Biden Wobbles, But Stays Aloft

Charlie Cook New
September 20, 2019

Speculating about how Joe Biden’s campaign would do, on June 7 this column compared the former vice president to a loaded 747: “You wonder whether it will even get off the ground, much less clear the tree line a mile from the end of the runway. But if it does, there is a pretty decent chance it’ll make it all the way. That is a long way of saying that if the Biden machine gets wobbly, it will probably occur during the first 90 days or so.”

As of this writing, 144 days and three debates have passed. Biden is hardly graceful and rarely eloquent, but to me there isn’t that much wobble. I don’t think last week’s debate caused him much, if any, loss in altitude. Once the first reliable polls start coming out in the next week, my guess is that Biden will still be 10 points or so ahead of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who in turn will be about 10 points ahead of the other seven candidates who shared the ABC News/Univision debate stage in Houston. While several candidates had their moments in that debate, there did not seem to be a real breakthrough for any of them.

Warren was not stellar, but the debate seems unlikely to arrest the considerable momentum she brought in. Having now watched every Democratic candidate on the stump in either Iowa or New Hampshire, I can say that none of them are campaigning as effectively or connecting with Democratic voters in the way she is. When she speaks to Democrats, heads in the audience are mostly nodding up and down in approval. This looks like a snowball that is going to get bigger as it rolls.

The next 30 days will see a lot more candidates dropping out. There isn’t another debate (read: a breakthrough opportunity) until Oct. 15, when CNN and The New York Times host one in Westerville, Ohio. The Democratic National Committee’s threshold for qualifying for the October debate will be the same as in September—a 2 percent threshold in selected national or early-state polls, along with 130,000 unique donors (and a minimum of 400 in at least 20 states). This was tighter than those for the June and July debates.

Beyond October, the thresholds may double again—an insurmountable obstacle for some of the candidates who are already struggling. But before that, others may bow out simply because the money just dries up.

Speaking of money, a lot of major Democratic donors and bundlers are getting impatient. Some backed one or more candidates who are showing little if any momentum. Others have been waiting on the sidelines, antsy to get in.

But Warren’s rise is also creating a nervousness among many of these big donors and bundlers. On one level their concern seems to be about electability: If nominated, can she beat President Trump? On another level, though, many of these people or their families have done very well in the business world, have made a lot of money, and, let’s just say, will not likely benefit from a Warren administration. They may be skeptical about, for example, her proposal to tax assets in excess of $50 million. Others may be concerned over her proposals’ impact on the economy and future investment.

It is often said that “electability is in the eye of the beholder." The most conventional view of electability is that a candidate can draw a disproportionate share of the votes in the middle, those swing voters between the ideological 40-yard lines. But others believe the key to electability is generating real intensity in the party base.

In a conversation well over a year ago, I asked Democratic pollster Geoff Garin about electability, noting that it usually was not a major factor in voters’ decisions for their party’s presidential nomination. “But what about unelectability?” came Garin’s reply. Would someone think that maybe their first choice might have a difficult time beating President Trump, but their second or third choice might seem to have better prospects?

Whether Warren is ultimately electable or not, she surely is not the candidate who can draw in the middle, but she should be able to do well within the base, given how well she connects with voters.

Still, Biden remains the key figure here. I've long argued that there are three possible scenarios for him: that he holds on and wins the nomination, that he slowly fades, or that for whatever reason, his candidacy suddenly collapses. Right now the first scenario is still the most likely of the three. But if not, when does that fade start or collapse occur? Is it while there are center-left, establishment-friendly alternatives still in the race, or is it when the race becomes a two-way battle between him and Warren, or a three-way contest that includes Sanders? For those in the conventional, center-left wing of the party, that's a critical question.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on September 17, 2019