Joe Biden is back in a double-digit lead in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, up 7 points since late June.
That’s the finding in the latest CNN poll, released Tuesday, showing Biden’s lead about where it was when he entered the race, and before the two rounds of Democratic debates. Time has passed, but for all the noise, it seems, the fundamentals of the race remain the same. Biden’s standing in this poll confirms that he remains very popular among core Democratic party constituencies, particularly African Americans and older Americans. Biden has also tapped into the most powerful message for Democrats: This race is about a battle for the soul of our country – America can’t survive another four years of Donald Trump, and Biden has successfully convinced Democrats that he is their best chance to win. For most Democrats, that’s what this whole race is about.
For all the pointed attacks and criticisms of the former Vice President, his numbers have bounced back shortly after each debate. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren between them are still polling at just under 30%, but neither has been able to break out beyond their own core supporters. And despite strong performances from candidates like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker in the debates and elsewhere, no other candidate has made a significant move on the frontrunner in the past several months.
So, what does this tell us about the race? The standing of Sanders and Warren, for example, illustrates how little the dynamics of this race have changed over the last few months. By most accounts, Warren has run the most aggressive and effective campaign to date. Despite that, according to the CNN poll, she has not broadened her coalition or eaten into Biden’s support. Sanders, on the other hand, has not generated the same level of enthusiasm he received in the 2016 campaign. Despite that, his support remains steady.
No one in the rest of the field, even with most having good days and the occasional good poll, has made a move toward serious consideration as the nominee. Sen. Harris, for example, had a perfect campaign announcement rollout and a very strong first debate. But any gains made in the polls were temporary and receded, with news drifting to other issues or candidates.
Does all this mean the campaign is over? Absolutely not. The first nine months of 2019 are a bit like the NFL’s preseason. You figure out rather quickly who’s not going to make the team, as the field winnows just like an NFL roster. The preseason wins are flattering at best and no real predictor of what the regular season will bring, much less of who will win the Super Bowl.
So, think of Labor Day as the last moment before the real season begins for 2020. Voters will be paying increasing attention to the race. Good days and good weeks will start to mean more. Gaffes and mistakes will carry a heavier price than the preseason. As for Biden, he’ll likely remember the experience of Walter Mondale in 1984. After trouncing a crowded field in Iowa with nearly 50% of the vote, Mondale faltered the next week in New Hampshire, getting beaten badly by the previously low-polling Gary Hart. That race went all the way to the convention before Mondale was able to put Hart away – and Mondale then lost to Ronald Reagan by a huge margin.
And those candidates struggling to be more than a blip in the polls can keep hope alive with memories of the campaigns of John McCain and John Kerry. Late in 2007 and 2003, respectively, McCain and Kerry were well outside the lead, and both went on to secure the nomination (though they too lost in the general election).
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So while it may seem like not much of significance has happened so far in this race, it’s about to get very real.