State of the Race: The Big 2.75

Greetings! It’s time to check back in on our leading contenders. As usual, most of the news revolves around Joe Biden. As usual most of the positive vibes belong to Elizabeth Warren. As usual, Bernie Sanders is being dismissed.

Biden is exactly where we left him a few weeks ago. After a slight blip, his national poll average is back to 30% per Real Clear Politics. Over the past three months, he’s established a floor of 26%, rebounding each time within weeks.

When you catch him at a bad time, it always feels like his campaign could crumble. He’s said or done something that parts of the Democratic electorate regard as disqualifying. He’s reminded us that he’s too old to do this. Another small drop in support, and he’d be easy for Warren to surpass.

And then he recovers. While Biden might not like the comparison, this increasingly looks like Donald Trump’s numbers from 2015. And unlike Trump, who was not yet popular with a majority of Republicans, Biden is still viewed favorably by most Democrats.

Now there’s the Ukraine thing. This feels like a net neutral. Some voters will respond to Trump picking on Joe and rally around him. Others will worry Trump will turn this into an equivalency and blunt the chance to go after his family dealings. Still others will worry about how less tested candidates would survive a Trump fusillade to be discovered later.

A voter’s reaction to this development will say more about the voter than Biden. There’s no indication that Joe himself did anything dirty. His son Hunter was already firmly established as being of questionable ethics. Biden’s core voters have dealt with the foibles of their adult children themselves. You can be sure he won’t throw his surviving son under the bus.

When Trump ran, one of the most prescient opinions was that a 70-year-old man isn’t likely to change. Whatever you think of him, he is what he is, if anything, more of what he is as time goes on. Biden isn’t Trump. But he’s very distinct. And he’s not going to change either.

That means it’s up to Warren and the other candidates to get past him. Ask Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio how well waiting for Trump to implode worked. Trump was beatable. He didn’t start regularly clearing 40% in primaries until the field was down to Cruz and John Kasich.

But the anti-Trump forces never coalesced. There isn’t any reason to assume #NeverBiden would be more effective, especially if not all agree Warren is the solution.

Speaking of her, PredictIt is more convinced by the day that she’s the favorite. As of today, she’s viewed as having a 45% chance of winning, while Biden is at 26% and Sanders only 10%. Don’t take this as gospel, Andrew Yang (9%) is still ahead of most other candidates. The Yang Gang aside, PredictIt is normally a legit measure of sentiment.

Another point in Warren’s favor is the increasing evidence she’s ahead in Iowa. The RCP average says she is. So does the influential and respected Des Moines Register poll. With a ton of ground support, she’s likely to win even if final polls have her slightly behind.

The 15% rule means supporters of second-tier candidates will frequently need to change their pick once their first choice falls short of the required support at a given caucus location. Warren has the highest approval rating of any Dem candidate, and is a frequent second choice.

So her upside exceeds what the polls are showing. And those polls have her ahead anyway. If none of the second-tier choices can consolidate into a single contender, Warren could wind up at 35-40% in Iowa and have a ton of momentum.

Before we get too carried away, we need to remember Biden is still 8 to 10 points ahead of her in national poll averages. The Economist thinks she’s at 19%. RCP figures 19.8%. That’s healthy, and it’s as high as she’s reached, but it’s not 30%, or even 25%. Getting to one quarter in an occasional national survey is different than averaging that number.

Her Iowa advantage is necessary because New Hampshire is a fog. She’s done well in a survey or two, but there’s no evidence Warren is ahead of Biden or Sanders. The Granite State is famously unpredictable. Barack Obama would tell her a big Iowa win is no guarantee of continuing the momentum to New Hampshire.

Nevada is equally hazy. You can make an argument that she could win there. It’s very believable, especially if Harry Reid and/or the culinary workers union rallies around her. But again, no data shows a clear advantage yet.

The biggest lead anyone has anywhere is Biden in South Carolina. Yes, in 2008 African American voters abandoned Hillary Clinton for Obama after Iowa proved white primary voters could support an African American candidate. Why exactly would those same voters ditch Biden for Warren?

Both Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are struggling. Harris is fading in polls. Booker is running out of money and never did well in polls. The odds of either being a problem for Biden are dropping, making Warren’s task harder.

She’s running a great campaign. The mainstream media loves her. The selfie line is this cycle’s big innovation. But the actual math is still a bit daunting. To catch Biden, Warren would need to bank all of the support currently accruing to Harris and Booker.

Then Sanders needs to fade a tiny bit more, with his support leaking to Warren instead of Biden. Remember, Biden is the second choice for a surprising amount of Bernie’s team. If Pete Buttigieg couldn’t take advantage of Harris and Booker going away, Warren would need to pick up more of his support than Biden.

If he became a fourth contender, she’d need him to cut more into Biden’s support, based on a relatively moderate tone and wanting to reach across the aisle, than hers, based on being someone who appeals to highly educated voters.

Don’t get me wrong. If I was running any campaign except Biden’s, I’d trade places with Warren in a second. She’s in great shape. She’s not the favorite yet. Get back to me when she’s well into the twenties nationally, or is noticeably ahead in New Hampshire. Also, it would really help if there were a poll showing her clearly ahead in her home state.

There is a gap between Warren and Sanders, if not as large as most of the media thinks. The Economist had them three points apart nationally a few weeks ago. Now RCP agrees. There’s nowhere in the first four states where he has a clear advantage on her.

She’s running at twice his support in Iowa. To the point where he’d struggle to reach the 15% threshold in many precincts if the caucus were tomorrow. His candidacy won’t crumble with a poor Iowa finish, but that’s not a plus.

He is ahead of Warren in New Hampshire. Given they both represent bordering states, that’s interesting. He’s not yet ahead of Biden though. Both of them have more potential with independent voters there than Warren. In Bernie’s case, it’s unaffiliated lefties. For Biden, think #NeverTrump right-leaning independents who don’t want to pick between Warren and four more years.

There’s a scenario where Warren wins Iowa, Bernie takes New Hampshire, Nevada proves inconclusive (a virtual three-way tie), and Biden dominates South Carolina.

Sanders will have plenty of funding. A whole lot of voters have practice choosing him in a primary. He’s a full ten points ahead of Harris or Buttigieg in national polls.

Warren is still clearly in better position. The stories about dissenters in the Sanders campaign are probably overblown. His 2016 effort was an argument for the power of anarchy, not a symphony. She unequivocally has the stronger campaign though.

Many of the southern states where Biden will thrive vote in March. This begs the question: Which states does Bernie win? Given the party will prefer almost any other choice in a contested convention, where does he roll up a few big victories? Can he thread the needle between Warren and Biden to make a statement in Wisconsin? Maybe Colorado?

That’s his big challenge, and why I see this as a Big 2.75 right now. He’s way ahead of the second tier. He’s not hemorrhaging support in any way. But he’s gotta win some states. And he can’t assume Biden or Warren will crumble.

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