With Memorial Day in the rearview mirror, the next political destination for the Democratic presidential pack of contenders is the first two-night debate scheduled for June 26-27 in Miami. Twenty of the qualifying candidates are expected to take the stage hoping to walk away with an attention-getting debate performance that will propel them into the spotlight in what is a ridiculously crowded field.
Nineteen have everything to gain.
One candidate has everything to lose, and that’s front-runner Joe Biden. He leads in every poll, with a wide margin over his competitors in most. He also leads President Trump by as much as 10 points in some polls. That likely explains his strength over the rest of the Democratic field, along with his strong name ID and his time served as Barack Obama’s wingman.
The big question is how will he hold up against attacks from the other candidates in the race or even a tough question or two from the debate moderators. That remains to be seen, but this isn’t Biden’s first rodeo. This is his third time out of the gate, and his first two bids for the Oval Office didn’t go well.
Still, experience is a good teacher, and Biden is the only Democrat who’s been through the high-pressure environment of a general election presidential-level debate. That probably matters, but if one or more of his opponents manages to get a “win” over the more experienced Biden, that perception could do real damage and the polls could change quickly.
In 2008 and 2012, Biden held his own against Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan, but even with his years on the political scene, he didn’t exit the stage with an overwhelming victory over the less experienced Republican VP candidates. In fact, Biden only barely met expectations, with many polls and pundits giving his opponents, especially Ryan, a slight edge.
What should be even more worrying for the Biden campaign, in those somewhat disappointing debates, is that he wasn’t even the target of the attacks. He was there as the defender of the faithful, arguing for Obama and the Democratic policies of the previous four years. Given that he was touting the slowest economic recovery since World War II, it was a tough case to make, and Biden only managed a draw at best.
This time, however, Biden will be defending himself and his 40-year political record — complete with more than a few controversial votes by today’s progressive standards and a penchant for gaffes that often made him the butt of jokes by late-night comics.
For Democratic voters trying to make up their minds about their next presidential nominee, the question is whether to go with their hearts or their minds. What is more important to them? Beating Trump at all costs, including on ideology, or ensuring that the next president is not just a Democrat or even a liberal Democrat but a pure progressive ready to take the country hard left?
Either direction entails risk.
For the other 19 candidates debating, they have to ask themselves: “How far am I willing to go to get the media attention I need to beat Biden?”
In 2016, Trump opted for a scorched-earth debate strategy. With a crowded field, much like the Democrats today, his decision to, in essence, blow up the debates with nontraditional language and personal attacks guaranteed him almost wall-to-wall media coverage in the hours and days following.
I don’t think we’re likely to see that kind of slash-and-burn attack in the upcoming Democratic debates, but there are areas where Biden clearly is vulnerable. His handling of Anita Hill’s Senate appearance in 1991 could be a problem for many liberal women who have female presidential candidates to choose from.
The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which he helped write and resulted in huge increases in the country’s prison population, is problematic for a lot of liberal and African-American voters. His more centrist ideology, particularly on climate change, has raised the hackles of Green New Dealers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and young voters. That’s not helpful either.
While his age and the recent buzz about his son’s questionable business dealings are touchier subjects for his opponents, the media may not be so accommodating. And then there’s his innate susceptibility to “foot in mouth” disease, a big drawback for any politician.
All in all, while it’s better to lead in the polls than not, it puts a target on your back. Biden’s greatest strength at the moment is his huge advantage in the polls — against his Democratic opponents and the president.
It’s true that polls at this early stage only can tell us so much. They don’t predict the future, but they do have political implications as reflections of current reality. And when it comes to political self-fulfilling prophecies, it’s better to be at 33% than 3%.
But a lead in the polls is a double-edged sword. Expectations for a front-runner always are high. One of the most difficult challenges in politics is sustaining a commanding lead. Biden is no exception to that rule. The debates are a huge wild card for him, with his lead in the polls at risk. Democratic voters and the rest of America is about to find out whether “Lunch Bucket Joe” is a man of steel ready to take on Trump or just a politician with a glass jaw and a lot of political baggage.
Without his current dominance in the field, people may ask whether there is a rationale for a Biden candidacy at all. A less-than-winning performance may open him up to more questions about what is a lifetime of political views and votes.
After the debates, people may re-evaluate the importance of electability over ideology, of likability over policy ideas.
The level of conformity among the Democratic candidates on a lot of issues is going to make the choice more complicated for their activist voters. Failing to deliver a front-runner performance in Miami may cost Biden more than points in a poll.
For most candidates, the path to a presidential nomination is more likely to be a marathon than a sprint. If Biden does poorly in this all-important first debate, it may lead people to ask, “Can Joe Biden go the distance?”
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issue.