Can Joe Biden Get Back on Track? | Opinion

It's been a rough couple of weeks for Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, beginning with his poor performance in the first presidential debate. Not only did Biden look tired and distracted (one outspoken observer might say "sleepy",) but in the debate's key moments, he totally failed to counter an aggressive volley from Senator Kamala Harris who accused him of racial insensitivity in opposing school busing over the years and of working with former Democratic senators who are now far out of the mainstream of the modern Democratic Party. In the polling after the debate, Biden lost a significant amount of support, mostly to Senator Harris. Senator Elizabeth Warren also saw gains, mostly at the expense of Senator Bernie Sanders.

It's hard to know what's more surprising: that Biden didn't anticipate the attack, or that he couldn't defend his busing position, which historically has had wide support throughout the country, including among rank-and-file Democrats. Biden has issued yet another apology, but you get so many of those over the course of the campaign and the former Vice President has used up his mulligans. If he is going to survive and become the Democratic nominee, he'll have to stop apologizing and defend his policy positions, even those that conflict with the views of his party's noisy activist wing.

That being said, Biden still leads the national surveys of Democrats. In the cumulative polling assembled by the political site Real Clear Politics since the first debate, Biden's lead over Harris, Warren, and Sanders is roughly twelve points. He is just as strong in Iowa and New Hampshire and still dominant in South Carolina.

More important, there are other factors at work that could strengthen Biden's structural advantage as we move into that portion of the primary campaign that will focus on fundraising (always fundraising,) recruitment of party activists, and the winnowing of the candidate field.

A critical factor is how the field is dividing. According to surveys, Biden is the leading candidate, but followed by a trio of three progressive senators, Warren, Sanders and Harris. No one else is in double digits. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (five percent) and Beto O'Rourke (three percent) have had their moments. The more "moderate" senators, in attitude if not in policy, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennett, and Amy Klobuchar, have yet to hit their stride. Unless one of them begins to break through, Biden will own the party regulars and centrists and face off against three evenly matched progressive senators.

The 2nd quarter fundraising totals back up this formation. Biden ($21.5 million), Warren ($19.1 million), Sanders ($18 million) and Harris ($12 million) lap the field, except for Mayor Buttigieg, who led everyone with $24.5 million. Cash reserves will be critical when a dark horse seeks to break out of the pack and develop momentum in time for the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Second, the entry of billionaire Tom Steyer can only energize and further divide the Progressive base. Unlike Howard Schultz, who considered a run as an Independent, Steyer is choosing to run as a Democrat with signature views designed to stir strong feelings among primary voters. Steyer will be instantly credible, at least for a while, because he will have as much money as he needs to make his views heard. Those views include climate change, which is already being discussed by a number of the candidates, but Steyer will make sure the issue receives more attention. More ominously, he will bring impeachment of President Trump front and center to the national presidential discussion. Most senior Democrats in Congress have kept control of the issue, arguing that it is a loser in the polls and distracts from the bread and butter message that the party wants to craft to attract middle- and working-class voters. Steyer's candidacy will be a major challenge to Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

This further division of Progressives can only help Biden. While the debate will intensify and move left if only because of Steyer's available cash, Biden won't be under the same pressure as other top tier candidates whose progressive bases will be demanding action from their candidates.

A third factor is Biden's continuing strength when matched against President Trump. He has consistently run better against Trump than any other Democrat, and that has not changed since the first debate. Two polls just this week bear this out. An ABC News-Washington Post survey finds Biden with a 53-43 lead over the president. In contrast, Harris is plus two, Sanders plus one. Warren and Buttigieg run even. An Emerson survey shows Biden ahead by six, with Sanders up by two and the other three candidates trailing the president.

For those Democrats whose primary goal is to win the White House, Biden continues to demonstrate the strongest performance numbers to accomplish that goal.

None of this will matter unless Biden ups his game. He cannot afford another weak performance in the next debate. A "four corners" delay game won't suffice, nor will passivity or inattention to real voter concerns. Most critically, he won't win if he continues to alter long-held positions, such as opposition to court-ordered school busing, or Medicare for All that would replace private insurance. If he can rally centrists, he'll stand a good chance. If the party moves as far left as some believe, he won't be successful in any case. As the old saying goes, "Dance with the one that brung ya."

Longtime political strategist Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. He is a senior advisor in the federal public affairs group at McGuireWoods Consulting LLC in Washington.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Can Joe Biden Get Back on Track? | Opinion | Opinion