Krystal Ball questions Biden's durability in 2020 field

Opinion by: Krystal Ball

As we head into another debate week, Nate Silver made an interesting and important observation.  

It's a curious stat because it shows both durability and weakness. On the one hand, no matter how many times he forgets what state he's in, or angrily shouts down a voter or fails to complete one coherent sentence during his debate performances, there he is at the top of the polls, strong and steady in spite of his often weak and wobbly performance. On the other, it's a position of real vulnerability. No one can be considered a strong frontrunner when they can't even grab 30% of the vote. Especially at this point in the race as candidates like Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisConway: Trump is 'toying with everybody' by attacking Bloomberg for stop-and-frisk comments The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Beleaguered Biden turns to must-win South Carolina MORE start to drop leaving what voters they had up for grabs. As I've been saying here too, the impact of Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergWhere the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad Judd Gregg: Bloomberg rising MORE should not be underestimated given his literally limitless funds, well-known profile and relatively favorable media coverage. The prospect of him dropping former Vice Presient Joe BidenJoe BidenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE down a few points is real although at this point it seems to be South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE he is hurting more. One person you know for sure isn't threatened by Bloomberg, of course, is Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE (I-Vt.). 

Because of Biden's durability in the polls however, a perception has set in that he is untouchable. Teflon. Not really even worth trying to hit. I don't buy it.

After all, let's not forget that Kamala's first debate hit on him actually worked. Conventional wisdom says that no one really cares about his past record when in fact, he did take a hit over the way Kamala used his anti-busing record to paint him as out of step with the modern party. The problem was, that after she landed the initial blow, she herself wavered on her busing stance essentially adopting the same position as Biden, but even more than that, the whole thing with the instagram posts and the t-shirts came off as way too cute. Too premeditated, practiced, and opportunistic rather than based on conviction.

Former Democratic presidential contender Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellChris Wallace: 'Just insane' Swalwell is talking impeaching Trump again McCarthy says Trump did not interfere in Roger Stone case House intelligence briefing on worldwide threat assessment delayed MORE and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and now Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE have all taken a crack at going after Biden. But their attacks on him all suffer from similar flaws. Whatever their merits, and the merits of each line of attack very greatly, they all come off as too strategic and planned out.

The lesson from all of these failed attempts shouldn't be that attacks on Biden don't land at best or boomerang at worst. As Harris's initial attempt shows, it's just really got to be done in the right way and it's not easy. Just consider some of the most effective debate attacks of the past couple cycles. They work because they have a sort of alchemy. Three key ingredients that really make them stick and cause lasting damage. As they say, if you come at the king, you best not miss. So for any candidates looking to try out a Biden attack, listen up. Because if you miss, well just ask Kamala, Castro and Swalwell how that goes.

First, effective attacks always seem to be at least somewhat spontaneous, organic, spur of the moment. Now, say what you will about Trump, he may not have had a lot of substantive points to make or deep policy knowledge but he is an absolute master of the stagecraft of debates. He's unpredictable, quick-witted, and has a gift for cutting his opponents to their core. No one suffered more than the flat-footed and big money darling Jeb.

This moment was one of many devastating blows that exposed Jeb as weak knee-ed and spineless.

Dana BashDana BashSunday shows - Spotlight shines on Bloomberg, stop and frisk Klobuchar says she raised M since New Hampshire debate More accusers come forward after Evelyn Yang breaks silence on alleged assault by OBGYN MORE: Governor Bush, Mr. Trump has suggested that your views on immigration are influenced by your mexican-born wife. He said that quote, if my wife were from Mexico, I think I would have a soft spot for people from Mexico. Did Mr. Trump go too far in invoking your wife?

Jeb: He did. He did. You're proud of your family as I am. To subject my wife into the middle of political conversation was completely inappropriate and I hope you apologize for that.

Trump: I have to tell you, I hear your wife is a lovely woman.

Jeb: She's fantastic. She's absolutely the love of my life and right here and why don't you apologize to her.
Trump: I won't do that because I said nothing wrong. I do hear she's a lovely woman.

Jeb's attempt to attack Trump, please apologize to my wife! Came off as both preplanned and lame. Trump's counterpunch was the exact opposite. Off the cuff and responsive to the moment with devastating effect. See also the time trump said maybe Jeb's mom should be running for president instead of him.

The second necessary element of an effective attack is that it strikes at a core concern voters have with that candidate. One of the greatest debate moments of all time in my humble opinion was when Chris Christie just ended Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPeace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid MORE live on stage before himself dropping out of the race and endorsing Trump. Let's relive the magic.

Marco Rubio: But I would add this, Let's dispel with this fiction that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press Juan Williams: Don't count Biden out Candidates in Obama's orbit fail to capitalize on personal ties MORE doesn't know what he's doing, he knows exactly what he's doing. He is trying to change this country he wants America to become more like the rest of the world we don't want to be like the rest of the world we want to be the United States of America and when I'm elected president this will become once again the single greatest nation in the history of the world
Chris Christie: And I want the people at home to think about this that's what Washington, D.C. does the drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what divides this nation.
Marco Rubio: You didn't even want to go back they had to shame you into going about and then you stayed there for 36 hours the bottom line this notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not.
Chris Christie: There it is.
Marco Rubio: He knows exactly what.
Chris Christie: The memorized 25-second speech.

This worked so incredibly well because the core concern about Rubio was that he was not ready for primetime. A sort of focus-grouped and well-rehearsed pretty boy without much depth to match. Christie's attack felt organic and revealed exactly what voters feared most about Marco.

The third necessary element is mostly out of your control. Your adversary has to fail in their response. Your odds of catching your opponent off balance are obviously best if you come after them in a way they haven't anticipated. That's why usually the attacks that candidates have previewed in the debate run up are rarely the ones that really leave a mark. For example, Warren previewed attacks on Biden and Buttigieg in a major speech last week going after them both for fantasizing about working with republicans and for their big dollar fundraising. Previewing an attack is a good way to get the moderators to bring it up but it's very unlikely you will catch your opponent sleeping.

Probably the most effective punch thrown this cycle so far was Tulsi's attack on Harris.

Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardWhere the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Sanders leads Biden in latest Nevada poll Yang: NYC should implement universal basic income MORE: Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president but I'm deeply concerned about this record there are too many examples to cite. But, she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She wouldn’t have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so she kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep the cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.

Now honestly, there was no excuse for Harris to not have a response here. Her record as a tough on crime prosecutor was an obvious point of criticism, but it just so happened that she and her team had never really decided how she would handle that part of her past. She went back and forth between embracing it and distancing herself. So when Tulsi came at her, not only did she not have a response ready that day but she really never figured out how to respond. Her already flagging campaign entered a tailspin from which it never recovered.

All of this is to say that Biden isn't somehow uniquely impervious to any sort of critique. We've already seen in this campaign the potential for a well-executed blow to land. I do think his long history with voters makes it a bit more difficult. Voters have a solidly favorable impression of him and they feel like they know who he is. That's why it's so important that you nail all three elements and in particular, that you come at him on the right issue, an area of core concern. What might that be? Well with a debate looming and an impeachment trial in which his family will be front and center, I'm going to spend a little extra time on the former vice president this week. Stay tuned for some ideas on critiques I think need to be made and what may actually land. Biden can be beaten. But it's time for someone to step up and make the case directly with all the risk that entails.