Let’s start with the obligatory disclaimers and caveats and blah blah. It’s very early. The first caucuses and primaries are almost 10 months away. But Joe Biden is getting more than a bounce from his campaign launch announcement three weeks ago. The bump in his poll numbers haven’t subsided. His support continues to climb. A poll out over the weekend from South Carolina puts his support at 46% with Bernie Sanders far behind at 15% and three others, Harris (10%), Buttigieg (8%) and Warren (8%), just behind him.
South Carolina is important for a number of reasons – mostly, because it’s one of the first four caucuses and primaries that usually defines and sometimes settles a nominating contest. But unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both lily white, South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary is majority African-American – 61% in 2016. Biden’s strength is South Carolina confirms which you see in the internals of the national polls – very strong support among African-American voters.
But it’s not just South Carolina. The trend is national as well. Since Biden’s announcement in late April his support has risen about 10 points and most of it has been at Bernie Sanders’ expense. This chart from RCP is striking.
As you can see in that peloton at the bottom of the chart there’s been some bubbling around. Buttigieg has risen; O’Rourke has fallen. But basically, no one is breaking out.
What strikes me most about this is that at least as far as campaign coverage chatter goes it’s not like Biden has had a bang up few weeks or Sanders has been hit by a string of gaffes. Biden’s done a round of fairly conventional campaign appearances. He’s continued to draw static for holding high dollar campaign fundraisers. There’s continuing coverage of Anita Hill’s non-acceptance of his apology. Meanwhile the left wing press continues to hit him – not altogether unfairly – for his Senate-era support of the bank and lending industries. None of it seems to matter.
There’s a lot of denial about this: Well, yeah, he’s doing well now. But people don’t know about his support of the credit card industry or how he’s behind mass incarceration. This strikes me as wishful thinking, attributing to voters’ ignorance what is actually disagreement or simply a different set of priorities.
We’re past the point where Biden’s strength can be chalked up to name recognition. Sanders has near universal name recognition too. Is it Obama nostalgia? Maybe. But if it is, that doesn’t mean it’s going to change. To the extent we can glean anything from the polls the reason for Biden’s strength is that Democrats see him as acceptable and most electable. Simple as that. The more activist conversation that dominates Twitter seems to be operating in a different world from the actual Democratic electorate.
Current national horse race polls support Biden’s electability argument. But obviously those can change. Especially because there are so many candidates in the race, I suspect that unless Democratic voters change their mind that Biden is the most electable he’ll be the nominee. Period. Of course, the potential downside of that for Biden is that his electoral strength is brittle, or as brittle as his electability argument. Absent that sense that he’s the safest bet to unseat President Trump his support would probably dissolve rapidly.