A couple of months ago, former representative Beto O'Rourke of Texas was a top-tier candidate getting fawning coverage; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was virtually unknown; and former vice president Joe Biden had a commanding lead in polling, despite not being an official candidate. Before that, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was widely considered a formidable challenger to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
On the eve of Biden's entry into the race, the gap between himself and Sanders has narrowed in some but certainly not all polls (despite the flap over Biden's well-known propensity to hug), O'Rourke is well back in the pack and Buttigieg is soaring. The latest Monmouth poll finds:
"Biden currently has the support of 27% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, which is similar to his 28% support in March and 29% in January. Support for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is currently at 20%, which is down slightly from 25% in March, but still higher than his 16% support in January.
" 'If Biden does enter the race this week, he starts off with a fairly stable amount of good will from Democrats. We might even expect to see a small bump after his announcement, but the bigger question will be what happens when those voters start taking a closer look at him on the campaign trail. It's a long way to Iowa and a lot can happen,' said [Monmouth polling director Patrick] Murray.
"South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg currently has 8% support. He registered less than 1% in prior Monmouth polls. California Sen. Kamala Harris has 8% support, off just slightly from 10% in March and 11% in January. Rounding out the field of top contenders are Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 6% (from 8% in both March and January) and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke at 4% (6% in March and 7% in January)."
Sanders' net favorability has also been sagging, down to 65 percent from 70 percent last month. An overwhelming percentage of Democrats say it doesn't matter what the race or gender of the candidate is.
Likewise, the Politico/Morning Consult poll finds among early primary voters Biden's lead is down to six percentage points over Sanders, Buttigieg is up to 9 percent, followed by Harris, Warren and O'Rourke. Buttigieg has room to grow his support with 17 percent who have no opinion and 36 percent who never heard of him.
On Thursday, Biden will enter the race. The first few weeks will be telling with regard to the candidate's discipline, his fundraising (thought to be weaker than others online) and his polling. The pressure on Biden to avoid gaffes, exceed fundraising totals and move the polls will be considerable. He wants to dispel the notion that Sanders is his equal and put to rest concerns that he lacks the needed oomph to move Democratic voters.
Biden has a tricky balance to maintain. On one hand, he wants to present himself as the guy to bring Democrats and the country as a whole together. In place of amateurism and hyperpartisanship, he offers experience and a defense of democratic values and institutions. However, Biden also needs to make the case at some point that Sanders is a high-risk candidate for Democrats, and that the Vermont senator is perhaps the only Democrat (other than Warren) that President Trump would love to run against.
Biden will need to puncture the illusion that Sanders has some secret sauce that will attract Trump voters. Perhaps polling will speak for itself, suggesting a gap between Biden and Sanders on the electability front. Maybe another candidate, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., can take on Sanders. However, at some point, Biden himself will need to make the case that running on the banner of socialism would spell doom for Democrats.
Even trickier will be the task of disarming Buttigieg, whose message boils down to this: Biden, Sanders and Trump are the past, while he is the future. Here, too, Biden may get lucky and Buttigieg may stumble on his own, although his poise and intellectual dexterity make that seem less likely.
More likely, Biden will have to make the argument that now is no time for an amateur. He had better have a light touch, however, lest he make Buttigieg an even more sympathetic figure.
In sum, Biden's ability to forge consensus and help the United States recover from its excessive tribalism may be in tension with the campaign's short-term tactics. Maintaining Biden's likability while cutting the legs out from under opponents will be no easy feat. The future of the Democratic Party and of our democracy may nevertheless depend on his success.
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