An array of national and state polls show that the initial Democratic debates have failed to dislodge Joe Biden from the top spot in the party’s 2020 presidential race.
But a series of subsequent verbal muffs showing confused memories of past events have underscored persistent concerns that the 76-year-old former vice president is too old and too grounded in the past to be the ideal nominee to challenge President Donald Trump’s re-election.
Barring the unexpected, uncertainty about Biden seems likely to persist until Iowa Democrats vote next Feb. 3. At that time, they’ll either confirm the former vice president’s front-runner status or elevate a rival who might supplant him and go on to win the nomination.
Indeed, about the only thing that recent campaign events confirmed is the initial uncertainty over who will win the Democratic nomination and the fears of many that debates could resemble a circular firing squad that would damage chances of beating Trump.
The good news for Democrats is that, when the candidates next face a national television audience in September, there will be fewer, thanks to stiffened polling and contributor requirements. Besides, the candidates showed in Iowa last weekend they recognize the need to soft-pedal personal attacks.
The bad news for Biden is that, after fending off incoming missives from a half-dozen opponents in the first two debates, he’ll probably face the rival who made the strongest impression in the first two rounds — and gained the most: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
It’s too early to say Warren will ultimately be Biden’s main rival for the nomination. (Or perhaps that he will be her main stumbling block.) But her array of well-crafted policy positions, assertiveness and air of certainty will test Biden to a far greater extent than have California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker former HUD Secretary Julian Castro and several others.
However, in one important way, Harris and Booker may yet pose a greater long-term threat to Biden than Warren or her main rival for liberal backing, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. That’s because of the importance of African American Democrats and the fact that Biden’s current front-runner status is so dependent on his big lead among them.
Two recent Quinnipiac University polls showed that, while Biden had the backing of about one-third of white voters, he had about half of the African Americans, while the only two black contenders, Harris and Booker, lagged in single digits.
For Biden, there could be an eerie historical parallel here. Twelve years ago, in the year before Democrats voted, Sen. Hillary Clinton consistently led her only black rival, Sen. Barack Obama, among African American voters, in large part because the Illinois senator was an unknown quantity who had not yet shown he could poll white votes.
That changed dramatically after Obama captured the Iowa caucuses, and Clinton finished third, behind North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Almost overnight, those numbers flipped. Her black support plummeted and Obama’s soared, enabling him ultimately to receive 88% of the black primary vote, according to a recent NBC News survey of past exit polls.
That suggests that, if Biden loses in Iowa — and especially if either Harris or Booker defeats him — the former vice president could lose a substantial amount of his black support. It will be crucial when the race moves to states with large black populations, starting Feb. 29 with South Carolina, where more than half of the Democratic vote is likely to be black and Biden currently has a strong lead.
Polls in Iowa show Biden leading by less than his national margin. Several recent accounts have concluded that Warren has the best field organization, and the most recent poll there showed a big gain for her. But it is unclear how much organization will matter in a year when caucus turnout is expected to be massive, thanks to new rules and anti-Trump sentiment.
In any case, past campaigns have shown that, whatever happens in the pre-election year like these debates, events in the month before Iowans vote are more important and often produce major shifts. Those shifts, and the caucus results themselves, will do far more to determine the outcome than this summer’s debates. And the Iowa winner has won the last four contested Democratic primary races.
Still, so far, so good for Biden. His strong speech condemning Trump after the twin massacres in El Paso and Dayton displayed the kind of aggressive candidate Democrats want to oppose Trump.
Besides the national polls consistently showing him beating Trump, he is benefiting from the lack of a strong alternative for the support of the more moderate voters who constitute more than half of the Democratic electorate.
Most rivals for their votes have so far attracted only a small proportion of them. Several may not qualify for the September debates, raising doubt about the future of their candidacies.
In any case, until Iowans vote, Biden will likely remain in front. But history says the winner there will become the true favorite.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.