Remember how Kamala Harris impaled Joe Biden in the debate? Remember how his poll numbers dropped in the following few days? Don’t look now, but the most recent numbers show Biden is exactly where he was before any of that happened.
Let’s track his results through a few major polls over the past couple months. The Real Clear Politics list gives us breadcrumbs. In each case we’ll show the survey taken closest to the first debate, the poll(s) taken in the aftermath, and the most recent.
Pre Debate (6/6-6/10): 30% (+11 over Sanders)
Post Debate (6/28-7/1): 22% (+2 over Harris)
Most Recent (7/25-7/28): 34% (+19 over Warren)
That’s right. Biden is stronger with Quinnipiac than before the debate, and his margin is almost twice as wide. You’ll also notice the second place candidate was different in each of the three surveys.
Pre Debate (6/9-6/12): 32% (+19 over Sanders)
Most Recent (7/21-7/23): 33% (+18 over Sanders)
We don’t have a post-debate poll from Fox News. It’s very likely he’d have dipped. Regardless, his recent numbers are a dead match for early June.
Pre Debate (6/22-6/25): 25% (+6 over Warren)
Post Debate (6/30-7/2): 23% (+4 over Warren)
(7/7-7/9): 22% (+4 over Warren)
Most Recent (7/21-7/23): 25% (+7 over Warren)
The Economist survey consistently has Warren higher than most national surveys and Biden lower. Maybe they’re wrong, maybe they’re right. Either way, Biden is back to where he was before the debate after a slight narrowing.
Pre Debate (6/17-6/23): 38% (+19 over Sanders)
During Debate (6/27-6/28): 33% (+14 over Sanders)
Post Debate (7/1-7/1): 31% (+14 over Sanders)
(7/8-7/14): 32% (+13 over Bernie)
Most Recent (7/15-7/21): 33% (+15 over Sanders)
This is the only one of the four polling sets where Biden isn’t back to where he was. It also has the oldest most recent poll. The other three began on or after 7/21. This one ended on that date. Even with that, you can see the trend heading back to his previous standing.
I’m comfortable saying Biden enters the second debate exactly where he entered the first. Given he did badly the first time, what might this mean, and how much does it matter how he does this time?
The most immediate comparison is Donald Trump in the 2016 cycle. After some practice, he was a decently effective debater. Not at first. After each of the first three debates, he took a polling hit, each time rebounding by the time the next one started.
In and after Trump’s first debate, it was the controversial comments he made to and then about Megyn Kelly. His numbers dropped, and conventional wisdom said it was the beginning of his end. Round two, he ran into Carly Fiorina, who got the best of their exchange. Her numbers soared, much like Kamala Harris this time. Trump’s dropped. And then restored.
NOTE: Harris is well down from her post-debate numbers, but still ahead of pre-debate. She’s still on the Marco Rubio track.
If Biden is as resilient as Trump, he could well get the worse of an exchange with Cory Booker, take a poll drop, and then find himself completely ok before the next debate in September.
Much like Trump, Biden has plenty of traditionally disqualifying characteristics, so it’s easy to dismiss him when he has a legitimately bad debate performance, followed by impacted survey numbers.
Harris is still ahead of where she started. Many other candidates need to make a mark. So the field will swing at him early and often on Wednesday. Even if Biden is sharper than the first time, he can easily wind up taking several hits. That combined with other candidates looking good, would cause another five to eight point drop.
Which then turns into a media narrative about Biden flagging and not being able to hold up under assault from the field. And then corrects itself as voters remember they like Biden and the other candidates start fading back into the mist.
Even when he lost ground, Biden still led or mildly trailed in each survey, be it national or a given state. Until he’s not at or near the lead in every state, and/or loses Iowa, he’s the clear front-runner. Regardless of whether he’s old and slow in debates.