After all the pundits declared him the loser in his first debate, after almost two weeks of backpedaling and explaining, Joe Biden still leads the field among likely Democratic primary voters. At least that's what the latest national polls say. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, one of the best, was released on Thursday and found that 26 percent of Democratic primary voters support Biden, with 19 percent supporting Elizabeth Warren; Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders tied at 13 percent; and Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 7 percent.
In terms of their predictive power, polls like this — even the best ones — have to be viewed with more than a grain of salt. A poll is a photograph, not an analysis. And a photograph of the national primary electorate July 7 through 9 (with a margin of error plus or minus 4.9 percent) is a static picture of a dynamic process, which doesn't become remotely "national" until Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have winnowed the field. It doesn't matter right now who loves Bernie if he doesn't score in an early primary. Ditto for Biden. Biden ran fourth among the top four when voters were asked about their second choice. Only 12 percent of those polled said they had firmly made up their mind about their choice. The nomination process can wither a frontrunner, and a divided field makes it easier for a non-consensus choice to succeed.
And that's assuming the poll is right. The sample size here was only 400 voters. Polling a general election is much easier that polling a primary because more people vote. If you're looking for primary voters, you need to use a tight screen and make assumptions about turnout that are far more difficult. It's one thing to say you're planning to vote; of course you're planning to vote. But will you actually register and go to the polls? And caucus voters? If you've never been to a caucus, are you really going to go this time?
With all those caveats, the polls are still good news for Biden.
He retained strong support among older Democrats and African Americans. Older Democrats are the ones most likely to vote. African Americans continue to support him notwithstanding the constant rebroadcast of Harris' "I was that little girl" moment, leading to Biden's non-answer about the Berkeley program Harris attended being a volunteer effort, not one mandated by a history of unconstitutional segregation.
It's not that court-ordered busing is popular in America. In retrospect, it did not result in better schools in the cities where it was mandated. Busing was ordered because cities were refusing to make voluntary efforts to reverse the effects of segregation. The question was whether Brown v. Board of Education would be enforced in this country against the will of "states' rights" Republicans and Democrats, among them Biden, who wanted to change the Constitution. Older voters know that. African American voters know that. They did not desert Biden. Harris picked up support, but her "surge" flattened out fairly quickly, at least for now.
Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush's brilliant, dirty trickster (and partner of Messrs. Manafort and Stone), used to say that there is, at any point in time, a little boat with the candidates who Americans can actually picture as president. You can't win unless you're in the boat. Atwater didn't live long enough to have to apply his analysis to Donald Trump, but I think he would probably argue that Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate from the start. She lost to a (brilliant but unknown) first-term African American senator. She almost lost to a self-proclaimed socialist who is also Jewish and in his 70s. Her unfavorable ratings climbed to 55% by Election Day exit polls, and that was among people who were willing to admit it. The press put her in the boat while her husband was still in office, but it was never clear that voters did. And of course, leaving nothing to chance, Donald Trump helicoptered in to make sure she fell overboard.
On the Democratic side, at least for now, the rule is still holding. Former vice presidents generally win nominations but very often not elections (see, for example, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore, not to mention Nixon in '60) because they start out in the boat, ideally on the arm of the president (see George H.W. Bush). Biden has been on the national scene long enough that he's on.
And on the Democratic side, no one else is, at least not yet.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.