Did Trump Lose His Big Gamble on Biden?

The president got himself impeached in the frantic pursuit of a candidate who now looks like an also-ran.

Joe Biden in New Hampshire
Scott Eisen / Getty

Joe Biden might not be out, but he’s way, way down. After consecutive poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the onetime prohibitive front-runner is in deep trouble.

It’s impossible to talk about this turn of events without talking about Donald Trump, and not only because he’s the man Biden hopes to succeed as president. Biden’s peak in the RealClearPolitics polling average came in early May 2019—right around the time that The New York Times published a story titled “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.”

What has happened since then is well known: Trump and his allies still haven’t managed to turn up any specific evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden or his son Hunter related to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Trump’s pursuit of dirt on the Bidens led directly to his impeachment, in December, making him only the third president to suffer that sanction.

Biden’s travails in recent weeks offer a suggestion that Trump’s machinations worked. The president was acquitted by the Senate, and he has successfully dragged down his leading Democratic rival, upending the presidential race. But there’s another way to look at the last year, too: The president got himself impeached and wasted valuable time in the frantic pursuit of an also-ran.

My colleague Peter Beinart made the case last week that Trump has come out ahead. The president calculated early on that Biden was his most formidable opponent—the one best prepared to eat into the coalition of voters that Trump had assembled in 2016—and set out to weaken him. Trump was trying to replicate the trick that Barack Obama played in 2012, laying the groundwork to define Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat while Romney was still toiling in a fierce Republican primary. That gave Obama a head start on the general election, and he never let Romney catch up.

Trump’s gambit worked, even without any actual evidence. Biden’s central argument in the primary was that he was the most electable candidate, but the specter of Trump once again smearing the Democratic nominee—But Her Emails 2: Electric Boogaloo—scared voters off. Biden’s bid now seems to be crumbling, leaving in his wake a disorganized Democratic Party and flawed potential candidates.

Perhaps that is right. Biden has done a poor job of responding to questions about Hunter Biden’s work on the board of the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma. The former vice president long bristled at questions or simply refused to answer them, and when he did, his answers were unsatisfying.

But this view is speculative and debatable. It’s plausible that Trump has placed his chips on knocking Biden out, not realizing that Biden was never the major challenge he appeared. Now that Biden is fading—for reasons that have little to do with Trump—what if the president embarked on a quixotic quest and ended up with nothing to show for it but the stain of impeachment?

Trump’s fear of Biden may have helped him seem like a stronger contender than he really was. Many head-to-head polls show Biden performing better against Trump than his Democratic rivals, but such polls are unreliable this far out. Besides, none of that matters if you can’t win the primary, and Biden’s weaknesses there were apparent long ago. Veterans of the Obama administration warned him off running four years ago—when he was four years younger and the Obama legacy was fresher. Pundits pointed out that his past bids for president had been shaky and come up well short. When the predicted collapse didn’t come early on, that conventional wisdom dissolved—but perhaps it was right, only premature.

Quantifying what hurt Biden is tough. Few recent polls have asked Democrats for their views on Ukraine, and although there’s anecdotal evidence that some voters are worried about how Trump might attack Biden over it, there’s anecdotal evidence of all sorts of concerns that voters have about Biden, from his policies to his mental and physical acuity. Biden’s Democratic rivals have assiduously avoided bringing up the subject of Hunter Biden—wary of being seen as carrying Trump’s water, though it may have deprived Joe Biden of a chance to defuse the issue—making it a bit of a lacuna in the campaign. Ukraine didn’t help Biden, but there’s little to suggest it sank him.

Biden’s bigger problems were that he didn’t seem to excite either Democratic voters or Democratic donors. For a while, he managed to skate on good polls. Ukraine or not, his polling remained fairly stable—between 25 and 30 percent on RealClearPolitics—since summer 2019. But nothing wins like winning, and nothing loses like losing. His numbers took a dive after the Iowa caucus, where he placed fourth.

The Trump campaign can count Biden’s stumble as a success, but it’s a hollow one. If Biden was never going to be the nominee, then Trump wasted nearly a year methodically poisoning the well. Worse than the opportunity cost, he ended up getting impeached for trying to strong-arm the Ukrainian government into helping his Biden sabotage, withholding a White House visit and military aid. While the president is still taking his victory lap after his Senate acquittal, the fact is that impeachment was broadly popular with the American public, and Trump remains broadly unpopular.

While Trump has lost time on his Biden quest, other Democrats have snuck up on him. The president has laid the same groundwork to attack them. Bernie Sanders, who now looks like the front-runner, beats Trump head-to-head in polls too. Trump’s default line against Sanders is that he’s a socialist, but it’s not so clear that this really hurts the Vermonter in a direct matchup with the president. Among the others, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg also lead Trump in head-to-heads. And should none of them succeed in stopping Sanders, Michael Bloomberg leads Trump too. Trump’s weird tweets show that the former New York mayor is starting to get under the president’s skin.

These early matchups are not dispositive, but they suggest that Biden isn’t the Democrats’ only hope to beat the president in November. By the time the primary is over, Trump may regret that he doesn’t have Joe Biden to kick around anymore.