Here's why Beto, Biden and Bernie are peaking

Much has been written about the supposed frontrunners for the Democratic nomination for president: Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE (I-Vt.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas). For the past several months, the first two have been comfortably leading the pack in national, Iowa and New Hampshire polls, while O’Rourke has been at or near the front of the remaining group. There has been an unmistakable (and highly mistaken) air of inevitability surrounding these three.

But the calculus that has gone into their decisions — or in Biden’s case, the expected decision — to enter this increasingly crowded field is laden with landmines that likely will doom each of their candidacies.

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Biden’s lead in public opinion polls stems largely from several factors: vast experience, in-depth policy knowledge, humble demeanor and an old-style moderation to politics aimed at building bridges across parties. Should he formalize his would-be campaign, Biden would have instant access to gobs of money, experienced campaigners and nationwide name recognition well beyond any other Democratic candidate’s.

But by running, Biden would open himself up to past statements and actions that at worst would tarnish his reputation in the twilight of his career  and at best would force him into off-message clarifications of misogynistic and racially insensitive assertions. Is Biden a racist? Hardly. Is he a sexist? Presumably not. Yet his record is long and winding. He has made seeming racist and sexist statements. Whether or not they were gaffes is irrelevant. The question is how they will play in a Democratic primary. The answer: not very well.

Additionally, Biden is at his best as an elder statesman: a calm, gracious  and forward-thinking leader with the moral authority to, for example, publicly endorse same-sex marriage at a time when a majority of the nation — including President Obama — opposed it. But in addition to defending or correcting embarrassing comments about race and gender, candidate Biden also would be forced to defend — or double down — on misguided statements about President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE, such as: “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

The current president can get away with that type of language with his voters, because most of the Republican Party has already embraced him for it (or in spite of it). The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is not looking to nominate someone who wants to beat up Trump. It comes across as unpresidential and unbecoming of an elder statesman. And it comes across as fake. Simply put, Biden’s strengths are too easily punctured by weaknesses; he is a relic that looks more pristine when displayed from afar.

Bernie Sanders’ popularity is a carry-over from the 2016 election, when he became the anti-Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE en route to more than 13 million primary votes — good for an impressive 43 percent against the much better organized and better funded nominee.

A common mistake in politics is to think that success in one election will translate into success in the next one. Sanders’ rise in 2015 and 2016 was due in part to his inspiring appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But it was also due to a weak field of candidates, spurred by the widespread belief that Clinton would win regardless. Many Democratic voters simply wanted another option  and support eventually coalesced around the candidate with the next best shot at winning.

Sanders had two advantages during that cycle: he was a fresh voice (despite his advanced age) on the national political scene and he was the only foil — in temperament, messaging and style — to Clinton. In 2019, Sanders is a known commodity. Worse, he’s a foil to no one. He cannot differentiate himself from the field, because various candidates share either Sanders’ temperament, messaging, or style. All that remains is a 77-year-old socialist whose inflated support will splinter off as rivals co-opt the best attributes of his once unique brand.

Finally, Beto O’Rourke is seeking to parlay a surprisingly close electoral loss in Texas into the presidency. What the three-term congressman possesses in charisma, he lacks in track record. The 46-year-old O’Rourke is known more for his music career than for the three bills he passed while in Congress. He is a folk hero of sorts in Democratic circles after almost knocking off Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJim Carrey fires back at 'Joe McCarthy wanna-be' Cruz Hillicon Valley: Google delays cutting off Huawei | GOP senators split over breaking up big tech | Report finds DNC lagging behind RNC on cybersecurity GOP senators split over antitrust remedies for big tech MORE in the 2018 Senate race. Had he remained in Texas and spent the next few years advancing causes he believes in, he might have unseated Cruz in 2024, particularly given the changing demographics that soon could turn Texas purple.

Instead, O’Rourke is risking more than people realize by jumping into a contest against more accomplished and seasoned Democrats. As with Sanders, O’Rourke benefited from being the anti-Cruz in last year’s wave election, when Democrats crushed the record for most midterm votes in U.S. history. Running for the Senate, he was a near-perfect candidate at a near-perfect time and still came up short. Running for president, he cannot hope to recapture that magic with more than a dozen other highly capable candidates aiming to knock him off that pedestal.

Polls this early in the presidential race are largely meaningless. They are based more on name recognition than on viability. Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke are among the biggest beneficiaries. But make no mistake: their support is as soft as any other candidates  and all three will find the road ahead much tougher than it seems today.

Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. A former campaign director, author and editor, he has shared political insights on CNN, Fox News and radio. Jessica Sullivan, a Duke University sophomore and POLIS research assistant, also assisted with the research for this article.