Polls show Biden’s campaign could be hitting the wall

On Wednesday night, Joe Biden chartered a plane from Manchester, N.H., to his hometown of Wilmington, Del. He had no events scheduled Thursday in New Hampshire — one day before the high-stakes Democratic debate there and five days before the state’s crucial primary. 

Perhaps the former vice president, who has described his distant fourth-place finish in Monday’s chaotic Iowa caucuses as a “gut punch,” cleared his schedule and flew home to prep for the debate. Perhaps after nearly a year of nonstop campaigning — with just five measly Iowa delegates to show for it — the 77-year-old statesman just wanted to sleep in his own bed for once. Perhaps it was both.

Either way, Biden may soon get to sleep at home every night. The state of his campaign is far shakier than his longtime lead in the national polls would suggest. In fact, it may already be on its last legs.

To be sure, Biden retains some advantages. His national polling leads persists. His singular emphasis on electability — the perception that he is best-suited to “beat” Donald Trump “like a drum” — matches what Democratic voters consistently tell pollsters they most desire in a nominee. And Biden has long held a significant lead among black Democrats, who dominate the upcoming South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 and will effectively pick its winner.

Yet upon closer examination, it’s also clear that each of these supposed strengths is starting to crumble.

Take Biden’s position in the polls. It has fallen nationally by more than a percentage point, on average, since his shellacking in Iowa. Bernie Sanders, who effectively tied Pete Buttigieg in the caucuses, is now within 3 percentage points of overtaking Biden — the closest Sanders has ever been to the national lead.

Bernie Sanders

When you drill down on the state that matters most right now, New Hampshire, the picture is even worse. There, Biden was averaging 16.8 percent on Monday — good for second place behind Sanders, who hails from the neighboring state of Vermont. Now, after a series of dismal post-Iowa tracking polls have shown Biden in free fall, he has plummeted nearly 3 percentage points to 14.1 percent in a matter of days. Buttigieg, meanwhile, gained nearly 5 percentage points over the same period, and now leads Biden with roughly 18 percent support. 

As for electability, voters have long told national pollsters that Biden is the best bet to beat Trump. But when actual Democrats who had actually been paying close attention got an actual chance to vote in Iowa on Monday, they picked someone else. According to the final entrance poll, a whopping 61 percent of Iowa caucus-goers said it was more important to nominate a candidate who could defeat Trump than it was to nominate a candidate they agreed with — and it was Buttigieg, not Biden, who won these “electability voters,” picking up 24 percent to Biden’s 23 percent. This dynamic was also reflected in the way supporters of candidates such as Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer “realigned” after their first choices didn’t hit Iowa’s 15 percent viability threshold. While Buttigieg gained nearly 6,000 votes after realignment— more than any other candidate — Biden lost nearly 2,000. “I expected to do better,” Biden said at a CNN town hall in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday evening. “And I expected that our organization would perform better.”

There are already signs that Biden could suffer a similar fate among black voters in South Carolina, his so-called firewall. For one thing, the caucus entrance poll shows that it was Sanders, not Biden, who won voters of color in Iowa. In 2016, Sanders got 34 percent of nonwhite voters to Clinton's 58 percent. This week, he won 43 percent of nonwhite voters, with no other candidate pulling even half of that. Even Buttigieg, who has struggled to appeal to African-Americans, outpaced Biden, 15 percent to 13 percent, among nonwhite Iowans.

Cracks are showing in South Carolina as well. Polling there is relatively scarce, but the most recent survey — the only one released this month — shows Biden’s overall lead shrinking to 5 percent from 11 percent in October. Back then, Biden was doubling his closest competitor among black voters; in the latest survey, his advantage among African-Americans has narrowed to 6 percentage points. Just as worrisome is the fact that it’s the California billionaire Steyer who is now nipping at Biden’s heels among black voters. In October, Steyer was barely registering with the community in South Carolina; since then, he has spent millions of dollars courting them, and he has skyrocketed in the polls as a result. Likewise, New York billionaire Mike Bloomberg is pursuing a similar big-spending strategy in Super Tuesday states, and one recent poll found that his net favorability rating among black voters has soared from +4 points in November to +32 points today. All of which suggests that black voters aren’t as loyal to Barack Obama’s former vice president as it once seemed.

“African-American voters are fluid,” former Obama pollster Cornell Belcher told the Los Angeles Times. “They know and like Biden, but if it starts to look like he is not a good investment, they will move on.”

Joe Biden

Individually, none of these flaws is necessarily fatal. But together they may be, because Biden also lacks the key resource that could counteract his ongoing slide: cash,and the organization and advertisements it can buy. Biden ended 2019 with $8.9 million cash on hand — less than Sanders ($18.2 million), Buttigieg ($14.5 million) or Elizabeth Warren ($13.7 million). Sanders just announced that January was his best fundraising month ever; in 31 days he raked in more money ($25 million) than Biden collected during the entire fourth quarter of 2019. Politico reported Thursday that in the midst of Biden’s New Hampshire decline, his campaign is redirecting resources to Nevada, which caucuses on Feb. 22 and where surveys show him tied with Sanders. But it may be too little too late. After Super Tuesday, Bloomberg is waiting to blow Biden out of the moderate lane. And he has already spent more than $300 million laying the groundwork.

For Biden, that’s the doomsday scenario: another poor result in New Hampshire, followed by a third rout in Nevada, where Sanders’s crack caucus team is sure to out-organize him. More than three weeks of negative news cycles eating away at his electability advantage. Black voters in South Carolina jumping ship — and a finish there that fails to meet expectations. Fundraising dries up. Then Bloomberg pounces three days later, on Super Tuesday.

“We believe South Carolina is our firewall and it is,” a Biden adviser told Politico. “But if we lose three straight in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, the fire can jump the wall.”

Of course, none of this is a foregone conclusion. The Granite State has a contrarian tradition of bucking expectations and boosting underdogs. In 1992, the moderate Bill Clinton, damaged by reports of extramarital affairs, fell behind in the New Hampshire polls — then pulled off a surprise second-place finish after appearing with his wife, Hillary, on “60 Minutes” to refute the allegations. Clinton called himself “the Comeback Kid,” and the rest is history. 

Bill Clinton

Sixteen years later, Hillary — the longtime frontrunner and establishment favorite — looked certain to lose in New Hampshire; some polls showed her trailing Obama by double-digit margins after his stunning Iowa victory. But when a voter in Portsmouth asked, “How did you get out the door every day? I mean, as a woman,” Clinton teared up. “This is very personal for me,” the candidate replied. “Not just political.” That rare tender moment redirected the narrative, and New Hampshire voters gave Clinton a second chance. On primary night, she defeated Obama by 2.6 percentage points.

And so it’s possible that the good, ornery people of New Hampshire decide to resurrect Biden at the last minute. Maybe he turns in a pivotal performance at Friday night’s debate, an 11th-hour forum that has been known to turn the tide before. Maybe his emotional account of his struggle to overcome stuttering, at a CNN town hall Wednesday, will do for him what Clinton’s moment of vulnerability did for her. Maybe he goes on to beat Buttigieg in New Hampshire, and Sanders in Nevada, and arrives in South Carolina with the wind at his back. 

During an event Tuesday at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall in Concord, Biden seemed to acknowledge Iowa hadn’t gone the way he hoped — and that New Hampshire would now determine his fate.

“There’s nothing to come back from yet,” Biden said, almost willing himself to believe that that was true. “But I’d like you to rocket me out of here to make sure this thing works, OK?”

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Joe Biden through the years
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Joe Biden through the years
Washington, DC. 6-9-1987 Senator Joe Biden (D.,DE.) announces his candidacy for president. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. September 9, 1990 (Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Democratic politician Joseph R. Biden Jr, the United States Senator from Delaware, circa 1980. He became the US Vice President in 2009 under President Barack Obama. (Photo by Nancy Shia/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
American politician and US Senator (and future US Vice President) Joe Biden smiles in a 'Bicentennial Minutes' segment, a series of nightly shorts commemorating the bicentennial of the American Revolution which aired from 1974-1976, August 12, 1974. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US Senator Joe Biden(D-DE) briefs reporters prior to the 15 January start of the second day of the US Senate impeachment trial of US President Bill Clinton on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House prosecutors will summarize their case against the president 15 January. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Luke FRAZZA (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
392389 02: U.S. President George W. Bush meets with members of the Senate and House foreign policy leadership in the Cabinet room at the White House July 25, 2001 in Washington, DC. Seated next to the president is Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MARCH 08: Joe Biden during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 12: Democrat vice chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), throws up his hands as he speaks during debate on the nomination of John Bolton as US Ambassador the the United Nations May 12, 2005 in Washington D.C. (Photo by Joe Marquette/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - JULY 12: U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) speaks during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on 'North American Cooperation on the Border' on the Border' on Capitol Hill July 12, 2005 in Washington, DC. The committee discussed border security and how to work together to secure the borders with Mexico and Canada. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 3331 -- Pictured: (l-r) Senator Joe Biden during an interview with host Jay Leno on March 22, 2007 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
ORANGEBURG, SC - APRIL 26: (L-R) U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson greet the crowd before the start of the first debate of the 2008 presidential campaign April 26, 2007 at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The debate, featuring eight Democratic presidential candidates, comes 263 days before the first ballot will be cast in the Iowa caucus next January. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) talks with mayors from across the country, including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, in the Roosevelt Room of teh White January 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is holding its annual conference in Washington this week. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Civil Society Forum on the sideline of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, on August 4, 2014. Washington aims to wake up US business to the opportunities in Africa with the landmark US-Africa Leaders Summit this week, as China and Europe steal a march on the world's fastest-growing continent. As many as four dozen African leaders, and hundreds of businessmen with them, will for their part be looking to see if US investors and traders can move beyond old stereotypes of a continent mired in conflict and corruption and recognize its huge potential. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 18: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) swears in Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro (L) as his wife Erica and daughter Carina look on during a ceremonial swearing in ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building August 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. Castro, the former Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, was officially sworn in on July 28. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 30: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (C), Robert McDonald (R) and Vice President Joe Biden walk back to the White House through LaFayette Park after President Obama announced his intention to nominate Robert McDonald to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. McDonald served as the chief executive of Procter & Gamble and will replace Eric Shinseki who resigned after allegations of delayed care came to light. (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks to US Vice President Joe Biden after Biden introduced him during a signing ceremony for H.R. 803, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, on July 22, 2014 in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Presidential Barack Obama speaks on immigration reform beside US Vice President Joe Biden (R) in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - MAY 28: Vice President of the United States Joe Biden takes a selfie after the commencement ceremony at Air Force Academy in Colorado Spring, May 28, 2014. Biden spoke during the ceremony. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks at Ledra palace in the UN-patrolled Buffer Zone in Nicosia on May 22, 2014. Biden met Cyprus leaders Thursday to spur talks on ending the island's 40-year division and seek support for threatened sanctions against Russia despite the economic cost. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (Photo credit should read Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden adresses a speech to students and officials at Cotroceni Palace, the Romanian Presidency headquarters in Bucharest on May 21, 2014. Tougher sanctions must be imposed on Russia if it undermines crucial presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25, 2014, US Vice President Joe Biden said in Bucharest. AFP PHOTO DANIEL MIHAILESCU (Photo credit should read DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 29: U.S Vice President Joe Biden speaks during an event on protecting students from sexual assault at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building April 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the event, Biden announced the release of the first report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and outgoing Heath and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius applaud as President Barack Obama names Sylvia Mathews Burwell (R), his current budget director, to replace Sebelius in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington,DC on April 11, 2014. Sebelius resigned, paying the price for the chaotic initial rollout of the US president's signature health care law. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden waves upon arrival for a meeting with Lithuania's President in Vilnius on March 19, 2014. Biden meets today with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Latvian leader as part of a tour to reassure NATO allies during the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / PETRAS MALUKAS (Photo credit should read PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden listens during a meeting with the Polish Prime Minister in Warsaw, Poland on March 18, 2013. Biden arrived in Poland for talks with regional allies as Russia tightened its grip on the Ukraine's breakaway region of Crimea. AFP PHOTO / JANEK SKARZYNSKI (Photo credit should read JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden arrives for a St. Patrick's Day reception in the East Room of the White House on March 14, 2014 in Washington. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden during a joint press conference with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (not framed) at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, on March 10, 2014. AFP PHOTO/CLAUDIO REYES (Photo credit should read Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting at the Capitol Hilton February 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. Biden addressed the Association of State Democratic Chairs. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
THE VIEW - Joe Biden, the 47th Vice President of the United States, was the special guest, live, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 25 (11:00 a.m.-12:00 noon, ET). The Vice President discussed the Affordable Care Act and the importance of signing up for health insurance through the marketplace before the March 31 deadline. Vice President Biden sat down with The View hosts Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy as part of the shows continuing Red, White & View campaign, which is committed to political guests and discussions. 'The View' airs Monday-Friday (11:00 am-12:00 pm, ET) on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images) SHERRI SHEPHERD, BARBARA WALTERS, VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN, WHOOPI GOLDBERG, JENNY MCCARTHY
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, looks on as President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. Obama is meeting today with chief executive officers of companies from Bank of America Corp. to EBay Inc. who have committed to giving the long-term unemployed a better chance in the hiring process. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images *** Barack Obama; Joe Biden
US Vice President Joe Biden gives two thumbs-up prior to US President Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 28, 2014 at the US Capitol in Washington. AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - MAY 24: Former Vice President Joseph Biden speaks at the Harvard College Class of 2017 Class Day Exercises at Harvard University on May 24, 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Biden implored graduating students to become involved and paraphrased Plato by saying 'The penalty you pay for not being involved is that you are governed by those worse than you.' (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - MAY 24: Former Vice President Joe Biden jokes, 'Let's break the internet' as he puts on a pair of shades during Class Day Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on May 24, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, arrive on stage at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The conference is a unique setting that convenes individuals with the capital, power and influence to move the world forward meet face-to-face with those whose expertise and creativity are reinventing industry, philanthropy and media. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC -� APRIL 26: Former Vice President, Joe Biden and Mark Ein are seen at the game between the Washington Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2017 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joe Biden, former Vice President of the US tours the Museum of the American Revolution, on its openings day, in Philadelphia, PA, on April 19, 2017. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the Medal of Freedom to Vice-President Joe Biden during an event in the State Dinning room of the White House, January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
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