Even though the Iowa caucus isn’t for another month, I feel confident that Joe Biden will be the Democrat presidential nominee. Here’s why.
It starts with the polls. Biden has been dominant. Since Real Clear Politics started its polling average in December 2018, Biden has led for all but one day. Sen. Elizabeth Warren eclipsed him by 0.2 percentage points on Oct. 2. She now trails him by 13 percent and is in third place, also trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders.
This isn’t how many political pundits expected last year to go. They chalked up Biden’s pre-announcement lead to his high name ID. He was supposed to gaffe his way into an early exit. He wasn’t progressive enough for the liberal wing of the party either.
What makes Biden’s durability look sustainable is that he hasn’t been a great candidate. Far from it. His debates have been cringeworthy. In July, he messed up the address of his campaign website. He made a bizarre reference to record players in September. In November, he forgot that Sen. Kamala Harris — who was on the stage with him — was a female, African-American senator.
The campaign trail hasn’t been much better. During a September CNN town hall, his left eye filled with blood, presumably from a blood vessel bursting. He called New Hampshire “Vermont” during a summer visit. In August, he said, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” He appeared to mean “rich” not “white,” but that mistake could have ended another candidate’s campaign.
Biden’s done a better job undercutting his own candidacy than any of his opponents ever could have — and his support has hardly budged.
The nomination, however, isn’t determined by a winner-take-all national vote. Iowa and New Hampshire have, respectively, the first caucus and primary in the nation. Lower-polling candidates can boost their stock nationally by winning either state. This is where Biden looks weakest. The RCP polling average in those states shows a close race among Biden, Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg is ahead in Iowa, and Sanders leads in New Hampshire.
It’s difficult, however, to see either Buttigieg or Sanders winning the nomination. Buttigieg garnered 8,515 votes when he won his South Bend mayoral race. Expect Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s attack on Buttigieg as a “local official” to carry some weight as the race continues. His bigger problem is that even if he roars out of Iowa and New Hampshire, he has almost no support among African-Americans, a key Democrat constituency.
Pointing out that Barack Obama didn’t have widespread support among African-Americans until he won Iowa doesn’t work either. African-Americans had an obvious reason to flock to Obama once he proved that he was a credible candidate. Buttigieg’s most high-profile outreach to that community has been suggesting he knows how black people feel because he’s gay.
Sanders has a committed base of support. He could win Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has a home-field advantage because he’s from Vermont. Although he trails Biden in the polls, he has a chance to win Nevada’s caucus because caucuses favor candidates with passionate supporters.
If Sanders looks strong, the moderate wing of the party and those concerned about electability will be scrambling. Despite Michael Bloomberg’s expenditures, Biden is the only realistic option. The top priority of the Culinary union here in Nevada is protecting its union-run health care system. Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal would threaten it. The Culinary could push Biden over the top in Nevada with an endorsement. Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, past political director of Culinary, was an early Biden supporter. I expect Culinary’s parent union to pick Biden if it issues an endorsement.
After peaking in October, Warren is fading. She looks finished as a threat to win. I think an unexpected victory or strong finish by Klobuchar in Iowa would be more threatening to Biden than a Buttigieg or Sanders win. She could attract attention from more moderate Democrats and those most concerned about electability.
Even if Biden is limping into South Carolina, he should do well among an electorate where African-Americans will likely be a majority of voters. That would give him momentum heading into Super Tuesday on March 3, when one-third of the delegates will be awarded.
There’s a reason political pundits usually make predictions as late in the game as possible. A few days can be a lifetime in politics. Any number of things could radically alter the race — Michelle Obama or Oprah would win if either jumped in. Biden could have a medical issue. Warren could join Sanders on a left-wing unity ticket.
All that said, I believe Biden will be the Democratic nominee and a serious threat to President Donald Trump.