How big a deal is it that the new Des Moines Register poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers has Elizabeth Warren ahead? Her poll lead is not large — 22 percent to 20 percent — but it gives those covering the race their first significant lead change to hype, and those not-so-closeted Warren fans who have been itching to write their “Warren is now the real frontrunner” column now have the excuse they’ve been looking for.
Politico, the New York Times, Reuters, and other publications and analysts have declared Biden’s lead is fragile and reported how other campaigns are preparing for an implosion they see as nearly inevitable. (For something that’s supposedly more easily breakable than a Faberge egg, Biden’s lead sure does seem to withstand a lot of not-so-great debate performances and gaffes.)
In addition to whatever other conscious and subconscious biases are at work in those covering the race, reporters, editors, and producers in the national news media desperately want an exciting Democratic primary race to cover. Twists, turns, lead changes, surprises, drama, suspense — they want an ongoing news story that is unpredictable and exciting that gets viewers, listeners, and readers to tune in day after day. This primary has been, by many measures, something of a dud.
The one-sentence summary from a month ago is still accurate: “Biden entered the race as frontrunner, had a rough first debate, but remained in front, and while there’s been some movement among other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, Biden is still ahead and still the favorite.” (Now you could add that Harris appears done.) Biden and Sanders are the most familiar of familiar faces. A bunch of the party’s “rising stars” like Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker fizzled or are fizzling. Any movement in the polls among the second tier is small and gradual.
The audience sizes for the televised debates haven’t been bad — 18 million for the first one, 14 million for the last one — but nowhere near the 24 million or 23 million who tuned in to the first two 2016 GOP debates — which probably reflected widespread curiosity of just what the heck Donald Trump was going to do up on that stage. As many have noted, the two-night format and ten-candidate formats are bad for almost every candidate on stage, so perhaps viewership will increase as the also-rans depart and the stage features only the handful with a real shot at the nomination.
There are two schools of thought about the race as we head into autumn. The first is that this is a three-way race and perhaps maybe even an already two-candidate race between Biden and Warren. The second is that once the voting gets close — Iowa holds its caucuses February 3 — Democrats will suddenly want to take a second look at the surviving second-tier candidates, just to make sure.