Ominous news for Joe Biden: He’s ahead in the Democratic presidential primary race — way ahead.
Nearly four in 10 Democratic primary voters say they want the national convention to nominate him in Milwaukee 14 months from now.
In fact, the former senator and vice president currently has more than twice the support of his closest competitor. That’s Bernie Sanders, who’s not really a Democrat, but he plays one on TV every four years.
The other 21 — yes, 21 — wannabe commanders-in-chief trail off far behind that pair — including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Peter Buttigieg, Robert Francis O’Rourke and on down to people you still haven’t heard of. None of them register even double-digit support yet. After weeks of campaigning, some still show zero percent support.
Of course, it’s early yet, very early. Still 76 weeks of mind-numbing rallies and TV interviews and debates, late-night airport arrivals and dark hotel rooms where they awaken uncertain of what city they’re in.
And therein lurks the danger for the 76-year-old Joe Biden. It’s not good to be even a little ahead at this early stage. Around this time four years ago, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee led GOP polls.
Before that, remember Presidents Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum? All were out front at this or similar stages in their primary races. And all flamed out.
At this point in the 2016 race, the name Donald J. Trump wasn’t even included in most polls because he was still a month away from that down-escalator ride into history.
It’s a very long race to the presidency now. Back in 1960, John F. Kennedy launched his candidacy on Jan. 3, just 310 days before the election. Biden announced his last month 561 days in advance. And he was quite late for this cycle. Some had been running since last Thanksgiving.
It’s ironic that in an age of technology when global mass communications and fame are as instant as a presidential tweet, these races have become so much longer than when candidates had only propeller planes, speeches and black-and-white television to make their case.
Biden has the luxury of near universal name recognition, which is how he led the field in polls weeks before his opening video message. Of course, polls are mere snapshots, not predictions. But his long political life means that Biden has an almost half-century legislative and political record that spans seven years longer than that South Bend mayor’s entire life.
We’ll see how much his party colleagues go after Biden’s record and gaffes when the Democratic debates begin late next month in Miami. They’ll need to score points, as will Biden, in the closing days of second-quarter fundraising.
Those numbers, published in early July, will be crucial markers for viewers and especially donors to gauge how long some of these candidacies will survive into the fall when ad costs drain campaign chests.
Primary campaigns are all about learning, as they should be. Voters are learning about candidates. But candidates once cloistered by a home state must also learn about this vast, varied country they seek to lead.
You better know about hog futures and ethanol for the Iowa caucuses and how Trump’s tariffs on China are hurting farmers there. During the last campaign, New Hampshire’s opioid crisis forced candidates to become so conversant on that topic it blew into a national conversation that endures.
A long race also provides more opportunities for gaffes — and more time to recover. Remember during the 2008 race Barack Obama vowing he’d phone the president of Canada about changing NAFTA, and boasting that he had been to all 57 states with one more to go.
Already, two Democrats are recalibrating their campaigns and messages. Despite an impressive start, Harris is wallowing around 5% support, below even Buttigieg. She’s announced a campaign “relaunch.”
And so has O’Rourke at 4%. Once, he excited many as a fresh face full of promise, standing on tables to excite diner crowds, asserting he’d been born to be president. But as Warren and Sanders issued detailed plan after plan, O’Rourke didn’t. There seems to be no there there.
O’Rourke’s recent campaign relaunch included a livestream of his haircut when he stressed the importance of trimming ear hairs, too.
Such are the minutiae that voters catch here and there over time as they form general impressions of candidates’ character, knowledge, personality and, most importantly this time, likelihood of effectively challenging the incumbent president.
Choosing an American president is a very messy, even ugly process, raucous and rife with luck, happenstance and adversity. The 2016 experience of the GOP’s splintered field of 17 suggests Democrats’ ultimate nominee will be someone unexpected at this point.
History also suggests that, as his competitors become better-known, Joe Biden will not maintain such an impressive paper lead, or perhaps any lead at all. Remember back in the summer of 2015, it looked for a short while like the Republican nominee might well be someone named Ben Carson.