Who Is the Democratic Frontrunner?

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Ever since he entered the race, Joe Biden has been considered the default frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary. A former vice president, he has two advantages: nearly unparalleled name recognition and association with a president remembered fondly by the left and nostalgically by many moderates.

Throughout the contest thus far, a few contenders have risen in the polls, vying with Biden for frontrunner status. After the first primary debate, California senator Kamala Harris got a boost from her enthusiastic effort to paint the aging politician as out of touch. Over the summer, Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders consistently ranked second in nearly every national poll, presenting a progressive alternative to Biden’s studiously almost-moderate veneer.

But since late summer, the alternate frontrunner to Biden has been Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts senator, who thanks to lengthy policy proposals and glowing media coverage has managed to cast herself as the candidate with an answer to every question and a solution to every problem. And the polls are reflecting her success.

According to RealClearPolitics tracking of national survey data, Warren became the first Democratic candidate to overtake Biden in the polling average earlier this month. He has since regained his edge but only barely, now leading the field in the RCP average by a little more than 5 percent.

In an Intelligencer piece from over the weekend, Olivia Nuzzi has some interesting analysis on the state of what she terms “Biden’s zombie campaign.” From the article:

The pitch goes like this: Joe Biden ought to be the nominee because he’s electable, a meaningless concept if recent history is any guide, and presidential, that wonderful word . . . despite the fact that Biden, who appears by almost any measure to be a good man, a man whose lone sin in life is ego (and does that even count anymore?), has spent a half-century grasping for this position and watching it slip through his fingers.

To anyone paying attention — the army of political professionals more wired to observe shortcomings than are those likely to actually vote for him or for anyone else — it looks, unmistakably, like it’s happening again. His vulnerabilities are close to the surface. There’s the basic fact of his oldness and the concerns, explicit or implicit, about his ability to stay agile and alive for four more years. . . .

But it’s not just his age itself. It’s his tendency to misspeak, his inartful debating style, and — most of all — his status as a creature from another time in the Democratic Party, when the politics of race and crime and gender were unrecognizably different. It’s not just that the Joe Biden of yesteryear sometimes peeks out from behind the No. 1 Obama Stan costume. It’s that the Joe Biden of today is expected to hold his former self accountable to the new standards set by a culture that’s prepared to reject him. And though he’s the party Establishment’s obvious exemplar, he can’t seem to raise any money — spending more in the last quarter than he brought in and moving into the homestretch with less than $9 million in the bank (roughly a third of what Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders has on hand). For political reporters, marveling every day at just how well this isn’t going, watching Biden can feel like being at the rodeo. You’re there because on some level you know you might see someone get killed.

Yet Biden is still the front-runner. Volatile and potentially worthless as they may be, it’s what the polls say. . . . “There is this sense of hanging on. And perhaps he can. But that’s generally not the way the physics of these things work,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod told me. “Generally, you’re either moving up or moving down. Warren is clearly moving up. There’s no sign that he is.”

Another concerning sign for Biden: In the latest poll out of South Carolina, one of the earliest states to host a primary, his lead over Warren has dwindled to only eleven points. It doesn’t sound like much to lament, but Biden has held a dominating lead in the state throughout the primary, ahead by as much as 31 points in some earlier polls. To lead Warren by only eleven points, then, suggests his advantage is slipping away, even in the south.

Until those early primary states start voting, it’s hard to say whether Biden has lost his frontrunner edge to Warren. But to judge from polling, observers are right to sense that the former vice president is continuing to weaken.

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