Biden post-mortem: Trouble for the Democrats

You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and it turns out Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Hillicon Valley: Dems cancel surveillance vote after pushback to amendments | Facebook to ban certain coronavirus ads | Lawmakers grill online ticketing execs | Hacker accessed facial recognition company's database Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket MORE is the ultimate nobody. Throughout 2019 and into 2020, Biden led in 90 percent of the national polls against his Democratic opponents and in 99 percent of the polls against Trump. He also led strongly in all state polling. But it turns out Biden was the “generic Democrat” that doesn’t really exist. As soon as Biden had to compete on his own merits, he collapsed badly.

The death knell for Biden turned out to be the two weeks his main opponents (other than former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina MORE) were stuck at the impeachment trial. Biden and Buttigieg had Iowa to themselves, and Biden went from the leader in mid-January to a disastrous fourth place. Once Biden ceased to be a concept — the generic Democrat — and became a living, breathing, stumbling, fumbling candidate, voters turned away. The former vice president would have been better off in the Senate gallery than in Iowa.

Since primaries and caucuses are highly dependent (downward momentum is fatal), it’s hard to see where Biden goes from here. He was polling well in South Carolina, but the last poll was conducted 10 days ago and had him under 40 percent. South Carolina doesn’t vote for another two weeks, and in the interim Biden will have to deal with a likely loss in Nevada. Biden knows the Palmetto State is his last stand and rushed there from New Hampshire to campaign. Given what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire, his presence might not help.

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Biden’s collapse is heartening to progressives, but does it really advance their goal of beating Trump? After all, a bland generic Democrat might well be the best candidate to put forward.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDNC warns campaigns about cybersecurity after attempted scam Overnight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Trump taps Pence to lead coronavirus response | Trump accuses Pelosi of trying to create panic | CDC confirms case of 'unknown' origin | Schumer wants .5 billion in emergency funds Biden looks to shore up lead in S.C. MORE (I-Vt.) is definitely the frontrunner, but not a particularly strong leader. Sanders is not really doing that well at the ballot box. His 2020 vote totals are well below his 2016 numbers. While the crowded field certainly has a depressing effect as opposed to the two-person race in 2016, it is clear that a solid proportion of Sanders’ 2016 vote was not pro-Bernie, but anti-Clinton. In 2016 Sanders romped in New Hampshire at over 60 percent and more than 150,000 votes. His 2020 totals? Less than half the vote and under 26 percent — the lowest winner’s share ever.

Sanders and Buttigieg essentially tied in Iowa at 26 percent with nearly 46,000 votes for Sanders. While the Iowa Democratic Party declined to release the raw numbers, the estimated turnout of 170,000 would mean Sanders received about 77,500 votes — or a drop of over 31,000 votes.

The Sanders drop-off begs the question: How low is Sanders’ ceiling? Which states will give him a majority of the vote? Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden looks to shore up lead in S.C. The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina Lawmakers grill Ticketmaster, StubHub execs over online ticketing MORE’s third place finish lets her wheeze on through South Carolina. Buttigieg has enough momentum to carry himself through Super Tuesday. And Super Tuesday is where former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergGiuliani: Bloomberg 'jeopardized' stop and frisk by 'overusing it' Bloomberg calls on Trump to implement firearm background checks The Hill's Campaign Report: Gloves off in South Carolina MORE and his billion-dollar campaign awaits. 

None of the remaining Democratic candidates have been subject to serious scrutiny. Bloomberg’s not-so-old comments about crime and minorities have only just now been publicized and are potentially lethal in a Democratic primary. Sanders has not really been subject to the kind of sustained tough critical attacks on his record and promises, other than being hit with the generic “socialist” epithet. Similarly, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are relatively unknown at this point. Warren’s “wine cave” attack on Buttigieg was pretty weak tea. Biden’s attack — though it didn’t help him much — was much more brutal and to the point.

The Democratic field is a mishmash. The leader is a man trying to sell a revolution to a country with historic low unemployment. He is trailed by a 38-year-old small city mayor, a little-known U.S. Senator and a New York plutocrat. The expected top contenders, Biden and Warren, are quickly evaporating. Maybe Saturday Night Live is right, the winner of the Democratic race thus far is Trump.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711