Kamala Harris, and around half are similarly noncommittal or don’t know Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. Biden is popular among the Democrats who have an opinion of him — 72 percent favorable and 16 percent unfavorable in the Monmouth poll — but he’s not appreciably more popular among those who know him than a lot of these other candidates.
It’s also not clear that he’ll have much of the institutional backing or financial strength of your average front-runner. He’s reportedly got Barack Obama’s email list, which should help, but Democratic Party heavies don’t seem to be lining up behind him like you’d expect from a true favorite.
As for where Clinton comes in: Her 2016 campaign is a case in point when it comes to what early popularity means — and doesn’t. She had peaks of popularity as first lady in the late 1990s and then a big peak as secretary of state in the early Obama years, which set her up as the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee. But otherwise she was never a broadly beloved figure. And when she reengaged in the domestic political arena in 2016, she crashed back to Earth — to right around where she was when she was pushing “Hillarycare” and when she was a senator from New York. Come Election Day 2016, she was as unpopular as Donald Trump.
Being vice president is a similarly low-impact job — at least when it comes to domestic politics. You may engage on a few issues that are of-interest to you, and you might help drive the White House message, but otherwise you’re not really in the rough-and-tumble unless you really want to be. And much like Clinton, while Biden’s popularity increased at the tail end of the Obama years and remains pretty high, he has generally been only a nominally popular public figure. Witness his Gallup numbers:
All of which is to say: It’s completely reasonable to expect a politician known for the occasional gaffe and lackluster campaigns to be drawn back into the field, and it’s completely expected that some of his opponents will rise once they become better known. Biden has early, built-in advantages that have him polling like what we’d generally call a front-runner — if not the front-runner. But unlike most candidates leading the polls at this early juncture, it’s difficult to say he has a significantly better shot at winning than several of his top opponents.
Which renders “front-runner” a word that has little meaning in 2020.