Thursday

November 14th, 2019

Insight

Pundits may be emphatic, but they're routinely wrong

Jennifer Rubin

By Jennifer Rubin The Washington Post

Published April 10, 2019

Pundits may be emphatic, but they're routinely wrong
The newspaper headlines and cable TV newscasts went into "scandal!" mode with complaints from women who came forth to point out that former vice president Joe Biden has about as much respect for personal space as a golden retriever puppy. How many columns and soundbites have tried to equate Biden's touchy-feely habits with sexual harassment and assault? Too many to count.

Do Democratic voters care? There's scant evidence that Biden has been harmed by complaints timed to coincide with his anticipated announcement. In the latest Hill-HarrisX poll, "Biden enjoyed a strong lead among respondents who identified as Democrats. The former vice president was the top choice of 36 percent of party loyalists compared to [Sen. Bernie] Sanders' 19 percent. [Sen. Kamala] Harris was the third-most popular choice among Democratic voters with 9 percent." Likewise, in the Morning Consult poll, Biden remains in the low 30s (33 percent), with Sanders back at 25 percent.

We should keep in mind that no poll is predictive as to the outcome of the race, but polling does reflect the relative strength of the candidates at this moment.

What other punditry hasn't exactly panned out as advertised? Well, the notion that being a white male is a handicap in the race doesn't seem to have held up. (Three of the consistent top four contenders are white males.) To the contrary, there's an ingrained aversion among many Democrats to "risking" the election on a woman or nonwhite nominee. (I find that perverse for a party dependent on a diverse coalition; insiders' cynicism becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that handicaps nonwhites and women, but the sentiment is unmistakable.)


Also wrong was the notion that Beto O'Rourke would transform the race. Initial wall-to-wall coverage suggested that he was unparalleled in his ability to attract attention, this year's Barack Obama. Well, he has not dented Sanders and remains locked in polling with Harris and, in some surveys, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.. He's doing well, but he's hardly a race-changer or competitive with the top two candidates at this stage. (It might get tougher from here on out, since he lacks granular policy knowledge and a signature issue.)

Next, the eye-rolling over the prospect of a Midwestern, gay mayor seems to have been premature. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is getting the kind of buzz and the lightning-quick rise in the polls the media predicted that O'Rourke would generate. Buttigieg remains the freshest, most intellectually interesting figure in the race. Put differently, the electorate isn't already tired of him.

And then there is the conventional wisdom about how far left the Democrats have swung. Well, Biden is leading, O'Rourke is doggedly center-left, and Buttigieg is earning plaudits for talking about faith and values. Maybe the story of the far left's ascendancy has been overplayed.

Taking a step back, there are only five candidates (including Biden, who's not officially in the race) above 5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, only seven above 2 percent. Candidates keep jumping in, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., the latest, but there are far more candidates who have not registered at all with voters than those who have. The more crowded the field, the harder any one of the lesser-known contenders will find it to break through. A huge field doesn't mean anyone can win; it means the really heavy guns predominate, those in the lower-middle tier (e.g. Sen. Cory Booker) have trouble getting heard, and the utterly unknowns remain unknown.

That's what's going on now. However, there are any number of factors that could change everything we just discussed.

First, the debates have a real impact. In 2016, Jeb Bush collapsed in the face of then-candidate Donald Trump's bombast; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was done in by a fatal blow from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. So, too, in the Democratic field, there will be candidates in the debates who stumble, others who become invisible (remember Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker?), and a select few who shine. Performances generate free media, which generate fundraising, which . . . you get the picture.

Second, Biden remains a real question mark. It's equally likely that he'll cruise in early contests and wrap up the race in South Carolina as it is that he'll self-destruct, lose an early primary or two and be done. I'm not sure we've ever seen a candidate simultaneously so commanding and so vulnerable.

Third, we don't yet know whether Buttigieg is a true superstar or the flavor of the month. If he continues to raise a ton of money and turns in very impressive debate performances, the contest could well become the Three B's (Bernie, Biden and Buttigieg) plus Harris. "The party will never nominate a gay man or elevate a midsize-city mayor" sentiment reminds me of equally emphatic statements that Obama had no chance in 2008 and Trump would never win the nomination in 2016. Voters pick the person, and there's no telling which one will capture their fancy.

Finally, the economy, the unveiling of the actual Mueller report and the international situation might change things dramatically. The more dire the situation, the worse the high-risk candidates will do. As things spin out of control, Biden becomes a more reassuring figure, Sanders becomes a nonstarter, and less-experienced candidates look as though they aren't ready for prime time. And then there are the host of unknowns: Why hasn't Sanders put out his tax returns, as he promised six weeks ago? If Warren falters, do her supporters go to Sanders?

In short, a lot of the conventional wisdom has been wrong. A lot of what we see now can change overnight. Anyone who tells you they have this figured out is selling snake oil.

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