There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Joe Biden was the man to beat in the race to win the Democratic nomination. Name recognition, likability, electability, or his eight years of service as Barack Obama’s lieutenant, meant that Biden’s poll numbers were sky-high and the former vice president was the indisputable frontrunner. A poll last month put Biden on 38 per cent – 19 percentage points higher than his nearest competitor. “Middle Class Joe”, it seemed, had the nomination in the bag. But then the Democratic debates took place. And Biden’s desperate slump began.
Since the June 27 Democratic hustings in Florida, Biden has been losing support. After the debate, Biden’s numbers dropped by 10 percentage points, according to a CNN survey published yesterday. Senator Kamala Harris’s numbers, in contrast, shot up like a rocket from eight per cent to 17 per cent.
Biden’s performance was nothing short of dismal in the eyes of most Democrats who watched it. When Harris thrusted the rhetorical knife in Biden’s gut during her passionate denunciation of the former VP’s opposition to mandatory busing in the 1970s, he looked like a deer in the headlights. Harris, describing her experience as an African American child who faced discrimination, pulled the heart strings with a deeply personal story. Biden, a man more than 20 years her senior and from a different political era, stumbled for a response and chose to emphasise his nearly 50-year record as a public servant.
But it didn’t work. The general consensus after the exchange was that the long-time politician was skewered by a representative of a Democratic party shifting beneath his feet.
In the days since, other candidates have tried to jump on the Kamala bandwagon. Her successful attack against one of the most well-known Democrats in the country convinced others that Biden was not invincible, but vulnerable.
Senator Cory Booker, in the middle of the pack of 23 candidates, has milked the opportunity for all its worth. On national television, he all but called Biden an old, washed-up hack who needed to move aside for the good of the party. “Whoever the next president is going to be, really needs to be someone who can talk openly and honestly about race with vulnerability,” Booker said. “I’m not sure if vice president Biden is up to that task, given the way this last three weeks have played out.”
Biden’s campaign is floundering because the candidate is floundering. The strategists can continue to churn out advertisements and the fundraisers can continue to pull in tens of millions of dollars in contributions, but money— like polls—can go up and down depending on performance.
U.S. presidential politics is an inherently unpredictable beast. There are no coronations. Even Hillary Clinton, with a vast political machine and the Democratic Party establishment fully behind her, had to fend of a pesky Bernie Sanders for months.
Joe Biden can come back in the face of adversity. Or, alternatively, Joe Biden can become the Democratic party’s version of Jeb Bush—the candidate with all the money in the world, but who quickly flames out after the first few primaries. Right now, it’s anyone’s game.