'No Malarkey': Biden could shock the pundits and win

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 63 days until the Iowa caucuses and 337 days until the 2020 election.

It’s been the Big Assumption driving the Democratic presidential primary, the thing that all the major players — from the savvy Sunday morning show pundits to the candidates themselves — have simply taken for granted: Joe Biden may be leading in the national polls now, but there’s no way he’s actually going to win the nomination.

It’s time to start wondering whether they’re wrong.

Consider the story so far. After months of speculation, the former vice president formally launched his 2020 bid on April 25. Observers described his rollout as “rocky” and said he had “stumbled” his way to the starting line. No matter — Biden immediately shot up to 41 percent in the national polls. The experts then said his bounce would fade amid further missteps. Not quite: It actually turned out to be “especially large compared with the post-launch bounces of other candidates.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

In the first round of debates, Kamala Harris eviscerated Biden over his resistance to federally mandated busing and his willingness to work with segregationists. Other racial fumbles — such as saying “poor kids” are just as bright as “white kids” — followed at a regular clip. But Biden’s national polling average never once dipped below 26 percent, or two points higher than his average in the three weeks leading up to his campaign kickoff, and whenever it fell at all, it would quickly rebound to about 30 percent.

Today Biden leads his closest national rival, Bernie Sanders, by more than 10 percentage points on average. Buoyed by the overwhelming support of black Democrats, he’s still polling at 27 percent.

Joe Biden
Biden meets with residents of Storm Lake, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

As David Axelrod, former adviser to President Barack Obama, recently put it, “so many scenarios … are dependent on this idea that Biden is going to collapse.” It’s why a glut of relatively little-known centrists — Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado — remain in the race against all odds; they aspire to fill the void that will be left behind when Biden inevitably implodes. (Two who were in that category, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, acknowledged reality and ended their campaigns over the weekend.) It’s why Harris and Cory Booker are still hanging on; they’re hoping to reap Biden’s support among blacks after his fall. It’s why Mike Bloomberg decided to jump in at the last minute. And it’s why Pete Buttigieg has rebranded himself as a pragmatic Midwestern moderate — to siphon off Biden backers in Iowa and ride the momentum of a strong finish there to victory in New Hampshire and beyond.

But as Axelrod went on to say, Biden and his fans have stubbornly refused to play along. “The Biden thing is the strangest thing I've ever seen in politics because the guy is up there in the air and everybody is just assuming he's going to come down,” Axelrod explained. “There is kind of a Mr. Magoo kind of quality to the whole thing, but he's still driving, you know? He's still moving forward. You worry that he's going to hit the wall at any given moment, but he hasn’t.”

Joe Biden
Biden in Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Monday. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Biden’s rivals will point out that the primaries take place in numerous states over several months, and that despite his impressive numbers in national polls he is in fourth place in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Biden’s support is a mirage, they argue. It’s all about name recognition and perceived electability. It vanishes wherever people are paying close attention. As soon as he loses the first two states, it’s going to vanish everywhere else. And another candidate will capitalize.

This has long been the prediction of Biden skeptics, and it’s still possible that it will come to pass. But the very durability of Biden’s support — particularly among older black voters — suggests another possible outcome. As the New York Times reported Monday, Biden doesn’t actually need to win Iowa or New Hampshire to accrue the 1,990 pledged delegates required to clinch the nomination. He simply needs to hold onto black voters in Southern states and urban areas.

If he does, Democratic Party rules will work in his favor. Districts with high concentrations of Democrats award more delegates, and black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. The same is true of most urban areas in large states such as California and Texas, which both vote, along with Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia, on Super Tuesday (March 3). At that point, 38 percent of all pledged will have been allocated, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any candidate who isn’t at least close to the lead to catch up.

At the moment, Biden is on track to perform very well after Iowa and New Hampshire. In Nevada, he leads by nearly 10 points on average. In South Carolina, the last state to vote before Super Tuesday, he is currently averaging 35.3 percent in the polls — more than double his closest competitor. Among black voters there, Biden is ahead by 34 points. The latest surveys in California, Texas, North Carolina and Virginia also show him in the lead. And the last two national CNN polls showed Biden averaging 49 percent with black Democratic primary voters — “good enough,” notes Harry Enten, “not only for a 35-point lead over his Democratic competitors, but good enough to beat all of them combined by about 10 points.”

A sign in support of Joe Biden
Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

The question, then, is whether Biden’s voters will stick with him past his expected losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. If they do, he will be in position to arrive at Milwaukee’s Democratic National Convention next summer with more delegates than anyone else. And even if Biden’s backers are tempted to jump ship, where will they go? To Buttigieg, who is currently polling at zero percent among black Democrats in South Carolina and has repeatedly struggled to connect? To Harris or Booker, the two African-Americans in the race, who aren’t doing much better — and who are also barely registering in Iowa and New Hampshire? To Warren or Sanders, whom most older black voters consider too liberal and impractical to win?

Over the weekend, Biden launched an eight-day bus tour across Iowa. It will be his most extensive campaign swing to date, and with it he debuted a new slogan: “No Malarkey.” The reviews on Twitter (home to young anti-Biden progressives, both black and white) and in the press (which takes its cues from Twitter) were withering: “77-Year-Old Candidate Hopes ‘No Malarkey’ Bus Will Excite Voters,” New York magazine wrote snarkily.

It’s a familiar trope: The same old Biden — who’s been saying things like “malarkey” his entire political career — meets the usual chattering-class mockery. The pitch Biden is making this week in Iowa is familiar too: He is the only candidate who can “beat [Trump] like a drum” next November. Biden’s bet is that regardless of what happens in Iowa, more Democrats prefer the same old thing to something new. He has yet to be proven wrong.

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