In the eternity since former Vice President Joe Biden turned his presidential campaign around by winning the South Carolina primary in a blowout — it was actually just a month ago — a lot of things have changed.
A pandemic has been declared. Deaths from the novel coronavirus have surged to more than 30,000 around the world and nearly 2,500 at home. The stock market has crashed, with the Dow dropping thousands of points. Much of the economy has been put through a sudden stop as millions of Americans have been asking to abide by public-health measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. Weekly unemployment claims have spiked to levels that dwarf numbers seen during the great recession of 2008-2009 and that could well augur a global depression to come. In response, Congress has passed the largest aid package in American history ($2 trillion) to soften the economic shock of it all.
It's been a momentous few weeks, but one thing has not changed: Biden is still overwhelmingly likely to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president, and he's still better positioned than any other candidate to defeat President Trump in November.
That's something that needs to be repeated over and over again — for several reasons.
For one thing, Democrats are worriers in the best of times, and a pandemic and economic collapse during the Trump administration is among the very worst of times. For another, the kinds of people who write about politics for a living tend not to be especially impressed by the verbally challenged, unideological, gaffe-prone septuagenarian pragmatist from Delaware, and their analysis of the race reflects their incredulity about his prospects. For yet another, over the last two presidential election cycles the party has been rocked by a rebellion on its leftward flank led by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a lifelong democratic socialist, who has little chance of catching Biden in the delegate count but who is refusing to bow out of the race, leaving the frontrunner looking more vulnerable than he actually is.
Now mix all of these factors with the oddly apocalyptic holding pattern in which we find ourselves — most of the primaries scheduled for late March and April have been postponed to May and June — and we have a situation perfectly designed to provoke a freak out. This is exactly what we've been seeing over the last week or so.
First people asked where Biden had gone. With Trump giving daily briefings to the media about COVID-19, why was the presumptive Democratic nominee keeping such a low profile after his decisive primary victories in Michigan, Florida, and several other delegate-rich states? Then, when Biden started making his own somewhat low-tech statements from the basement of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, others worried that he looked small and sounded smaller — an impression that worsened when he began lapsing into verbal and cognitive chaos in televised interviews.
Then came the polls showing Biden leading Trump by as little as two points nationally — and inspiring maximal excitement in only 24 percent of those planning to vote for him, which might turn out to be a sign of the same kind of weakness that hobbled Hillary Clinton's campaign four years ago. (These concerns are intensified for some by contrasting these measures of enthusiasm with the much greater excitement among Republicans to vote for Trump's re-election.)
Finally, there's the new accusation that Biden sexually assaulted a Senate aide back in 1993. The story is circulating on numerous news sites but has yet to break into the prestige media. When and if it does, Biden will be thrust into a firestorm of scandal that could fatally damage him.
All of these perceived vulnerabilities are leading Sanders to stay in the race through this extended lull in the voting, ready to pounce as soon as Biden implodes, and also encouraging fantasies of some mysterious alternative mainstream candidate magically swooping in to take Biden's place. Over the past week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been the object of these daydreams, with his strong performance in his daily briefings about the coronavirus supposedly making for a stronger contrast to Trump than Biden's wan media appearances.
It sounds bad. Except for the fact that Biden remains, and is quite likely to remain, a very formidable candidate — and more formidable than any other Democrat around.
More than two dozen Democrats ran for president in this election cycle. Biden has dispatched them all, including Sanders. The Vermont senator may be refusing to formally bow out, but in their head-to-head competitions over the past month, Biden has bested him over and over again. Sanders wins the youth vote, and he does well among Latino voters out west, but that's about it. Biden wins African Americans and working-class whites and suburban voters by such wide margins that he has surpassed Clinton's 2016 showing against Sanders almost everywhere.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Michigan. Sanders famously beat Clinton there (very narrowly) four years ago. Yet Biden beat Sanders this year in the state by more than 16 percentage points — and also managed to best him in every single county in the state. (Biden accomplished the same feat in Florida.) That makes Biden a very strong candidate, and certainly a stronger one than Clinton was.
It may well be true that Biden himself inspires only mild levels of enthusiasm among voters when pollsters ask them about it in the abstract. But in reality, when faced with a choice between Biden and Sanders, voters have showed up in states across the country to express their support for the former vice president. That's a very good sign that they will do the same when his opponent is the far more widely loathed Republican in the White House. It's also important to keep in mind that Trump is benefitting at the moment from a rally-round-the-president effect from the coronavirus crisis. That bump, along with a few mildly scary head-to-head polls, is unlikely to persist through the next seven months. (And even now Biden still leads Trump in aggregate head-to-head polling by 5.8 points.)
As for the possibility of the Biden candidacy being consumed by a sexual scandal, it will depend on whether the alleged victim can offer any kind of corroboration to back up her claims about an event 27 years in the past — and if anyone else comes forward with similar accusations. If the latter happens, Biden could be in trouble. But if not, a single unsubstantiated claim from nearly three decades ago is unlikely to wound a candidate running against a flagrant misogynist who brags about his own serial assaults on women.
Biden might not be any Democrat's idea of a perfect candidate. But more factions of the fractious party like him than anyone else around. That makes Biden something very close to a generic Democrat with the broadest possible appeal — which could make him a fearsome opponent to take on a president as polarizing and deeply disliked as Donald Trump.
At a time when there's so much to be worried about, Democrats would be well advised to relax about Joe Biden.
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