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Biden the Faltering Front-runner

Vice President Joe Biden in 2016. By Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Ramesh Ponnuru comments on Biden’s odd status as a front-runner that many political observers ridicule as a weak candidate. Here he made a statement that caught my attention:

We have been told he might have an embarrassing finish in the first two state contests. But he is in second place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, again according to the poll averages.

When I saw the Iowa claim, I was surprised. Biden is in second in Iowa? That’s not what I remember seeing. Sure enough, if you check the RCP poll average for the Democratic Iowa caucuses, you find Biden tagging along in a tie for third place with Sanders. Biden’s numbers in Iowa have dropped off a cliff in the last two months as his support has been cannibalized by the improbable Pete Buttigieg. In the most recent Iowa poll, Biden was in a distant fourth place. There have been reports for weeks that Biden’s Iowa campaign has been faltering:

“I wouldn’t count him out, but there’s certainly been some troubling signs,” said former Democratic political operative Grant Woodard, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Iowa campaign. “I think they started with the wrong attitude here and came in as trying to get people to accept inevitably. I always think that’s dangerous for people to do.”

“There’s certainly flashing lights going on,” he added.

Local Democratic officials have been warning that Biden is on track to be humiliated there. The caucuses are still months away, so it is possible this could change, but Biden’s downward trajectory hardly inspires confidence. Biden’s Iowa woes are indicative of a campaign that is complacent and poorly prepared to face off against serious competition.

Biden does cling to second place in New Hampshire right now, but it’s the same story of dwindling support and improving numbers for Buttigieg. If lots of Democratic voters were satisfied with Biden, do we really think that Buttigieg would be doing as well as he is? Isn’t the fact that Biden is losing ground to the mayor of South Bend a sign that the former vice president is in quite a lot of trouble? If Biden is struggling so much in the first two states, that would seem to tell us that the Democratic voters that have had the chance to see him close up have been underwhelmed by his candidacy. Biden is the nominal front-runner because everyone keeps calling him that, but it would be more accurate to say that he used to be the front-runner and he is now getting passed by his competitors. To be a front-runner, it helps if a candidate is actually out in front.

In fairness, I have been a skeptic of Biden’s chances all year. It has never made sense to me why Democrats would want to rally behind someone who has already twice proven himself to be a poor presidential candidate, and I thought that Biden had blown his best opportunity when he decided not to run in 2016. Everything about the Biden campaign so far has struck me as a case of “too little, too late.” For example, he has repositioned himself on a number of foreign policy issues to align himself more closely with where the party has gone in the last four years, but that means he is following the lead of other candidates who have actually been taking the party in this direction for some time. On Yemen and Saudi Arabia, he is now echoing Sanders. That is a welcome change, but it reminds us that when Biden was in government as vice president he didn’t take any of these positions. On other issues, he remains stubbornly stuck in a Democratic hawkish worldview from more than a decade ago. Even now, he still doesn’t have a good answer when he is asked about his past support for the Iraq war.

Biden presents himself as the safe but uninspiring choice, but because he is so uninspiring his candidacy is now at risk of failing. The key problem is that there is not really an argument for a Biden presidency. There is no particularly compelling agenda that he wants to enact, and voters could be forgiven for thinking that his main message is that it is finally his turn to be the nominee. He enjoys a lot of support and goodwill because of his connection with Obama, but that brings with the baggage of the Obama administration’s failures and disappointments. Biden is a throwback candidate in a party in which a lot of people aren’t interested in settling for a restoration.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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