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Three Ways Joe Biden Could Lose the Nomination

The August Democratic power rankings.
August 20, 2019
Three Ways Joe Biden Could Lose the Nomination
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hello, darkness my old friend.

When summer began, our top three spots were held by Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg. This was not based on only polling, but on positioning within the field. Biden held a commanding lead and Bernie was a clear second—but Mayor Pete was in a statistical muddle with three other candidates (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke) and looked to have a very large upside.

Since then we’ve had 12 weeks of polling, two sets of debates, and the departure of two minor candidates (Eric Swalwell and John Hickenlooper). Labor Day is around the corner and we are only 27 weeks from Iowa. The hour is later than you think.

(1) Joe Biden. The former vice president went from being a theoretical candidate to a real candidate. (Remember, he only jumped into the race in late April.) He rolled out his campaign, assembled a fundraising operation, endured a set of mini-scandals, gave the public a first look at his tanned, rested, and ready self, and weathered two debates where all of the White Walkers came for him.

And all that happened is that his lead over his nearest competitor went from +6 on the day he announced (ahead of Bernie Sanders) to +13 today (over Elizabeth Warren).

He has a solid lead in Iowa, a small lead in Bernie- and Warren-adjacent New Hampshire, and a dominating lead in South Carolina. He continues to be—by far—the strongest challenger to Trump in general election match-up polling. (Where the most recent survey from Fox News—Fox News!—has him +12 against President Trump.)

All of which is to say that Biden was the favorite to win the nomination in May and his advantage since then has grown.

It used to be the case that if you were offered the chance to bet on Biden, or the field, it was a close call. That’s no longer the case. If you want to bet on the field today, you should get odds.

That said, it’s still possible to see how Biden mucks this up:

There’s the General Collapse theory: He makes some unrecoverable gaffe, or has a meltdown in a debate that he can’t put behind him.

There’s the Consolidated Challenge theory: Progressive voters unite behind one candidate immediately before (or after) Iowa; and then wage trench warfare, delegate-by-delegate, fighting Biden all the way to Milwaukee.

There’s the Hand of God theory: Some event slingshots another candidate past him. This would have to be something major, like a Michelle Obama endorsement or a financial panic.

Any of these things could happen. Electoral environments change frequently. Remember the 2004 Democratic primary and the 2008 Republican primary, when the presumed front-runners tanked, then came back from the dead to run the tables? Or the 2012 Republican primary, when just about every declared candidate—even Herman Cain—had a moment at the head of the pack?

On the other hand, sometimes races are radically stable. The 2016 Republican primary was like that: Trump took the lead early and then held it. The collapse never came.

At this point, the nomination is Biden’s to lose.

(2) Elizabeth Warren. I can’t believe I have her this high. But it’s a function not of her strength, but her positioning: She’s the candidate with the best chance of pulling off the Consolidated Challenge.

Warren’s national numbers have surged in the last few weeks, but that’s not what impresses me. What impresses me is that she continues to be strong in Iowa and that she’s managed to move past Bernie nationally.

So here’s her theory of victory:

Warren finishes ahead of Bernie in Iowa. Progressives then quickly jump ship to get behind the candidate they believe has the best chance of stopping Biden. Warren finishes top two in New Hampshire, takes her licks in South Carolina, and then wins a marathon victory over the course of months. She persists!

To be clear, I don’t buy this. It assumes that everybody else in the field stands still and that Biden himself doesn’t increase his support and isn’t the second choice of Bernie and Harris and Mayor Pete voters. It assumes that everything goes right for Warren—and wrong for everyone else.

But at least it’s a theory and there are only a couple of candidates who even have one of those.

Also: Warren stands poised to benefit from events should there be a Hand of God moment. For instance, if there was a Bear Stearns-like collapse that rattled the markets, Warren is positioned to speak to voters in a way that, say, Mayor Pete and Kamala Harris are not.

(3) Kamala Harris. She’s back down to earth. After having a real moment during the first debate, Harris is basically back where she was. And that’s because—as I keep saying—she’s an empty vessel.

Sometimes this is an advantage for a candidate, because voters can fill the campaign with their own personal hopes and dreams. But most of the time it’s a weakness. You have to give people a reason why you’re running and the reason cannot, transparently, be “Because I want to be president.”

(Which, in fairness to Harris, is why >95 percent of candidates run. It’s also a big reason Hillary Clinton lost.)

But like Warren, at least she has a plausible theory of victory: African-American voters and suburban women flock to her after New Hampshire, giving her a coalition that can go toe-to-toe with Biden while Warren and Bernie split the progressive vote.

Is this likely? Not based on anything we’ve seen so far. But she has native political talent and if Biden goes through a General Collapse, then she’s as well-positioned as anyone to pick up his support.

(4) Bernie Sanders. He’s in free fall and he has no idea what to do about it.

As Beto O’Rourke knows, it’s pretty easy to run mano-a-mano against a single, deeply unpopular candidate. It’s like selling umbrellas in the rain.

Running against a wide field of people, many of whom are personally popular is … harder. If you’re used to selling umbrellas in the rain, bright lights can be a disorienting experience.

That’s where Bernie is now and it’s why he’s lashing out against the Biased Fake News Media and sounding, more and more, like the Elseworld’s Trump.

All of the indicators are going the wrong way for Bernie right now. He’s been on a prolonged decline in the polls since March. His biggest overall rival is Biden, and Biden launched successfully. His biggest in-lane rival is Warren, and she has gained steadily for three months.

And it’s not clear what Bernie can do to snap the rubber band and change the race.

(5) Pete Buttigieg. Look, he already accomplished what he wanted with this campaign. Mayor Pete is one of those people (like Harris) who’s wanted to be president since first grade. But he’s a gay, white, liberal from Indiana. How was this supposed to work?

The first step was easy: Run for mayor in a college town. But how do you catapult from South Bend mayor to the national stage? He can’t run for Senate or the governor’s office in Indiana—he’s way out of step with the state politically. But another way to build a national profile is by making an impressive run on the presidential stage and turning yourself into an obvious cabinet pick for the next Democratic president.

Mission accomplished.

But that may be as far as this train goes. African-American voters haven’t warmed to him. He hasn’t taken from the progressive bases of Warren and Bernie. And the race hasn’t turned into a generational choice.

Mayor Pete has the money and the energy. He has the candidate skills. You can see how, if the debates ever shrink to the five real candidates, he could shine.

What you can’t see is how he wins the nomination. There is no version of the story where he ends up on the throne. This time.

(6) People who might make it to New Hampshire. There are three candidates who are serious people with serious futures who have no chance of winning the nomination. Which is to say: Even if everything went right for them and everything went wrong for everyone else, they still don’t win:

Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand.

They probably stay in the race through Iowa. Maybe they hang around until New Hampshire. But that’s when they’re going to depart gracefully and hope that the eventual nominee remembers them fondly.

(9) People who maybe just might make it to Iowa. There’s another class of candidates with futures for whom even making it to Iowa will be an achievement:

Beto O’Rourke, Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, Jay Inslee.

For some of them, when they drop out of the race will be a function of political opportunism. For others it’ll be a function of whether or not they believe their issues got a fair hearing.

For none of them will it be a function of them suddenly realizing that they aren’t going to be the nominee.

(16) The YOLO brigade. Finally there’s the group of candidates who seem to have no real interest in whether or not they hurt the eventual nominee (or the party at large). And so it’s basically impossible to guess how far they’ll take this thing because, to them, running for president is pretty much George Costanza’s house in the Hamptons.

I keep waiting for Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson to tell us about the solarium, the other solarium, Snoopy, and Prickly Pete. Let’s get nuts!

And yet, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility that one of them could impact the race, either through a Chris Christie-style kamikaze mission or a decision to run as a third-party candidate.

See you in September.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.