Biden: Formidable Frontrunner or Vulnerable Paper Tiger?
The Biden political balance sheet looks very strong today, but history and current dynamics suggest possible trouble ahead.
My take: The primary reason Joe Biden is deemed the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination is that he has the so-called virtuous cycle chug-chugging along in full motion.
High poll numbers are leading to positive media coverage, which is leading to more fundraising support, which is leading to key staff hires and endorsements, which are leading to more positive media coverage, which is leading to more fundraising support, which is leading to key staff hires and endorsements, which are leading to more positive media coverage, and so on and so one.
Other Democrats in the race, notably Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders, are in the midst of a period in which they are having their own mini virtuous cycle moments, but not with the consistency or at the scale of Biden.
As I’ve said before, every day Biden keeps the cycle going is a day closer to Iowa and New Hampshire, where he he leads in the polls. If Biden holds his edge in those two states, he will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee.
History suggests Democratic frontrunners such as Biden at a minimum hit turbulence — and sometimes are denied the crown. Hillary Clinton won one and lost one as the early frontrunner, but got a major scare from Sanders even in the cycle in which she emerged victorious. Howard Dean was the frontrunner and lost. Al Gore was the frontrunner but got a scare from Bill Bradley. Bill Clinton was the frontrunner but got a scare from…thirty-four different directions, before taking the nomination.
Biden has three major advantages right now. One, the massive Democratic field makes it difficult for any single opponent to consolidate enough support to overtake the former vp. Second, many Democrats want to nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump, and polls consistently cast Biden as that person. Finally, Biden’s campaign knows all about the virtuous cycle and will do everything it can to keep it going.
But Biden has his own vulnerabilities now too:
The media abhors coronations and will play up every sign of Biden weakness until and unless he loses his grip on the top spot.
Donald Trump’s single greatest political skill is using his social media accounts and the bully pulpit to define his opposition on his own terms, and he’s started in in earnest on Biden, in the last few days targeting him on North Korea and the crime bill.
The Washington Post, in a must-read article, is pointing out that Biden is keeping a light schedule and skipping a lot of candidate forums, basically to avoid risking a gaffe or engagement that could throw a wrench into the virtuous cycle machinery.
Two political scientists write in Politico that many Democratic voters crave a nominee who is not a white man.
The New York Times anecdotally and subjectively argues Biden’s support on the ground in Iowa isn’t nearly as strong as polling suggests it to be.
Perhaps most of all, for many analysts, in the Age of Trump, it is rational to expect the unexpected. But the president is in so many ways sui generis. Look no further back than Hillary Clinton’s capacity to hold off Bernie Sanders three years ago to see that the old rules still can apply. Early frontrunners win nominations more often than they lose them.
Right now, the odds are that Biden will win the Democratic nomination after facing an existential scare or two along the way.
The second most likely outcome is that when Biden inevitably loses control of his public image, the virtuous cycle machinery breaks down, and he collapses so badly he can’t recover.
The third most likely outcome is Biden wins all four of the first contests and cruises to the nomination by early March.
Finally, if one or two (or, less likely, three) of Biden’s Democratic rivals can get their own virtuous cycles going full force, we could see a scenario in which they fight it out into the convention for a majority of the delegates.
Until Biden hits his first major bump, there is simply no way to know which scenario we are going to see play out. That first test, however, will provide a lot of data and clues to which scenario we are most likely to see.
We haven’t seen that test yet. And the (relative) safety of summer is coming.
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