Reflecting on the current state of the Democratic primary
As Joe Biden comes off with what was widely recognized as an unexpectedly strong showing on Super Tuesday, looking to all but put the nomination away tonight, Sanders is continuing his energetic rallies to galvanize supporters to his side, particularly in Michigan, the largest state to vote on the 10th. What we are witnessing, however, is a generational divide, the likes of which perhaps the Democratic party has never before seen. Some exit polls suggest Sanders won 58% of those aged 18-29, whereas it is almost flipped for voters aged 65+, with Biden earning 48% (with Sanders trailing far behind with 15%).
The difficulty for Democrats who single-mindedly want to defeat Trump is to decipher who is most likely to do so. It is undeniable that the party elite, as well as a broad swath of older voters, see Biden as the much safer option, perhaps voting out of a sense of fear or apprehension that the Sanders campaign would fall on its face in November. We can label these voters “default Biden voters.” Those who may have entertained other candidates, but when the dust settled and everybody else dropped out, really only had one choice left. The rapid consolidation of the Democratic field after South Carolina seems to have completely turned the primary on its head. Even after South Carolina, many observers — myself included — were expecting a pretty good night for Sanders on Super Tuesday.
The delegate count notwithstanding — as it is yet to be determined, with states like California, Colorado and Utah (strong states for Sanders) still yet to post complete results — the narrative out of Super Tuesday was that Biden came out with a resounding win and that Sanders had been rejected by voters. This despite the fact that it simply is not true: Biden won 38.37% of the votes cast and counted at the time of this writing, while Sanders won 32.14%. In any normal circumstance, this would be characterized as a reasonably close race with a decided bent in Biden’s favor. Since expectations were low for Biden, however, it is being treated by some as all but burying the Sanders campaign. It will be interesting if voters in future states respond accordingly, as they seem to have after the signals of South Carolina and prominent former candidates like Mayor Buttigieg and Senator Klobuchar endorsing Biden.
How and why the race swung so dramatically in such a short span of time and the narrative that came as a result of it aside, it now behooves Democrats to take a good hard look at the two remaining candidates. While it is abundantly clear that the “party chooses” mentality is not only not dead, but rather stronger than ever, and that they have chosen Biden, this choice is not automatically self-justifying. After all, if the Republican establishment had its way in 2016, Trump would not have won the nomination and the Democrats would likely be in control of the White House today. It is clear, now more than ever, that 2016 was not a mere blip on the radar of the overwhelming beltway consensus on what makes a strong general election candidate. Sanders, despite being quite old, not particularly charismatic, nor particularly elegant as a speaker (like an Obama or JFK) has, for the second primary season running, galvanized a sizeable portion of the Democratic base, and they seem quite sticky — less likely than the supporters of any other candidate to change their preference.
Call it a cult, or a movement built on a set of policy issues that have resonated and reverberated throughout the Democratic party, the issue for the establishment seems to be the following: how to retain Sanders’ voters without nominating him? My suggestion, given how overwhelmingly his support skews younger and less ideologically or emotionally tied to the Democratic party, is that it is a fool's errand. This is because, firstly, younger people are lower propensity voters to begin with, as the Sanders campaign has learned the hard way in not being able to turn them out at the numbers they had wished (although, if you ask some, it is not for lack of trying, as the entire UCLA campus, from reports, seems to have had only one precinct for a school of upwards of 40,000 students). Secondly, Sanders voters are far more likely to be unsatisfied with politics as usual or the status quo, and thus a larger portion of them might see no point in voting for a return to the “normalcy” that bequeathed Trump’s victory to begin with.
Another reason for concern among Democrats is that there are many reasons to think that Biden may not be equipped for a long, rigorous campaign process, which is both physically and mentally exhausting. He has kept quite a light campaign schedule, actually managing last week to win a handful of states he never stepped foot in. Buoyed by overwhelming support from Black voters, particularly in the South, who are generally quite reliable Democratic votes in November, Biden has created the appearance that he is running away with the nomination, despite the fact that Sanders enjoys overwhelming support from Latinos, another crucial group Democrats must win in November. If 2016 is anything to go by, it seems like a tireless campaigner who is more than happy to travel to every corner of the country to court voters might have an edge over Biden’s more hands off approach. In this sense, it seems that youth is on Sanders’ side in two senses, both in terms of the voters, and who is more able to bring that energy and vigor to the campaign itself. One can hardly even imagine an alternative history where Sanders won the nomination and failed to campaign in some of the rust belt states that the Democrats would eventually lose narrowly to Trump, for example.
The last consideration for those attempting to gauge who is more likely to unseat Trump is to answer why they believe Trump won in the first place. There are some — and I am somewhat sympathetic to this view – that suggest that Clinton was a uniquely weak candidate to put up against Trump, one who’s weaknesses played right into his hands, and that the election was a story of who could perform less badly, which Trump barely edged out. There is another view — which I am almost equally sympathetic to, and torn between the two about — which is that Trump was able to capture the anti-establishment fervor which was heating up ever since Obama got elected (and probably even preceding him, as some saw both of his campaigns as quasi-anti- establishment efforts, at least in rhetoric if not substance). On this second view that sees the rise of right-wing so-called “populists” worldwide as a trend, Trump appears a far more formidable candidate, and would need an equal and opposite movement to knock back his. If this second view is favored, and presumably we have not exited this “anti-establishment” moment, then Sanders is the clear choice. If the former interpretation of Trump as a blip and not a phenomenon is preferred, then perhaps Biden, who is better liked than Clinton was, and has the benefit of not having to deal with a decades-long smear campaign by the right impugning his character and motives, would have more than enough to get across the finish line. However, it is clear that Biden is not above the fray on this, as the Hunter Biden-Ukraine controversy is sure to bubble up again come election time. Whether it will land decisive blows to Biden should he win the nomination, however, is unclear.