As the Democratic candidates for president gather Thursday night in Houston for another “debate” – the first in which the top three contenders will share the stage – the race still hinges on one key question: Who among the candidates can defeat President Donald Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?
This is the pivotal issue whether you look at it from Trump’s point of view – he cannot win unless he can carry these states again – or from the Democrats’ outlook – re-taking these blue-leaning states that Hillary Clinton lost by 76,00 votes combined is the easiest path to victory for a Democrat.
You could throw in Florida as a potential key state, as our friend Dan Balz of the Washington Post did recently, but you don’t have to. Forget expanding the electorate (except for bringing back black voters in those three states), forget pie-in-the-sky issue agendas (that can’t pass Congress anyway), forget ideology and vision, hopes and dreams. It’s about defeating Trump. Period.
Which is why the estimable E.J. Dionne of the Post wrote the other day:
Like it or not, the most important watchers of the Democratic debate on Thursday will be electability voters, who happen to constitute a majority of the party. And they are right to believe that the priority in 2020 is defeating President Trump. A man who invents the trajectory of a hurricane is not exactly someone whom we should entrust with four more years of power.
Which leaves the race almost exactly where it’s been for months – with former Vice President Joe Biden holding about a third of the Democratic electorate, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren split about another third and the remaining candidates divvy up the final third. In round numbers.
Why is Biden – with all his stupid verbal gaffes and stumbles – still in such strong shape? Because, as polling has consistently shown and as Calbuzz has argued for months, black voters in particular, older voters (the most reliable), moderates and independents and even some liberal whites actually prefer Biden to the rest of the field AND believe he’s the most likely Democrat to defeat Trump.
Which is the point really, as Lanae Erickson argued in Politico: “Mobilizing progressives alone isn’t enough to actually win. And in 2020, Democrats need to win. Concentrating on anything else right now will hand the White House to the worst president in history—again.”
Can Joe screw it up? Of course he can. He’s done it before and his synapses aren’t always sharp. But all that seems to have been factored in by most Democrats, the overwhelming majority of whom just want to get Trump out of the damn White House.
So, unless Biden makes an idiot of himself or fails to defend himself against an assault from one or more of the other candidates in an irretrievable way, we expect Thursday’s “debate” won’t change the fundamental dynamics of the race. Wherein Biden is the favorite. And rightly so.