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Reporter's notebook

On Biden’s Big Poll Lead

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May 17, 2019 3:11 p.m.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has so far maintained his wide lead over the rest of the Democratic field. That’s a good early sign for the front-runner — but some talking heads are getting way over their skis in anointing him the heavy favorite.

Biden currently sits at 39% in RealClearPolitics’ polling average, almost 23 points ahead of Bernie Sanders, with no other candidate breaking double digits. He’s nearly universally known and well-liked by Democratic primary voters, who tend to be older, less white and less liberal than many pundits (and political nerds) tend to assume. The only national poll that has found any candidate within single digits of Biden since his announcement was Emerson’s, which because of its relatively small sample size of 423 has a lot more risk for statistical noise than others.

But we’re still a long way from the primaries and caucuses. Biden hasn’t even held his official campaign announcement rally (that’ll happen tomorrow in Philadelphia). At this point four years ago, Bernie Sanders had been in the race about as long as Biden has now. Hillary Clinton had been in a few weeks longer, and she had a 50-point lead on him at this point. On the GOP side, Donald Trump was still a month away from announcing — and Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker were the candidates leading a crowded pack (though to be fair none of them was much above 15% in most national polls).

Biden has clearly had a good run over the past three weeks. His lead over the field jumped by about 10 points when he entered the race, with most of that support appearing to come out of Sanders’ numbers. That bump has yet to recede in most surveys.

But polls are backward-looking, so we’re really only talking about a two-week bump — one that many candidates saw with either strong rollouts or significant surges, only to recede (Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg all come to mind here). Announcements are good at generating positive coverage and excitement over being the shiny new thing, even if you’re well-known. The question is whether you can turn momentum into real votes months down the line.

That’s not to say Biden isn’t the front-runner. He’s clearly the man to beat. Recent polling suggests Sanders’ campaign may be stuck with the high floor and low ceiling that many pundits, myself included, suspected he might. With such a crowded field, it could be hard for other candidates to catch up. Democratic voters have said in poll after poll that electability is their top qualification for a nominee. And Biden is well-liked by a large swath of Democrats right now, especially among black and Hispanic voters. That could simply remain the case.

But Iowa and New Hampshire tend to produce surge candidates. Biden, as I wrote when he announced, has plenty of potentially problematic positions that he’ll have to handle on the trail.

If people were too bearish on Biden’s chances a month ago, they might be overcorrecting and reading too much into recent polls right now. Most voters aren’t dialed in, and many could still change their minds. Whether you’re a Biden skeptic or booster, don’t assume you have any idea how this primary will play out.

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