Joe Biden the front-runner? How the 2020 Democratic race is misunderstood by everyone

The former VP's status as the sole moderate is helping him seem stronger than he is when, in fact, the progressive vote is much larger — just fractured.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden addresses the crowd in Galivants Ferry, S.C., on Sept. 16.Sean Rayford / Getty Images
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By David Mark

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has all the trappings of that of a front-runner. The former vice president leads in the vast majority of polls, commands outsize media attention and is widely seen as the candidate his dozen-plus rivals will have to get through in order to claim the 2020 Democratic nomination and the right to challenge President Donald Trump.

Polls repeatedly show that if you add up support for all the progressive candidates, it’s considerably larger than Biden’s.

RealClearPolitics shows Biden, who spent 36 years as a senator from Delaware before serving two terms as President Barack Obama’s understudy, leading in 6 out of the 10 most recent polls, in some cases by double digits. The site’s average puts him atop the Democratic primary field with 26.1 percent support. Next at 24.4 percent is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor and bankruptcy expert who is pitching herself in the populist left mold. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist making the same arguments he has made in Congress for nearly 30 years and during a lifetime of activism, comes in at 16.7 percent.

But Biden’s lead isn’t as solid as it seems. In fact, his campaign has much to be concerned about as the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses loom in four months. That’s because Biden’s status as the sole moderate in the field is helping him seem stronger than he is by pooling all the support of that wing of the party when, in fact, the progressive vote is currently much larger — just fractured among Warren, Sanders and a handful of others.

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If that left-wing bloc in turn unites behind one candidate, it will easily overwhelm Biden’s lead. After all, polls repeatedly show that if you add up support for all the progressive candidates, it’s considerably larger than Biden’s. And recent state polls showing Warren surging suggest she might be starting to consolidate that vote — while Sanders’ hospitalization Wednesday (at 78, he’s two years older than Biden and eight years older than Warren) might encourage more voters to go her way.

A recent poll by Zogby Analytics and financial news publisher 247wallst.com is instructive. On the surface, the survey — headlined “Biden’s Still Frontrunner” — is good news for the former VP, who is making his third presidential bid after failed efforts in 1988 and 2008. The Zogby poll from mid-September finds Biden with 31 percent of the vote and Warren and Sanders tied for second at 17 percent. The rest of the field is mired in the single digits or lower.

But the combined voter clout of Warren and Sanders beats Biden’s numbers. To be sure, each has devoted and not entirely overlapping followings. Sanders, going back to his 2016 Democratic primary bid against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, has drawn from a motley assortment of die-hard democratic socialists, college students, “Bernie bros” and other groups unhappy with conventional political candidates. Warren, meanwhile, generally comes out ahead among voters with college and postgraduate degrees. The supporters of both, though, are much more ideologically similar to each other than to Biden.

Biden, who has a long record as a moderate, has reached this point by running effectively as the leading middle-lane candidate in a dozen-plus-person race in which electability has been the top concern for Democratic primary voters.

On some occasions, Biden has won plaudits from the left, such as for his chairing of the 1987 Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination that led to the right-wing jurist’s rejection. But he’s as often endured its scorn. Biden’s role in writing the 1994 crime law has been attacked by critics who say it led to mass incarceration and other social problems. Some Democrats, particularly in the Warren camp, are also angry over his backing of a 2005 bankruptcy law seen as a threat to consumers.

And economics and criminal justice are just two of the many issues for which 2019 polls have shown Democrats skewing left. Poll after poll shows a majority of Democratic primary voters prefer the notion of “Medicare for All,” shifting the United States to a completely government-run health system along the lines that Warren and Sanders support. Biden advocates improving the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic achievement but one that left-wing critics decry as a private insurance-based system that falls short on universal coverage.

On Warren’s most prominent policy proposal, a “wealth tax” to fund a range of domestic programs, she also gets overwhelming support from Democrats. While Biden has a long history of backing tax hikes on upper income earners, he doesn’t support the wealth tax.

And the polls in which Warren has started to closely challenge Biden show a deep reserve of strength for the left of the party. In a recent University of California at Berkeley poll, Warren scored 29 percent in the state compared to Biden at 20 and Sanders at 19. That combined Warren-Sanders vote is more than double Biden’s support in one of the bluest states in the nation — and by far the largest.

On the national level, a Quinnipiac poll last week found Warren edging ahead of Biden nationally, 27 to 25, for the first time (although the difference was within the margin of error). Sanders also maintained his support, finishing third with 16 percent, meaning the left-wing duo scored an 18-point lead over Biden.

Biden’s bulwark on his poll standing also shows signs of weakness: the African American vote.

Biden’s bulwark on his poll standing also shows signs of weakness: the African American vote. That crucial bloc — up to 60 percent of the Democratic electorate in the South Carolina primaryis slowly warming up to Warren’s candidacy. There’s relevant recent history here as well; in 2008, Clinton led rival Obama with African American voters until he won the Iowa caucuses and made it clear he was nationally viable, after which black support shifted his way and upended the race.

None of this means that voters will definitely end up going for Warren or Sanders rather than making the more pragmatic calculation of backing Biden. Their support could also shift to a current midtier candidate who still has a shot at the nomination, such as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg or California Sen. Kamala Harris.

But it’s at least as likely that these other candidates, all to the left of Biden, could lose voters to Warren or Sanders as they seem less and less likely to prevail. And it’s certainly the case that the Biden camp should be concerned. If he comes up short in his nomination bid, he need only look to his left.