Washington • The big news in the Democratic presidential race is that not much has changed since Joe Biden jumped in.
To be sure, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has steadily gained ground, according to polls. California Sen. Kamala Harris rose sharply after the first debate but then gradually slid back into single-digit-land. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has held onto his sizable base, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg has kept most of the support he won in his impressive spring debut.
But national and state polling shows that the basic shape of the race has remained the same. Biden has a solid lead and nobody else is particularly close.
In the Real Clear Politics national poll averages last Friday, Biden was at 28.9% — nearly 12 points clear of his nearest rival, Sanders, who had 17.1% support. Warren was right in there at 16.5%, and then there was a gap between her and Harris, who had 7.0%, and Buttigieg, at 4.6%.
That’s your top tier, at least for now. Next behind Buttigieg is entrepreneur Andrew Yang, at 2.5%, followed by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke at 2.4% each. Everybody else, to be honest, has support that amounts to a rounding error.
For me, the striking thing is how little the race changed over the summer. Since late May, Biden’s support has never gone below 26% — his nadir after getting sliced and diced by Harris in the first debate — and no other candidate has climbed as high as 19%.
Polls in the key early primary and caucus states tell the same story. The Real Clear Politics average shows Biden with a solid lead in Iowa, a slim lead in New Hampshire, and huge leads in both Nevada and South Carolina. If those numbers hold and he wins all four of those states, it's pretty much game over.
You know all the caveats. It’s still early. Every time Biden opens his mouth there’s the chance of self-immolation. Sanders gets overlooked, perhaps because the novelty from 2016 has worn off, but he remains in second place. Warren’s rise really has been remarkable, and she has a formidable-looking ground game in Iowa, where that’s a real factor. Harris caught fire once and could do it again. Buttigieg is there — along with others — if Biden falters.
But despite relentless coverage of Biden’s “gaffes” — a word used only by political writers — he remains the clear front-runner. Some commentators say that’s because people who don’t follow politics for a living haven’t started paying attention, but I disagree. I believe most Democratic primary voters are intensely focused on picking the right candidate to defeat President Trump and end our long national nightmare. I just think voters are making up their own minds about what’s important in Biden’s performance and what’s not.
At 76, Biden has to show that he's still sharp and vigorous enough to vanquish Trump and then serve four years in the most demanding job in the world. In the first debate, he seemed old, tired, at times befuddled. Since then, in my view, he has been much better -- though questions remain.
If Democrats choose Biden, they will have a nominee who can get carried away while telling stories, who can mix up names and dates, who can be a font of malapropisms. His top-tier rivals speak in crisper, more well-formed sentences; heck, Buttigieg speaks in whole polished paragraphs. But as voters decide who's best to beat Trump and repair the damage he's done to the nation, I believe they want more than eloquence. I think they're looking for "electability," whatever that means; they're looking for a fighter who won't back down; and they're looking for leadership.
The next debate, on Sept. 12 — with the 10 leading candidates all onstage at once — will be the most important to date, and potentially the most pivotal of the campaign.
It will be the first opportunity to see Biden flanked by his nearest competitors, Sanders and Warren, with Harris and Buttigieg not far from center stage. Any of them could steal the show. Booker, O'Rourke, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, or even novice politician Yang might have a breakthrough evening.
But it also could be that the third debate does what the first two did — make the poll numbers fluctuate but not fundamentally change the shape of the race. Until someone manages to get within shouting distance of Biden in the polls, objectively this race is his to lose.