Candidates who flame out early in presidential primaries, almost by definition, do not make history. But Joe Biden may be an exception. Biden’s presidential campaign is now almost certain to fail, but he has done more than any other candidate to shape the outcome. And the result is likely to be disastrous — for Biden’s personal legacy and political agenda.
Biden has run for president three times. He has not yet managed to finish higher than fourth in any primary or caucus. Biden may, or may not, have been a good enough politician to win a presidential campaign in his prime. He is now well past his prime. His campaigning pace is languid, his debate performances unsettling. And he hasn’t built the kind of campaign apparatus that could drag him over the finish line. He has far fewer endorsements than a traditional Establishment favorite, and his organization has underperformed in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet, for most of the last year, Biden sat on the largest piece of real estate in the Democratic Party. He has commanded the loyalty of voters who fondly recall Barack Obama’s presidency and wish to replicate it, and whose primary goal is to assemble majority coalition. They are disproportionately black and occupy the center-left heart of the party’s base.
Biden’s candidacy almost single-handedly stunted the growth of every other center-left alternative. Cory Booker ran the Freaks and Geeks of campaigns — praised by critics, but never registering with the broader public. Booker might well have attracted Biden’s constituency, before low polling forced him off the debate stage and out of the race.
Michael Bloomberg held off running for president because he initially believed Biden would secure the same ideological niche. Only after it was apparent to Bloomberg that 2020 Biden was not the 2012 version of Joe Biden did he join the race — too late to compete in the first four states and make the debates that would have played a crucial role in vetting him.
Amy Klobuchar only surged in February, at the New Hampshire debate, when Biden had disappointed in Iowa and it dawned on many voters that he might not make it.
And only now are Bloomberg and Klobuchar — along with Pete Buttigieg, who has won a sizable niche with well-educated white voters that he seems to have difficulty expanding — beginning to try to consolidate the party’s center-left vote. If not for Biden, a mainstream liberal Democrat might well have begun to consolidate support of a party Establishment that is not looking for a candidate who will embrace wildly unpopular policies and a wildly unpopular socialist label while emphasizing transformative economic change in the midst of the best economy in a generation.
But the minority of Democrats who do want that high-risk strategy have consolidated behind Bernie Sanders. Sanders so far has held just over a quarter of the electorate in Iowa and New Hampshire, enough to tie for the lead in Iowa and narrowly win New Hampshire. Incredibly, the sheer disarray of his opposition has made him the favorite.
Biden’s campaigns in 1988 and 2008 ended in disaster for Biden. His 2020 campaign is going to end in a disaster for the whole party.