Exclusive: Joe Biden's frontrunner status is a media-driven mirage

Exclusive: Joe Biden's frontrunner status is a media-driven mirage
PHILADELPHIA - MAY 18, 2019: Former vice-president Joe Biden formally launches his 2020 presidential campaign during a rally May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia.

According to RealClearPolitics' polling average, former Vice President Joe Biden has the support of 30.8% of Democrats. But that can't be true--an NBC News/ WSJ survey conducted a month ago found that only 12 percent of Democratic voters had decided on a candidate. Unless that number has risen to over 90 percent in the past month--the Dem candidates' cumulative total in RCP's average--then this is simply a measure of which way voters are leaning when pressed for an answer by a pollster. That conclusion is supported by a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll which found that 51 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had shifted their preferences at least once since its April survey.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks back, prior to the 2008 cycle, most pollsters didn't bother surveying the presidential race before October or November of the prior year because it was widely understood that a majority of primary voters don't start paying close attention until a couple of months before the first votes are cast.

Poll after poll finds that at present, Biden's "support," such as it is, is based largely on the perception that he is the Democrat most likely to beat Trump. This is the product of a media feedback loop. Most voters aren't really tuned into the race yet, but even casual observers see dozens of headlines like, "Joe Biden's electability argument is backed up by the numbers (for now)" (CNN), "Biden leads Democrats as minorities favor most electable candidate vs Trump" (Reuters) and "Early-State Democrats See Joe Biden As A Pragmatic, Electable Placeholder..." (Buzzfeed News). So they get the general impression that he's the best positioned to win--or at least that other people think he is--and since most of them favor the ability to thrash Trump over other considerations, when they're asked by a pollster who they think is the most electable candidate and which way they're leaning at this point, they say Biden. And then that poll generates a bunch of new headlines about voters seeing him as their best shot against Trump and on it goes.

The bad news is that in a crowded field, the storyline that Joe Biden is a magical white-working-class-whisperer could propel a deeply flawed candidate to the nomination. Biden may be a thoroughly decent guy, but he has run two terrible campaigns in the past. More importantly, he's a politician of another era with no filter between is brain and his mouth. If he were to become the nominee, he would end up having to spend much of his time explaining away the latest "gaffe" rather than prosecuting the case against Trump. And while Trump is a doddering illiterate who's faced dozens of charges of sexual harassment and abuse, he's also a master of projection and would have an easy time painting Biden as creepy around women and in a state of cognitive decline.

The good news is that over the past few weeks, the media coverage of Biden appears to have shifted from whether he can "win back" those white guys in Pennsylvania and Ohio to a relentless, and yes, contradictory, focus on his flubs, both real and contrived.  It's the Al Gore model and as we learned in 2000, it can be absolutely devastating for a candidate.

As we get closer and more voters tune in, they're likely to be treated to an endless stream of stories about Biden saying something offensive, demonstrating that he's out-of-touch with the 21st century or losing marbles. It won't matter if those stories are substantive or cheap gotcha journalism. The narrative will likely puncture his aura of electability and should bring his polling numbers down to where they would be without it.

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