vision 2020

The Biden Survival Scenario

Joe Biden in his very favorite state. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Like a lot of political observers, I’ve written more than one quasi-obituary of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. Most recently, I’ve suggested that he “badly underperformed” in Iowa, that he came across as a “living relic” in the most recent debate, and that he was “arguably out of the way” of his moderate rivals after New Hampshire. I still think his campaign is a once-mighty zeppelin of hot air, steadily losing altitude.

But thanks to the peculiarities of the early-state calendar and the configuration of the Democratic field, Uncle Joe has a residual chance to survive until the 14-state abattoir of Super Tuesday. As he noted rather unsubtly from South Carolina even as the networks covered his dismal fifth-place showing in New Hampshire, people of color did not have the opportunity to weigh in on the nomination contest in any significant way in the first two states. They will in the next two, and that’s why Biden has a shot, even if it’s a shaky one, to keep his struggling candidacy alive.

Fresh post–New Hampshire polling from rarely polled Nevada and South Carolina indicates that while Biden has lost some ground in these two states, he’s not doing all that badly. In a new survey from the Las Vegas Journal-Review, the first public Nevada poll in a solid month, Biden’s hanging onto second place with 18 percent of likely caucusgoers, trailing Bernie Sanders with 25 percent but leading Elizabeth Warren with 13 percent, Tom Steyer with 11 percent, and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar with 10 percent. The pollster allows that Biden “is continuing a downward trend,” but the poll also shows 59 percent of respondents indicating they intend to take advantage of the new “early caucus” option this weekend, which could to some extent freeze the contest before the final frenzy (and the February 19 debate). Twenty percent of the poll’s respondents were Latino (a demographic in which Biden has done reasonably well but trails Sanders) and 13 percent were African-American (Biden’s most reliable supporters thus far).

It would have certainly helped the former veep immensely had he won (as some had expected) an endorsement from the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which has been publicly feuding with the Sanders campaign over the impact of Medicare for All. But the union chose not to make an endorsement. With the early caucusing wrinkle and an incredible six candidates in double digits (according to the above poll) and battling to get over a 15 percent threshold in nearly 2,000 precincts, it’s impossible to predict how Nevada will work out.

Unless it’s a disaster for Biden, however, he should get a last chance to save his candidacy in the state generally thought of as his “firewall,” South Carolina, which holds its primary on February 29. There’s a new poll there, too, from East Carolina University, and it marks the 23rd consecutive poll showing Biden ahead (with 28 percent of the vote) in the Palmetto State. His principal rivals at the moment are Bernie Sanders (at 20 percent) and Tom Steyer (at 14 percent), with Buttigieg well back at 8 percent and Klobuchar and Warren at 7 percent. Among the African-Americans who are expected to represent a solid majority of the primary electorate, Biden’s at 36 percent, Sanders at 20 percent, and Steyer at 17 percent. Steyer has been spending like a drunken sailor on ads and staff in South Carolina, which has clearly become his now-or-never state, and has also managed to win some notable African-American endorsements.

The relative inability, so far, of Buttigieg and Klobuchar to demonstrate any significant appeal among black voters (and Mayor Pete has tried to the point of outright pandering) may be Joe Biden’s salvation in this state, and in the so-called “moderate lane” where they trounced him in New Hampshire. But Sanders and Steyer are doing well enough that another Biden disaster in Nevada or in debates prior to either contest could finally signal the onetime front-runner’s doom.

If Biden does revive his candidacy, it’s another matter altogether whether he has the money and the momentum to compete in the vast landscape of Super Tuesday, where Michael Bloomberg awaits with his bottomless pot of gold. But a good Biden showing before Super Tuesday could arrest some of the elite defections from his camp to Bloomberg’s that are underway, and undermine the media narrative pointing toward an eventual Sanders-Bloomberg battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.

The Biden Survival Scenario