I’m not going to claim I truly understand the concept behind Schrödinger’s cat. There’s a cat, a box, some poison, and a Geiger counter. The cat is in the box, the Geiger counter is waiting to identify radiation, and at such point, the glass around the poison is shattered, killing the cat. But from the outside, you don’t know if the cat is still alive or not. So near as you can tell (with apologies to Schrodinger because I’m murdering this explanation–no need for later examining), the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Eventually, when the box is opened, that’s no longer true.
This is the Biden candidacy. After Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s on the verge of being completely poisoned. Another drop in support, the glass breaks, and he’s done. But we don’t know that’s happened yet. He’s in the box. Until South Carolina votes, we don’t know. His campaign is simultaneously alive and dead.
As badly as things have gone for Uncle Joe, he’s still polling in second place nationally. Mike Bloomberg is on his heels and it may be that he surpasses him once more post-New Hampshire survey data is out, but he won’t have a big lead on him. Biden isn’t leading in recent polls of southern Super Tuesday states. Bernie Sanders is up in a North Carolina survey, Bloomberg in Arkansas.
Yes, this isn’t ideal. But Biden isn’t trailing by a lot. Bernie is still in the twenties everywhere, not the thirties. Bloomberg hasn’t appeared on a debate stage yet. Unless he’s a preternaturally great performer (of which there’s no supporting evidence), his first appearance will be rough. There’s no good way to prepare for sharing a stage with several contestants. We don’t do Lincoln-Douglas, or even Kennedy-Nixon debates these days. Play some clips of Amy Klobuchar from early summer and compare to what she was capable of last week.
There are a whole lot of reasons I and the punditocracy were skeptical of Bloomberg’s late entry. Admittedly, he’s already leapt over most of the big hurdles, but a tall remaining one is being the new guy on stage. Due to the previous requirement regarding donors, Bloomberg conveniently didn’t qualify for previous debates. He will qualify for next Wednesday in Nevada. While he’s not entered in the caucus, it’s a bad look if he opts out.
Even if he debates fantastically, voters in Nevada and South Carolina still can’t pick him. This is very fortunate for Biden. He’d have a far more limited chance of winning with the center-left vote being divided one more way. Right now, Biden + Bloomberg + Buttigieg + Klobuchar is more than 50% of support, both nationally and in most individual states. But nobody is grabbing more than 20 of the 50. It just so happens the next rung up, between 22% and 28%, is where Sanders is living in a whole lot of polls.
Expectations for Biden have changed. A lot. The media likes a comeback story. A lot. There’s residual regard for Biden among a good chunk of the primary electorate. A lot. A couple weeks ago, winning South Carolina by 3 to 5 points would have seemed like a major disappointment. And in a world where Biden was strongly competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, it would have been.
The path to a Biden resurrection isn’t that complicated:
Step 1: Neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar can consolidate the Never Bernie vote in Nevada. Klobuchar did very little advance work in Nevada and has shown zero appeal to voters of color, fractional appeal to voters under 50, and limited appeal to voters without 4 year degrees. Guess who votes Democratic in Nevada? Buttigieg is further ahead, both in ground organization and appealing to a wider range of white voters and some Latinos.
Polls are old, sporadic, and unreliable, so we don’t know where Tom Steyer is right now, but he was showing just enough strength that he’s another variable. Not sure if this is good or bad for Biden, but as long as the other three options mix things up enough, and Biden finishes no worse than third, he won’t take a further hit. While some voters think Buttigieg is very electable because he sounds moderate and has the ideal tone to appeal to suburban Obama-Trump voters, others are worried about a 38-year-old former mayor with a same-sex husband.
As long as Klobuchar doesn’t get a ton of traction, and Buttigieg doesn’t wind up clearing 30% or winning the State Delegate Equivalent contest like he did in Iowa, except this time without controversy and rancor, Biden is still alive inside the box. He can lose to Buttigieg for the third straight time. If Buttigieg wins the caucus, the glass breaks, and Biden’s candidacy dies. If Klobuchar finishes ahead of Biden under very adverse conditions for her, ditto.
Warren doing well isn’t a problem for Biden. A surge for her means educated white voters aren’t picking Amy or Pete. The better she does, the harder it is for Biden to lose to his most direct competition.
Step 2: One. I mean just one. Decent line in the debate before South Carolina. He doesn’t need to win the debate. We have enough evidence that’s not possible. Just one damn thirty second clip where he reminds enough older African American and moderate white voters why they like him.
If neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar have shown in Nevada they can truly connect with voters of color, with Bloomberg not on the ballot, and Bernie a clear risk to the voters who were considering Joe in the first place, he just needs to give the people who spent months saying they were for him the barest of reasons to stay on board. Sanders got less than 30% in a two person race in South Carolina four years ago. He’s done a much better job with outreach to non-white voters. But there’s going to be a lot of resistance in a red state to thinking a socialist can win. Sanders will not get 35-40% of the vote.
If Biden can’t give that one good response. That one favorable moment, he’s not going to win. Tom Steyer will retain some of his current support as a Bloomberg proxy. Buttigieg will get enough of the suburban vote, especially since independents can vote in the primary without changing their registration. Even if Biden doesn’t lose all of his support, he’s not going to get into the upper 20s, low 30s like he’d need to in order to win.
At which point, on election night, as the returns come in, we’d open the box and see Biden’s candidacy is dead. Until then, or at least until Buttigieg repeats his Iowa sorcery in Nevada, we can’t see inside the box. Whatever our thoughts about how poorly he’s performed, how shaky his team is, how limited his funding is, we need to wait to confirm the end. It’s an easy path back. It’s just he may not be capable of it.