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Everybody Knows Biden Is Toast. Except Voters.

Ramesh Ponnuru

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The only thing Joe Biden has had going for him in this race is Democratic primary voters.

It has been months since the former vice president had the unofficial, media-awarded title of front-runner. He did not reclaim it after the Democratic candidates’ latest debate, Wednesday night in Atlanta. Big Democratic donors lack confidence in him. Pundits say that he is past his prime, that nobody is enthusiastic about him.

Yet still, month after month, he leads the national polls. At the moment, his average lead is in the double digits.

We have been told he might have an embarrassing finish in the first two state contests. But he is in second place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, again according to the poll averages. He has a solid lead in the next two states, Nevada and South Carolina.

Biden has also been lucky in the way the competition has shaken out. Earlier in the race it appeared that Senator Kamala Harris, who hit him hard in the first debate for not supporting busing as a means of desegregating schools, might be a major competitor. She might have eroded his support among black voters. But in part because she was unable to follow through on her attack – it quickly became clear she took basically the same position as him on busing – she has faded. The remaining top contenders are much less of a threat to him on this front.

In Atlanta, Biden said, “I come out of the black community, in terms of my support.” It was a characteristically peculiar thing to say, but not an unfounded one. In South Carolina, you can add the African-American supporters of Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders together, and you would still have half the number of Biden’s supporters. (The same is true in some national polls.) Buttigieg’s support rounds to zero. During the last campaign, South Carolina’s blacks backed Hillary Clinton over Sanders by 86 percent to 14 percent.

Biden is doing significantly better than the other candidates with Hispanics, too. It’s only among white Democrats that he has fallen behind. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton pledged to appoint a cabinet that “looks like America.” Biden is the only candidate with a coalition that looks like the Democratic Party.

When Warren was surging, she had a lead in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Biden has been dropping in both states over the last few months. It was therefore possible to imagine that Warren could win both: She would not need much African-American backing to do so in those heavily white states. Maybe Biden would perform so poorly as to be effectively knocked out of the race.

That scenario was always a long shot, and looks like more of one now that Warren has lost altitude. If no candidate wins both Iowa and New Hampshire while Biden performs well enough, he can stay in. Then his advantages in South Carolina, Nevada and the South may start to register.

Biden’s flaws as a candidate are of course obvious. During the Atlanta debate, as at previous debates, he was sometimes tongue-tied. He made a gaffe, saying he had the support of the only African-American female senator ever elected when he meant the first one — which was especially embarrassing since Harris was standing right there. He didn’t stand out for giving exceptionally strong answers, as Buttigieg and Harris sometimes did. Overall, he was just OK.

He might OK his way to the nomination. It has been easy to dismiss his chances on Twitter, where younger and more left-wing voices have disproportionate influence. Politicos and journalists spend too much time there, and it skews their view of what voters think. The media (and conservative) attention to left-wingers such as Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter, has also painted a false picture of the Democratic electorate. You’d never know, from watching the Democratic presidential debates, that the number of House sponsors of Medicare for All legislation fell when Democrats took over the chamber.

The strong showing of Sanders in the 2016 primaries encouraged the misunderstanding. He got as large a share of the Democratic vote as he did that year because he was an idealistic alternative to Clinton, not because he was a socialist.

This mistaken perception of the center of gravity among Democrats caused some candidates, such as Harris and Warren, to position themselves too far to the left. And it caused a lot of people to write Biden off as the nominee — to assume that any early lead in the polls was just a function of familiarity that would vanish as soon as voters saw how old and, by current standards, moderate he is.

There have been just enough data points to keep that doubt alive. He has sunk in the states where the campaigning has been most active. Obligatory hedge alert: I’m not saying he’s going to win the nomination. Democratic voters appear to have justified doubts about all four of the current top candidates, which may be why other contenders are still entering the race.

When thinking about the race, though, it’s worth keeping in mind that Biden’s chances have been underrated for a long time – and they’re still being underrated now.

To contact the author of this story: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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