The main storyline in the 2020 presidential race is this one: There are just so many candidates!!!
And there are! With Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s announcement Tuesday morning, there are now 22(!) candidates running for the Democratic nomination. And that field could grow even larger later this week, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to make a decision on his future political plans.
But there’s another below-the-radar story that is emerging: Joe Biden is way, way out ahead of the rest of the giant field.
According to the Real Clear Politics average of national polling, Biden now has a 23.5-point lead over Bernie Sanders (and the rest of the pack). That’s a massive leap for Biden from even a few weeks ago, when his lead was just 6 points over Sanders in RCP numbers. Biden is also ahead in Iowa (+4 in RCP averages), New Hampshire (+13 in RCP) and South Carolina (+23.5). (Nevada, which holds an early caucus, hasn’t had enough polling to produce real averages.)
Now, Biden’s bump is quite clearly the result of positive press surrounding his entrance into the race after months of hemming and hawing. The former vice president’s rollout has been spot on, with none of the gaffes or negative press coverage that hamstrung his attempt to build momentum in the run-up to the announcement.
The most likely outcome, then, is that Biden’s numbers return to earth somewhat after the initial glow of his announcement wears off. But even “returning to earth” will likely mean Biden’s lead nationally is in – at minimum – the 10- to 15-point range. Which is still significant, especially if he continues to lead in key early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
All of which raises an interesting possibility: What if, in this giant field, Biden runs away with the nomination? For all the focus on how many people are running, the race could effectively be over on February 3, 2020, if Biden crushes the field in the Iowa caucuses.
To be clear: This is not the most likely scenario. Primary voters – in both parties – tend to like competitive races. They don’t like coronations. Hillary Clinton, at this point in the 2016 election, had a far larger lead over Sanders than Biden does today. And that primary fight wound up being far closer – and lasting much longer – than anyone would have imagined at the time.
But there are three reasons to think Biden could – emphasis on could – run away and hide with the nomination.
1) He’s broadly liked within the party. Biden’s lead over his rivals is not solely the result of his superior name identification. It’s also because he is viewed quite favorably by Democrats of all stripes. In the latest CNN poll, conducted late last month, more than 8 in 10 Democrats said they have a favorable view of Biden while just 12% had an unfavorable one. That’s remarkable – especially for someone who has spent such a long time in politics. And Biden’s favorability numbers are quite consistent among various demographic groups: Whites (79% favorable), non-whites (84%), men (76%) and women (86%).
2) He’s running very strong with black voters. In 2008 and 2016, the foundational pillar of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s winning coalitions in their Democratic primaries was African-American voters. And, right now, Biden appears to have a similar numbers among that key constituency. As I noted above, he is viewed hugely favorably among non-white voters nationally. And, in the key state of South Carolina – where black voters comprise almost two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate – Biden is running very strongly. A new South Carolina primary poll showed Biden at 46% overall, well ahead of Sanders, who was second with 15%. Among black voters in that poll, Biden was at 58%!
3) He doesn’t have much competition for the establishment mantle. While more than a dozen of the candidates running are seeking to be the liberal champion in the primary, there’s scarce competition for Biden in the establishment/centrist lane of the race. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is trying to be that sort of candidate, but starts well behind Biden. Ditto Bullock, who starts well behind even Klobuchar. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg remains something of a tabula rasa in terms of how he is positioning himself in the race but could, if he so chose, be a potential problem for Biden in the sensible centrist lane. But at the moment, Biden is running ahead in that space – and with very little obvious competition.
No voters will cast a ballot for president for another 265 days. And history suggests that fights for presidential nominations rarely get less competitive as the votes draw nearer. But there is a path for Biden – albeit it a narrow one – to walk to the nomination. The question is how long it lasts.