On the one hand, a new Fox News poll spells doom for Donald Trump, with a fistful of Democratic presidential candidates beating the incumbent. Former Vice President Joe Biden cleans Trump's clock by 10 percentage points, 49 percent to 39 percent. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) wins 49 percent to 40 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) ekes out a 43 percent-to-41 percent victory. And Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg both squeeze out a 1-point margin, 42 percent to 41 percent.
On the other, more consequential hand, that same poll underscores why Trump is almost certainly going to win reelection in 2020. One of the questions asked Democratic voters whether they will vote for a candidate with a "bold, new agenda" or one "who will provide steady, reliable leadership." Fully three-quarters of respondents want the latter, with just 25 percent interested in the sort of "bold, new agenda" that virtually all Democratic candidates are peddling so far. This finding is consistent with other polling that shows that Democratic voters are far more moderate than their candidates. Even allowing for a doubling of self-described Democrats who identify as liberal over the past dozen years, Gallup found last year that 54 percent of Democrats support a party that is "more moderate" while just 41 percent want one that is "more liberal."
Yet with the exception of Joe Biden (more on him in a minute), all of the Democratic candidates—certainly the leading ones—are pushing a massively expansionist agenda, thus putting themselves at odds with their own base. Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All would cost $37 trillion in new spending over a decade and his free-college plan would cost the federal government about $47 billion a year. He plans to spend much, much more, as does Elizabeth Warren, who is running on promises to spend $3.3 trillion over a decade in new giveaways that will be paid for by an unworkable, probably unconstitutional "wealth tax" that will at best raise $2.75 trillion.
To greater and lesser degrees, the other Democratic candidates are also offering variations on the big government or "bold, new agenda" theme. For this, they get massive online attaboys, which makes it seem as if there is a groundswell of support for such positions. Based on data from The Hidden Tribes Project, which uses polling and survey data to get a truer sense of voter and partisan ideology, The New York Times reported that the "outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don't post political content online." That same dynamic plays out in the more-traditional commentariat as well. Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene takes it as a given that the Democrats should nominate a big-spending president and effusively praises Elizabeth Warren especially for demonizing specific individuals and companies. Despite her weak poll numbers, Politico claims that Warren is now a "potential compromise nominee," a fantasy belied by the small number of actual Democrats interested in anything resembling a "bold, new agenda."
But what about Joe Biden, who is leading the Democratic field by a large margin, despite being about the least-woke candidate out there? The Fox News poll has Biden at 32 percent, Sanders at 13 percent, and nobody else even in double digits. At The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger suggests that Biden is in fact an existential threat to the incumbent precisely because he might be as "sleepy" as Trump recently called him:
Mr. Biden may be doing so well in the head-to-heads against Mr. Trump because many voters simply want respite from the nonstop Trumpian atmosphere of disruption and volatility. For them, "Sleepy Joe Biden" may not be an insult. Political belief still matters, but maybe not as much as neurological relief from political and personality overload.
This assumes, of course, that Biden survives the nomination process. As the far-ahead leader of the massive Democratic field, he is the target not just of Donald Trump but of all his fellow partisans too. He's already been dinged over his creeping and his decades-old plagiarism is now being relitigated. It seems as if every day brings a new crisis or controversy, such as Biden's warm statements toward segregationists in the 1970s, his eulogy of racist Sen. Strom Thurmond in 2003, and the emerging narrative that his son Hunter, whose personal life is a total shitshow, appears to be an international grifter who allegedly used dad's connections to make shady deals with Chinese and Ukrainian interests. Whether such charges are true in a serious way is a lot less important than the fact that Biden will be facing such attacks from now through at least the end of the primary process. Even if he manages to win the nomination, he will emerge bloodied as hell. In many ways, that's the lesson from 2016 that the Democrats might want to revisit. Although Hillary Clinton ultimately beat back Bernie Sanders' insurgency, Sanders' constant attacks (and revelations from leaked emails) definitely weakened her against Donald Trump in the general election.
Under the best circumstances, Trump is almost certainly not going to win 50 percent of the vote in 2020. Despite a robust economy, his approval rating peaked at 46 percent shortly after he assumed office. His path to a second term will look a lot like the path to his upset victory in 2016. He will need to scratch out a victory where virtually every vote and every insult counts. But here's the thing: Trump knows how to do this, has the power of incumbency, and things, short of a massive economic downturn, really can't get worse for him. He has weathered every disturbing revelation, every tempest over unprofessional or unethical behavior, every lapse in taste or decorum. His numbers aren't going to get any lower. Earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference and more recently in a Florida mega-rally, he's shown an ability to go big and fire up his already intense following. Less than a week away from the first Democratic candidates' debate and a year-plus away from the general election, Biden, whose history of gaffes and awful legislation is legendary, has nowhere to go but down.