Robinson: Biden’s odds against Trump keep him atop pack

Despite predictions others will win the nomination, Biden still is the pick of most in early polls.

By Eugene Robinson / The Washington Post

How can we miss Joe Biden if he won’t go away?

It’s beginning to look as if Democrats don’t want him to go away at all. The betting odds, along with many of my fellow pundits, assess Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, to be the likely nominee. So why, then, does Biden continue to hold a substantial lead in the national polls? And why, at the moment, is that lead growing?

The clear and simple answer has little to do with the Democratic Party’s progressive-vs.-moderate divide, which is more a theoretical chasm than a practical one. Biden’s staying power has everything to do with President Trump; and the imperative that the incumbent be defeated next November.

It now appears overwhelmingly likely that Trump will be impeached by the House and face trial in the Senate. The chance that 20 Republican senators will join with Democrats in voting to remove him from office is not zero — especially if public airing of the evidence against the president weakens his support among the GOP base — but remains, at this point, somewhere between small and minuscule.

We have no way of knowing how an incumbent president marked with the stigma of impeachment would fare in a bid for reelection, since such a thing has never happened before. But we’re likely to find out.

Hypothetical matchup polls taken over the last month show any of the leading Democratic contenders beating Trump in the general election. But almost all of them have Biden beating him by the biggest margin. A Fox News poll released Sunday, for example, showed Biden leading Trump by 12 points, while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont., led him by 8 points and Warren led him by 5.

It follows that the question is how risk-averse Democratic voters will prove to be. As long as Biden looks like the surest bet to beat Trump, he’s going to be hard for any of his rivals to knock off.

A set of New York Times polls of likely voters in battleground states, released Monday, offered more good news for the Biden campaign; and bad news for his nearest competitors. They showed him beating Trump narrowly in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona, tying him in Michigan and losing by a whisker in North Carolina. In every one of those states, Biden was seen as faring better than Warren or Sanders. Warren was shown as beating Trump only in Arizona, and either losing to him or tying him in matchups in the other states.

Numbers like those may be why Biden continues to lead the Democratic field in the Real Clear Politics national poll average, with 29.1 percent, followed by Warren with 20.6 percent, Sanders with 16.6 percent, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 7.1 percent. At this point, everybody else in the race is basically hanging around, waiting for lightning to strike.

That is not what anyone would call a commanding lead. But it has been remarkably durable, and I see no reason to doubt it reflects the reality of the contest.

It is true that Biden’s fundraising has been anemic compared to that of Sanders and Warren. If money and passion were dispositive, Biden would already be toast. Yet something else — I believe it’s his numbers against Trump’s — keeps him in front.

What, exactly, is going to prompt the Biden collapse that so many knowledgeable observers seem to think is coming? A lousy debate performance? He has survived several of those just fine. Some kind of off-the-wall utterance at a campaign stop? Biden has been a reliable source of flubs and non sequiturs for decades, and his supporters are unbothered.

Here is another way to look at the race. If all of today’s Real Clear Politics poll averages are borne out — they won’t be, but humor me — Biden would lose to Warren in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but then beat her in Nevada and South Carolina. That would set up a showdown on Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states hold their primaries, including California, Texas and five Southern states where the African American vote — perhaps Biden’s greatest strength — will be crucial.

The necessity of sending this historically bad president home to Trump Tower — or now, I guess, Mar-a-Lago — so overshadows the Democratic campaign that voters are commitment-shy. A recent poll in Iowa showed that the number of undecided Democrats there increased sharply over the summer. I admit that I don’t know what’s going to happen.

But anybody who hopes to win has to get past Biden. So far, nobody has.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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