We're Not Gonna Do This Again, Are We?

Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez (AP)

You would think that after 2016, America’s political class would be a little more hesitant to make sweeping predictions about who’s going to be at the top of everyone’s ballot in 2020, or who would win. You would, apparently, be wrong.

Politico, signifying that the main source of Joe Biden intrigue has officially moved from the minute details of his campaign rollout to “can he actually win this thing,” has a new story out asking Biden opponents and supporters about his strengths and weaknesses. From the left, Democracy for America chairman Charles Chamberlain criticized Biden as a “corporate Democrat” (true) and said that “the wheels are going to come off the cart.”

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Colin Strother, a former adviser to Julián Castro from Texas, described Biden as something of a phony frontrunner:

Yet if Biden’s announcement put Democrats on notice that Biden is “the biggest, baddest guy in this race,” Strother said, “I think the frost melts off this pumpkin pretty quickly here.”

“He starts off in a really strong position,” Strother said. “But when it starts getting down to issues, I think he’s going to be in big trouble … I think he’s going to go down hard and fast.”

Meanwhile, AFT president Randi Weingarten—who mostly had positive things to say about Biden—told the outlet that “if the polls mean anything, there is a great reservoir of goodwill for him.”

Here is how much the polls at this point have meant, historically, thanks to a very valuable Washington Post tool:

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Yes, on this day in 2016, Jeb Bush was still the frontrunner to win the GOP nomination, and in 2008, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton were miles ahead. I’m also reminded of the clip of a panel of political reporters and pundits laughing at then-Rep. Keith Ellison when he said, in July 2015, that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination.

This doesn’t mean criticism of Biden isn’t sticking, that he’s as strong as polls indicate, or that any of the people I just quoted will end up being wrong. In particular, I want—and am inclined—to believe what Strother says, and that once Biden starts trying to articulate policy ideas beyond discarded Obama lines he plucked out of the trash, he’s cooked.

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But if 2016 and 2018 and everything in between should’ve taught us anything, it’s that the electorate has grown pretty radically unpredictable in recent years. At this point, still more than half a year away from the first primary, there’s no indication that’s changing. (This New York Times story from Sunday about Biden’s supporters in Pennsylvania should be evidence enough for this.) It’s an even tougher proposition considering how many Democrats are in the race right now; if even half of the declared candidates make it to Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s a chance that someone could pull out a win in some of the early primaries and caucuses with 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Thankfully, there’s not much chance of the campaigns of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren not taking Biden seriously; already, both have hit Biden for his ties to corporate interests, after a big money fundraiser for the candidate was held at the home of a Comcast lobbyist on his first day in the race. But if you’re expecting Biden or any other Democrat hanging around the top of the pack right now to just fall apart, just try to remember who you thought had the best chance to be the next president at this point four years ago.

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