The Morning Jolt


Biden Finally Falters — Or Does He?

Joe Biden in Detroit, Mich., July 24, 2019 (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Joe Biden’s Campaign Is about to Hit Some Turbulence

Whether or not Joe Biden and his presidential campaign are in trouble, they are definitely headed towards a period where the national media covering the race perceive them to be in trouble, which is almost as bad. If you think media coverage can alter the actual level of support for candidates, maybe it’s worse.

That distinction is important, because if you had to quickly describe the presidential primary to a friend who didn’t follow politics much, you could do it pretty easily: “Joe Biden entered the race as frontrunner, he 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.” Check out that RealClearPolitics chart. Biden’s green line is at the top and stays at the top, even if it moves up and down.

It is possible that by historical standards, this will be a pretty boring Democratic primary. The Democratic party, shocked, horrified, and some might even say traumatized by Donald Trump’s election, examined a field of more candidates than any party had ever seen before; debated radical new ideas like banning private health insurance, ending immigration enforcement, and free college for everyone; and then . . . picked the old reliable guy whom they remembered from the Obama administration. Few things would outrage the Twitter Left more than the confirmation that the offline Democratic party had no interest in revolutionary change and just wanted a reset button to go to back to the Obama era.

Whether you loved the outcome of the 2016 election or hated it, it was indisputably the most dramatic one since the 2000 recount and perhaps since Ross Perot’s independent bid in 1992. A huge GOP field was upended by a reality show star; an avowed socialist nearly derailed the Democratic frontrunner; the FBI director made several dramatic announcements during the race; violent confrontations often occurred outside Trump rallies; the guy who came in second in the GOP primary told the convention “vote your conscience”; a Supreme Court seat hung in the balance . . . You had to follow the news just to see what once-unimaginable development was going to happen next.

Les Moonves famously declared that the Trump campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” For much of the news media, the 2016 campaign was practically cocaine: high ratings, endless drama and confrontation, their ideal villain, endless opportunities for high dudgeon, sex, allegations of crime, allegations of ties to Russian spies . . . if you had read it in a novel, you would have said it was unrealistic. Unpredictability generates interest.

The national news media wants that experience again — although obviously many members of the media desperately want their preferred candidate to win this time. They’ve committed massive amounts of correspondents, staffers, airtime, print space, web pages, graphics departments, and other resources to covering the presidential race. Nobody wants to devote gobs of money, time, and people to covering a race where nothing really changes much from start to finish.

The Democratic presidential primary race appeared unpredictable, and thus potentially dramatic, with 26 or so candidates; but the summer demonstrated that a lot of those candidates never belonged in the race in the first place. If Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, and Seth Moulton had never run, almost nothing would have changed. Listening to some little-known Democrat tell a questioner, “back in my home state, we took bold steps to tackle the challenge of climate change” for the millionth time is not dramatic. CNN ran town halls with Bill de Blasio and Steve Bullock Sunday night, and ratings were 25 percent lower than usual. Cable news networks want to be fair, but they also want to retain and build their viewing audiences.

For the Democratic primary to be dramatic, Joe Biden has to be perceived as faltering or on the verge of losing his lead. Again, if that consistent Biden lead, and the former vice president’s ability to keep it after a pretty lousy first debate, tell us anything, it’s that his current supporters aren’t looking for an excuse to jump off the bandwagon. This doesn’t mean that they’ll never abandon him, but that they have considerable patience for moments where Biden seems confused or mixes up his words or feels the need to assure the country, “I’m not going nuts.” Biden’s supporters will abandon him when they no longer believe he can beat Trump.

Yesterday, the Monmouth University Polling Institute unveiled a national poll with a result that surprised many: “a virtual three-way tie among Sanders (20 percent), Warren (20 percent), and Biden (19 percent).” If that is indeed the state of the race, it would mean Sanders had rebounded dramatically and that Biden’s problems — his age, his gaffes, his perceived boring centrism — had caught up with him.

But if you look deeper, you find: “Results in this release are based on 298 registered voters who identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic party, which has a +/- 5.7 percentage point sampling margin of error.” That’s a pretty small sample and a pretty high margin of error for a national poll. But the Democratic political world took that poll fairly seriously — in part because the result was genuinely surprising, and in part because that result helped the narrative that this Democratic presidential primary is a dramatic and unpredictable battle that is worth watching.

But this morning, the Politico/Morning Consult poll has some new numbers as well: Biden at 33 percent, Bernie Sanders at 20 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 15 percent, Kamala Harris at 8 percent, and everyone else at 5 percent or below. In other words, the Politico poll shows the status quo: Biden’s ahead by a healthy but not insurmountable margin.

Sanders and Warren are friends, they both represent a further-left wing of the Democratic party, and noticeably didn’t take shots at each other in the last debate. But at some point, Sanders supporters and Warren supporters will realize that one of the biggest obstacles to their preferred candidate is each other. If Sanders and Warren consolidated their supporters, they would overtake Biden.

Save Us from Whining Candidate Supporters

Tulsi Gabbard’s fans didn’t like this Corner post, and yes, at minimum, the Democratic National Committee should spell out exactly why they deem some polls valid for calculating support and some polls invalid. But here are the percentages for Gabbard in the last 15 national surveys of the Democratic field: 1 percent, 1 percent, 2 percent, 2 percent, 1 percent, 1 percent, 2 percent, 1 percent, 1 percent, 3 percent, 1 percent, 0 percent, 1 percent, 1 percent, 1 percent.

If the DNC is being unfair, they’re being unfair to a candidate who struggles to hit 2 percent in the polls.

There’s a lot to like about Gabbard as a candidate — her youth, her military experience, her ability to verbally vivisect Kamala Harris’s record as a prosecutor under pressure. But she’s much closer to the bottom of the still-crowded field than to the top. The RCP average ranks her tenth, but everybody lower than eighth place is below 2 percent. The DNC had an extremely generous standard for participating in the first two debates. They’re finally trimming the field of the least supported candidates, and that might include Gabbard. Welcome to the big leagues, Gabbard fans.

If I had to limit the Democratic debate to nine candidates, I’d pick Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg (based on poll numbers or in Buttigieg’s case, fundraising numbers), and then another four for being interesting and not just reciting talking points: Gabbard, Andrew Yang, John Delaney for his willingness to deviate from party orthodoxy, and Marianne Williamson for, er, spiritual guidance. We’ve seen Julian Castro have two solid debates, and yet no one seemed to care, and I’ve heard Cory Booker ask “why are we fighting amongst ourselves when the real problem is the Republicans” enough times.

If I had my druthers, I might put Joe Sestak on the stage, too. As a candidate, he’s such a throwback to another era, he should appear in black and white like “30s Guy” in that old Haggar Black Label commercial.

He’s Not Running for President, He’s Running to Be a Celebrity

I’ve said my piece about Joe Walsh and didn’t plan on spending too much more time writing about him. But it’s pretty weird to hear a guy who believed he had been hired to be Walsh’s campaign manager describe absolute inability to reach the candidate at all for eight days. If Walsh suddenly had second thoughts about hiring the guy, fine, but say so. Don’t leave the guy hanging.

In his announcement video, Walsh declared, “When I first started thinking about running for president, talking to my family, close friends, people I trust, I started hearing about all the things I needed to do to test the waters: Start an exploratory committee, hire a speechwriter, get an image consultant, all the practical steps that conventional campaigns take. But these are not conventional times. These are urgent times . . . So to hell with all those conventional things.”

All of those things are not window-dressing; they’re what makes a real presidential campaign work. This is akin to declaring, “these are urgent times, so to hell with doing my homework.” As recent days have shown, Walsh didn’t even feel compelled to go through his Twitter feed and delete tweets that he had to have known would cause headaches — vehement defenses of the president, attacks on NeverTrump pundits, and approvingly repeating the president’s profane epithet for Haiti.

And once again, this is not the most striking contrast with President Trump.

ADDENDA: Yesterday, I joined Cam at to chat about red flag laws and the 2020 presidential race. As I noted later in the Corner, some articles have pointed to a Long Beach hotel worker as an example of how “red flag” laws could prevent shootings, but that worker wasn’t really a case of using a “red flag” law. Law enforcement didn’t merely seize his weapons; they arrested him. He is facing four felony charges: two counts of criminal threats and one count each of dissuading a witness by force or threat and possession of an assault weapon.

I’m okay with red flag laws as long as there are safeguards for due process, and they don’t become abused, but existing law permits people to report potential threats and to request involuntary confinement and psychological treatment; although state laws usually require clear and convincing evidence that someone is imminently dangerous to themselves or others.

Most Popular

White House

Rachel Maddow’s Turnberry Tale

To a certain kind of Rachel Maddow viewer, there are few more titillating preludes to a news segment than the one she delivered Monday: “If you have not seen it yet, you are going to want to sit down.” Maddow’s story began, as many of her stories do, with President Trump, this time focused on his hotel ... Read More

The Problem with Pete Buttigieg

In a 2018 midterm election that didn’t give Republicans a lot to laugh about, one development that no doubt left them smiling was watching progressives across the country donate $80 million to Beto O’Rourke, in a Texas Senate race that was always going to be a steep uphill climb. Democratic party leaders can ... Read More