Is Biden’s lead ‘insurmountable’?
The odds of a Bernie Sanders comeback may be slim — but it’s hardly impossible
The 2020 Democratic Primary is, for all intents and purposes, over — or at least that’s the consensus among the pundits and the political class. Joe Biden has a sizable lead in both delegates and nationwide polling. He’s already gearing up for the general and vetting his potential running mates. In order to win, his opponent Bernie Sanders would have to win the remaining states by a margin of 20 percent, which would constitute a swing of 30–40 points.
This is highly improbable, but is it impossible?
Such a dramatic comeback has no precedent in the annals of American electoral politics, but then again, we live in interesting times. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 defied all reason and every expectation. On the eve of the election, pollsters placed Hillary Clinton’s chances at between 85 percent and 99 percent. FiveThirtyEight currently places Bernie’s odds at less than 1 percent.
At the same time, Biden’s emergence as front-runner is just as implausible and unprecedented. There has never in recent memory been a Democratic candidate who went on to win Super Tuesday after performing so poorly in the first three states. In mid-February, he was polling at 15 percent.
Pre-convention fundraising receipts have predicted every nominee and two-thirds of the eventual winners in every presidential contest since 1976. Thus far, Sanders has out-fundraised Biden nearly 2-to-1, and Biden was trailing Pete Buttigieg by almost $30 million at the time the latter candidate exited the race.
Biden’s campaign got a well-timed shot in the arm coupled with a massive wave of free press, as his opponents dropped out and endorsed him in quick succession.
However, to wrap up the primary decisively, Biden needed to carry forward and build on that momentum in the following weeks with a series of big wins. He was on track to do that until the coronavirus outbreak effectively put the elections on hold for several months.
Now we’re in the “zombie primary.” He’s got all the endorsements he can get. There are no more big announcements for his campaign that can dominate the news cycle. “Joementum” has stalled. Still, his healthy lead can be maintained with minimal effort.
The race is his to lose, but if anybody can screw this up, Joe Biden can.
He already blew a lead that big
To call Biden’s lead “insurmountable” assumes that it’s beyond the realm of possibility that his support would collapse to the degree needed for Sanders to win. But it already happened once this election cycle.
There aren’t a lot of good polls still being done on the Democratic primary race at the moment, so it’s hard to say with any confidence what Biden’s lead actually is. Though there are some outliers, polls show Biden’s lead at somewhere between 13 to 25 points.
For most of 2019, Biden lead over Sanders ranged from 15 to 35 points, but in the span of roughly two months, there was a swing of about 23 points in Sanders’ favor. Granted, the conditions aren’t exactly comparable, since there are no primary upsets, like the ones seen in New Hampshire and Iowa, to boost Sanders and harm Biden.
But on the other hand, these swings show Biden’s support is fragile and susceptible to narratives that contradict his claim to superior “electability.” Biden carried Super Tuesday largely by winning over late deciders who were no doubt swayed by his last-minute endorsements.
Given the recent polls showing Biden’s record-low enthusiasm, it’s reasonable to conclude that a significant chunk of his voters are merely settling for him and are therefore persuadable.
With the primaries on hold, voters have plenty of time to reconsider whether Biden is the right person to take on Trump, and if the past few weeks are any indication, he’s going to give them lots to think about.
When Biden disappeared from the spotlight in March, just as the coronavirus crisis was starting to escalate, many on the left began to speculate that he was laying low to avoid questions about his mental acuity. The following week, when he finally started doing daily live streams and press interviews, he mostly confirmed suspicions that his cognitive decline is getting worse.
Formerly able to give long speeches without a teleprompter, Biden now spends his interviews with his head down looking at notes. He stumbles often and slurs his words. While speaking with Anderson Cooper, he nearly gave out his personal phone number.
Biden’s handlers are in a bind. They have to maintain his visibility but limit his potential to do anything that might reveal the extent of his impairment. So their workaround is to have his live streams dominated by experts and use his wife Jill to speak for him.
His spots on cable news have thus far been managed to prevent serious damage to his candidacy. He has faced nothing but soft-ball questions from friendly interviewers, such as MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace and the hosts of The View.
Mainstream media has conspicuously avoided talking about Biden’s mental state since he became the front runner, although they were much more candid about it earlier in the race.
Emperor Joe’s New Clothes
With Biden now doing broadcasts daily, it’s going to get harder to keep up the illusion that he’s “presidential”
On cable news, discussions of Biden’s shortcomings as a candidate or doubts about his health are taboo, but there are other signs within print and other media that confidence in him is fading. Most notably, there’s a lot of talk about drafting New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or some other prominent Democrat to take his place.
TV host and comedian Bill Maher used a baseball analogy, describing Biden as an “opener” who is now looking “wobbly” and should be replaced by a “real ace.” A New York Post opinion columnist, who had been all-in for Joe two weeks prior, floated the idea of tapping Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.
Though it’s hard to say for sure, these conversations that are largely absent from the mainstream cable media are most likely happening in some form or fashion over dinner tables in the country. Time and media exposure are Biden’s worst enemies right now.
Sexual assault allegations
Former Biden staffer Tara Reade has come forward with claims that Biden sexually assaulted her in the 1990s while she was working in his Senate office. Reade was among the women who had claimed Biden touched her inappropriately but did not mention the alleged assault.
Coverage of the story has followed a similar pattern to reporting on Biden’s cognitive decline. It was first reported in left outlets, such as The Intercept, the Katie Halper Show and Rising, but it has since been picked up by Vox, the Huffington Post as well as The Guardian.
Liberal news outlets and Biden’s campaign have elected to ignore it entirely, but at least a few prominent Biden supporters have taken it on. Actress Alyssa Milano, who was a key figure in the #MeToo movement, has dismissed Reade as a tool of Biden’s political opponents.
Biden’s poll numbers have remained steady in spite of the allegations, but it could possibly be due to the fact that news hasn’t been widely disseminated in the media Democratic voters tend to consume. One poll found that 32 percent of general election voters haven’t encountered any news about Reade while 53 percent reported that they had only heard “a little” about it.
With conservative media now picking up the story and running with it, it’s only a matter of time before Biden’s campaign is forced to respond. The allegations have the potential to be particularly damaging because they’re consistent with a larger narrative about Biden’s inappropriate behavior with women.
Timid response to Trump
Democratic voters have a monomaniacal focus at the moment on beating Trump. What they want out of a candidate right now is someone who will stand up to Trump and call out his mismanagement of the crisis. Biden has taken the opposite tack. His response has been measured; his criticisms, muted.
The American people don’t want us in a political fight, and I want no part of a political fight either, but when the president says things that turn out not to be accurate, we should not say “you’re lying,” we should say “Mr. President that’s not the facts, here’s the deal.”
On Monday, he called up Trump for a friendly chat about the crisis. Trump had only hours before implied that Biden was too impaired to show up at the Democratic National Convention in person.
Where is the Joe Biden who once boasted he would “beat the hell” out of Trump? What happened to the guy who challenged Trump to a push-up contest? Voters expecting the tough uncle are getting instead a sad grandpa.
This is one area where Bernie could stand to gain quite a bit at Joe’s expense. Sanders does the righteous indignation thing quite well. If he adopts a more confrontational posture with Trump, he could position himself as the real fighter that the moment demands.
The coronavirus outbreak has the potential to affect this election in ways that no pollster, pundit or other political prognosticator can accurately foresee. Thus far, the crisis has exposed the many failings of our health care system, significantly strengthening public support for Medicare for All, the centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign.
However, that might not translate into greater support for Sanders at the polls. The crisis could have an effect that might seem counterintuitive. Having accepted the inevitability of Biden’s nomination, a large cross-section of Democratic voters could feel compelled to rally around him.
Seeing Biden as the only chance to win in November, they could settle into a general election mindset where they feel the need to protect him at all cost. At that point, even the most valid critiques of Biden can be rejected as “Russian disinformation” or “rightwing smears.”
But on the balance, the present environment favors Sanders in many ways. He has a massive volunteer force that’s still doing phone banking and texting during the crisis.
Sanders’ position as a sitting senator gives him a bully pulpit to speak from and an opportunity to actually deliver tangible policy results that will have an impact on the public right now. Biden, a private citizen, can only sit in his basement and talk about what could or should be done.
Time has slowed. Minutes seem like hours; days, like weeks. What is “impossible” or “insurmountable” in normal circumstances, seems somewhat less so these days.
There’s an eternity between now and the convention. Anything can happen.