The unsinkable Joe Biden? Many months and many gaffes later, Biden is still ahead

Biden has held steady atop a crowded field when other candidates who have climbed quickly have found it difficult to maintain momentum.
Joe Biden arrives on stage for the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Westerville
Joe Biden arrives at the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Westerville, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2019.Allison Farrand / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden is beginning 2020 the same way he began 2019: a front-runner in a presidential primary race in which many expected him to flame out early.

The former vice president has been attacked more by rivals and President Donald Trump than any other candidate in the race, and he’s arguably made more unforced errors than any other Democrat, but his position in the polls has not budged: He was averaging 29 percent in polls the day before he entered the race, and he's at 28 percent now.

"He's had the kitchen sink thrown at him," said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who considered running for president himself but has instead helped fundraise for Biden. "Voters have seen all this information that's been thrown at him, and they've concluded that he is still the best person to beat Donald Trump."

Biden hasn't increased his support and is still relatively weak as a leading candidate. But he’s held steady atop a crowded field when other candidates who have climbed quickly have found it difficult to maintain momentum, and that might be enough for Biden to win.

"Everyone goes after the front-runner," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat who has so far stayed neutral in the race. "Give him credit, he's still the front-runner."

There were plenty of good reasons to doubt Biden. And many did — from pundits to rival campaigns — and many of whom assumed last year that Biden’s collapse was not only inevitable but also imminent.

His first two presidential bids, in 1988 and 2008, were unsuccessful. He’s older than most other candidates and seemed out of touch with the newer, more woke wing of the Democratic Party. His fundraising had been weak (although improved in numbers released last week). His debate performances have been lackluster. He didn't have a lock on endorsements, the way Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He didn't have a vocal base of enthusiastic supporters.

While his campaign sometimes feels like a noun, a verb and Barack Obama— to paraphrase Biden's famous diss of Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11-obsessed presidential campaign in 2008 — Biden wasn’t even Obama's first choice to succeed him (it was Clinton).

"The bad news is everybody knows me," Biden quipped at a campaign event in Iowa on Thursday. "The good news is everybody knows me."

Some voters are willing to stick with him, despite it all.

"He just seems like a transparent person, someone who is honest and someone who stays true to his word," said Rosio Fuentes, who works at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas and plans to support Biden in Nevada's Feb. 22 caucus. "When he speaks, you feel that he means what he says.”

Early attacks didn't stick

Sean McElwee, a Biden critic who founded the left-wing think tank Data for Progress, said Biden's path in the 2020 Democratic primary has proven to be like Donald Trump’s in the 2016 GOP contest.

"No one is treating him as what he has been for the entirety of the race, the front-runner. There’s sort of always been an assumption that he's going to collapse," he said.

Both Biden and Trump were written off by both rival campaigns and many opinion leaders in their own parties, such as donors, strategists and ideological columnists, despite consistently leading in the polls. And both have a connection to their base that is more personal, making them somewhat impervious to criticism about their ideological purity or consistency.

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

"Joe Biden has influence among a certain segment of the Democratic primary electorate, and very few people are making arguments that are going to be persuasive to those voters," McElwee said. "Progressives shot all their shots right at the beginning and then were like: 'I guess that didn't work. We'll just fight each other and then deal with him later.'"

Biden was the main target in early debates, particularly when Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., attacked him on busing and race, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro seemed to question the former vice president's mental fitness.

Both Harris and Castro have since quit the race, and Biden has emerged from the most recent debates, particularly the December debate in Los Angeles, largely unscathed.

The Trump fear factor

Many Democratic voters decided they liked Biden years ago, gaffes and all, when he was Obama’s sidekick.

"Joe Biden's been around for almost 50 years. And he's been in the public eye for the last 30," Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor who was general chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the 2000 election."When opinions are formed over the course of decades, those opinions aren’t going to be changed by a few flubs or bad debate performances."

Of course, some peoples' views on Clinton soured in 2016 even though she had been in the public eye for decades. But the stakes are different this time, Rendell said. Democrats are afraid of Trump in a way they weren't in 2016, when his loss seemed like a foregone conclusion, and they’ve consistently viewed Biden as the most capable of beating Trump.

"In 2016, Trump was an unknown quality. In 2020, Democrats know what Trump stands for," Rendell said.

Trump’s impeachment has heaped more criticism on Biden and his family. But as Trump has stepped up his attacks on Biden amid the impeachment saga, the other Democrats have largely shied away from weighing on Biden's role in the matter.

In early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, some Democrats say they feel empathy for what Biden is going through.

"Biden has lived," said Sharon Rugsdashel, a retired Iowa caucusgoer who came out to see Biden's wife, Jill, speak in Iowa Falls. "Which family hasn’t dealt with problems, whether it’s drug addiction or suicide? So the troubles with his son only make him more human. He’s empathetic and you feel that based on how he overcomes deep troubles."

A stable, but less visible support base

Biden allies say resilience, more than anything else, is the central theme of Biden’s life, from the car accident that killed his first wife and daughter weeks before he was sworn into the Senate for the first time more than 40 years ago to the untimely death of his son Beau from cancer in 2015, to the ongoing issues with his son Hunter, who is at the center of the impeachment saga.

"The pressures of a presidential campaign really don't compare to the things he’s had to overcome in his personal life. And that makes him steady," Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. "Polls go up and down, but it's really about staying power, and that's what Joe Biden has."

Bottoms endorsed Biden this fall, even though Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., both came to Atlanta to campaign for her in the heated 2017 mayoral race and Biden did not. That race broke down along racial lines, with Bottoms representing a legacy of black leadership in Atlanta, which traced its roots to Martin Luther King Jr., against a white opponent.

By backing Biden, Bottoms is representative of the plurality of black Democrats, who have stuck with Biden despite pressures to consolidate around a black candidate.

"He was this older white man literally coming to stand aside and behind a young African American man. And that part of history is not lost on us," Bottoms said of Biden and Obama. "Joe Biden has a comfort with the African American community that is very real, and it's because he's not new. He didn't just show up to get our vote."

Demographically, black and older working-class whites have provided Biden with a durable support base. Half of black voters support Biden, compared to 15 percent for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and 8 percent for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., according to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

That base is often absent from the discourse among Biden supporters, who skew older and less politically engaged, are not as active on social media or likely to be represented on cable news panels, Biden ally Steve Schale said.

"I felt like I spent all summer trying to argue to people that Twitter is not real life," said Schale, the executive director of a pro-Biden super PAC, Unite the Country. "There were a lot of folks who predicted he would fall down, and so every opportunity they had to prove themselves right, they took it."

Of course, the flip slide of Biden’s durability is that while every Democratic voter in the country already knows who he is, the vast majority — around 70 percent — are not supporting him yet.And it may be hard to see what could change their minds now.

But in a crowded field, no candidate is likely to win a majority of support when voters first weigh in at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. And as Trump showed, a minority of committed supporters can carry the day (which is also why some observers are reassessing Sanders' chances now).

"We’re all on the Titanic"

For some Democratic voters, the fact that Biden has withstood so much is a reason to support him.

Sile Kelleher is a cashier at a grocery store in Durham, North Carolina. She says she always knew she wasn’t supposed to be a man, but was only able to undergo gender reassignment surgery a few years ago, at age 51, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, which she says "saved my life."

When Biden came to Durham in November, she waited on a rope line to thank him. "He reached out like a father would to his child and hugged me," she said, choking up as she recalled the moment. "You could hear, feel the empathy coming out of him right there."

Kelleher was considering other candidates in the 2020 primary, including Harris and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose candidacy she views as a victory for LGBTQ people. But ultimately, she decided, "we would be crazy to try something new that we don’t know."

"I look at it this way: We’re all on the Titanic, it’s sinking. The iceberg is Donald Trump. We as Americans all thought that the ship was unsinkable," Kelleher said. "You can go with a lifeboat that looks fancy-schmancy, but that has never been tested on the waves of the ocean. You’ve got Joe Biden's boat, which may not be flashy, but it is reliable, it is steady."

Marianna Sotomayor and Mike Memoli contributed.