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Biden’s path to 2020 is strewn with cautionary tales

Trying to make sense of the former VP’s run? Here’s what to read

Former Vice President Joe Biden may be leading the Democratic field in the polls, but this time Walter Shapiro is resisting the urge to get ahead of the voters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Vice President Joe Biden may be leading the Democratic field in the polls, but this time Walter Shapiro is resisting the urge to get ahead of the voters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — When Joe Biden finally declared for president, it marked a record-setting 32-year gap between his first hat-in-the-ring moment and his latest.

It would be like Franklin Roosevelt first trying to be president in 1900 when his cousin, Theodore, was on the GOP ticket as William McKinley’s running mate. Or JFK (as an 11-year-old) seeking to oppose Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Put another way, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was 5 years old on June 9, 1987, when three-term Delaware Sen. Joe Biden launched his initial effort to rent the Oval Office.

“So they were running for president, Joe and his friends, and they’d have a big announcement, the finest. … They’d rent the train station in Wilmington (that was a symbol, see, for the way that Joe took the train home, every night), and they’d run a special train from Washington to Wilmington, with VIPs and plenty of press.”

That excerpt from Richard Ben Cramer’s magisterial “What It Takes” provides a sense of the over-the-top preparations for Biden’s first presidential launch, especially when compared to the former vice president’s 219-second video announcement for 2020.

For the past seven years, I have been assigning the Biden chapters in “What It Takes” to my students in a political science seminar I teach at Yale on presidential politics and the news media. The seminar begins with Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960” and chronicles the sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt, descent of our politics from John Kennedy to Donald Trump.

Trying to think systematically about the role of the press in political coverage and reflecting on the 10 prior presidential campaigns that I have covered, I want to set down some of the lessons that have jumped out at me.

I offer this list with hesitation and humility because I have made many of these mistakes myself — and invariably will stumble again in chronicling 2020.

Don’t fight the last war

In “The Boys on the Bus,” which remains the best account of the weird psyches of the men and woman who cover politics, David Broder of The Washington Post told author Timothy Crouse about the biggest lesson he had learned on the campaign trail.

Broder’s 1972 mantra still applies today: “The most distressing thing about covering politics is that the guy who was absolutely right, whose wisdom was almost breathtaking one election — you go back to that same man for wisdom some other year and he’ll be as dumb as dogshit. That’s why it’s not a science.”

That’s also why it is risky to try to draw many conclusions about the wide-open 2020 Democratic primaries from the vast (and ineffectual) GOP field in 2016 or prior Democratic scrums in 1976 (17 candidates), 1988 (the contenders were ridiculed as “The Seven Dwarfs”) and 2004.

Someone unexpected will break through

In April 2003, when I turned in the opening chapter of my book (“One-Car Caravan”) about the early skirmishing for the 2004 Democratic nomination, my publisher became nervous about my opening anecdote. It was an account of a backseat interview as a state trooper drove little-known Vermont Gov. Howard Dean from Burlington to Keene, New Hampshire.

“This Dean guy — is he a joke candidate?” my publisher asked in a voice heavy with skepticism about my journalistic choices. Less than three months later, Dean pioneered internet fundraising (collecting a then-record $7.6 million in the second quarter of 2003) and vaulted into the lead in the polls.

That didn’t prevent me from making the same mistake in late 2011. I remember with embarrassment referring to Rick Santorum’s single-digit standing in the polls as I asked him, “Don’t you get discouraged?”

Three weeks later Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and later proved to be Mitt Romney’s most dogged rival for the nomination. I also initially dismissed Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 as a quixotic gesture of little lasting significance.

This time around, I am finally resisting the urge to get ahead of the voters in winnowing down the field. Nearly 10 months to Iowa and New Hampshire means that we are still in the anything-can-happen phase of the Democratic race.

‘Discovery, scrutiny and decline’

In “The Gamble,” an analytical look at the 2012 presidential campaign, political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck introduced an invaluable framework for understanding media coverage of the candidates.

Using the ill-fated examples of Herman Cain and Rick Perry, Sides and Vavreck explained how the press corps embraces a flavor-of-the-month candidate (“discovery”), then looks closely at his or her record (“scrutiny”) and finally moves on in quest of someone more exciting as the once-favored contender fades in the polls (“decline”).

This formula worked perfectly until Donald Trump descended down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015. Having taught “The Gamble” at Yale, I stubbornly clung to the conviction that Trump’s collapse was inevitable for far too long. What I should have remembered instead was Broder’s 1972 warning, “It’s not a science.”

But the discovery-scrutiny-decline model appears to have been successfully revived for the 2020 Democratic race. Early excitement has already provoked critical looks by the news media into the records of Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. And, at least for this week, with the Biden announcement, the parade has moved on.

Poll position for the primaries

Everything I have learned about early polling can be expressed in three cautionary sentences: No one knows how many Democrats will participate in the Iowa caucuses. New Hampshire primary voters have often dramatically changed their minds at the last moment. And national polls gyrate wildly after Iowa and New Hampshire.

The last word on the folly of the media’s fixation with polling deservedly goes to Amy Walter from the Cook Political Report. At a recent conference at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Walter compared journalists obsessing over polls to sex talk among preteens: “They know all the words. They talk about it a lot. But they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

These are the lasting lessons that I intend to carry into 2020. Following them as a columnist will free me up to make new and different mistakes.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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