If anything has defined the Democratic primary for president over the past six months, it has been how little change has occurred among the frontrunners’ poll numbers. According to Real Clear Politics, going into July of last year Joe Biden was at 32 percent, Bernie Sanders at 16 percent, Warren, 11 percent, and Buttigieg 8 percent. Today, Biden is at 30 percent, Sanders at 20 percent, Warren, 14 percent and Buttigieg still at 8 percent.
This is not to say that nothing has changed along the way. There have been spikes and hiccups. Kamala Harris had a boomlet in July, peaking at 15 percent in the middle of that month, likewise Warren surged, almost tying Biden by early October at 26 percent. Buttigieg has had some flashy polls results in Iowa and New Hampshire, but has failed to turn that into a national uptick.
Basically, we are where we started if you swap out Beto O’Rourke’s failed campaign with Mike Bloomberg’s failing campaign, both of which have existed in the mid-single digits. And while experts and pundits alike will wag their fingers and say national polls don’t matter, the lack of significant change since summer is startling.
The biggest takeaway is Joe Biden’s staying power. While he has not been able to get higher than his 30-35 percent range, he has been the wire-to-wire leader in the polls. He is actually pretty close to where Donald Trump was this time in 2016. At that time, Trump was still not viewed as inevitable, just as Biden isn’t, but his victory in New Hampshire stabilized his campaign and by March he had shot up over 40 percent.
Back in the halcyon days of the most diverse set of candidates ever all raising their hands to support free health care for illegal immigrants and fawning over the Green New Deal Biden seemed like an out of step old man in Democratic Party. He was like the guy on the wrong side of 45 trying to dance with young women at the hot new club, a little awkward, didn’t quite seem to belong, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has murmured that she and Uncle Joe don’t belong in the same party.
But if the poll numbers haven’t moved much since July, the general attitude of the Democratic primary has by drifting to the center. It is difficult exactly to pinpoint where this started, but Warren’s dropoff after trying to explain that she would basically pay for Medicare for All with a bag of magic beans is somewhere around the turning point.
The party’s shift to the center, or at least away from outright crazy progressive nonsense, has set Biden up nicely. His basic message has always been a return to normalcy after the tumultuous time of Trump. He’s not running on big policy ideas but on safe choices and mild rhetoric. This is a lane that Buttigieg has tried to butt into as well, but in some sense, both his age and the historic nature of being the first openly gay candidate are at odds with his thirst to be seen as the moderate.
Going into Thursday night’s debate the leading progressive candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will have to try to push this primary a bit back to the left. AOC’s proclamation that the Democratic Party has a tent that is too big might point the way, at least for Sanders who she has endorsed. Meanwhile Warren needs to steady herself after a tough couple of months that have her on the ropes.
But still in the middle of the stage will be Vice President Biden, with his sparkly white smile, and grandfatherly attitude assuring us that, “No, I mean it, I really do.” And so far it’s been good enough. Watching the Biden campaign is like watching a basketball team play really effective half court, pick-and-roll offense, technically sound, you can appreciate it, but it doesn’t get you out of your seat like a slam dunk on a fast break.
And that, that sense of enthusiasm, is the big difference between Trump in July of 2016 and Biden today. Where as Trump was filling stadiums, Biden is facing a Tik Tok campaign of teenagers begging the Democratic Party not to make them vote for him.
I’ve written in the past about the difference between cult of personality presidents and manager presidents. I roughly define the former as those who normal people might have a picture of on their wall. Both Obama and Trump were cult of personality candidates and presidents, people placed their hopes and dreams in them. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were managers; they were not beloved.
If Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States there won’t be a lot of posters of him in people’s houses. In no small sense this is what he is running on. Can slow and steady win the race for Biden? Will Warren and Sanders risk left flank attacks to push the primary back into progressive fairyland? Is it time for the knives to come out regarding Hunter Biden and Ukraine?
It doesn’t feel like it, and while anything can happen in a debate (just ask Robot Rubio), no clear path to knock Biden off his perch seems visible at the moment. Assuming he doesn’t make any major flubs he has a very good chance to maintain his lead and try to construct the air of inevitability.