From the moment he announced his candidacy, Joe Biden led in polls of Democratic primary voters. His lead endured through months of bad press and worse debate performances. He lost his national lead very briefly, after crushing defeats in two overwhelmingly white states — one of them a low-turnout caucus — only to regain it after African-Americans voted for the first time in large numbers, at which point he has led by commanding margins.
The Bernie Sanders movement has mostly accepted the finality of Biden’s victory. What it hasn’t come to terms with is its causes. The Sanders campaign and many of its enthusiasts continue to see Biden’s victory as either a fluke or a plot.
Sanders advisers told the New York Times they believed they had been on the precipice of sweeping to victory on Super Tuesday, until Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg dropped out and endorsed Biden. Ben Tulchin, a Sanders pollster, claimed the candidate was “on the brink of winning until the most unprecedented event in the history of presidential primaries occurred.”
It is hardly unprecedented for the fifth- and sixth-place candidates to drop out of a race after four primaries. Yet Sanders himself has fixated on this decision as evidence of an Establishment conspiracy. Appearing on ABC’s This Week several days later, he described it as “the power of the Establishment to force Amy Klobuchar, who had worked so hard, Pete Buttigieg, who had really worked extremely hard as well, out of the race.”
From Bernie’s perspective, dropping out of a race once you have no chance of winning is peculiar behavior that can only be explained by the work of a hidden hand. For most politicians, though, it is actually standard operating procedure. Only Sanders seems to think the normal thing to do once voters have made clear they don’t want to nominate you is to continue campaigning anyway.
Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca argued, “Because of the agenda that he’s putting forward, a lot of super wealthy forces are aligned against him.” But Sanders has enjoyed a wide spending advantage over Biden, who at the key juncture was operating on a shoestring budget. If Michael Bloomberg had won, it would have been fair to wonder if he had bought the nomination. Biden’s appeal to the electorate was authentic, not purchased.
Shadi Hamid, writing in The Atlantic, laments that the coronavirus was the deus ex machina of the primary. In an essay headlined “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” he treated the pandemic as the key factor, descending suddenly to upend the race:
Biden seemed, to skeptics such as myself and to the American left more generally, a weak candidate, but more important a weak would-be president. He seemed completely unsuited for any deeper reckoning with where we had ended up and why. Why should we merely return to normal, if normal is what gave us Trump? Normal wasn’t good enough.
Then the virus came. The sense of possibility that came with a supposedly radical candidate seems today like an artifact of another world — one we no longer live in. Even before the social distancing, self-quarantines, and lockdowns, the perpetual crisis that characterized Trump’s governing style had already produced starkly different reactions among Democrats. This is what crisis does: It can make people demand revolution, or it can make them long for stability. A significant number of voters — in particular African-Americans — found in Joe Biden welcome reassurance, and they saw him as the safest bet to remove their most proximate sense of threat.
This highly comforting explanation rewrites the history of the campaign by ignoring the timing of the two events. Biden’s crushing South Carolina victory, which demonstrated his appeal to African-Americans, occurred on February 29. His shocking Super Tuesday win took place on March 3. The coronavirus had barely registered in the news by that point, and had changed almost nothing about American life. A week after Super Tuesday, when Biden eliminated all doubt by winning Washington State and Michigan along with a crushing victory in Mississippi, the coronavirus had just begun to emerge onto the national consciousness. The next day, the NCAA announced it would hold its basketball tournaments without fans present, and then the next day all postseason games were canceled. That weekend, bars and restaurants were packed everywhere. Biden’s victory took place well before the coronavirus changed the national psyche.
Even many progressives who accept Biden’s nomination as a conscious, non-flukey choice by Democratic voters have insisted on portraying the Sanders agenda as the true winner. Many of them have cited polls showing a majority of Democratic primary voters favoring Medicare for All.
It is certainly true that most Democrats would prefer a single-payer system. I would absolutely prefer a single-payer system, and would happily pay higher taxes to say good-bye forever to employer-sponsored insurance. But Democrats are not unaware that Biden opposed this policy. It was heavily — nay, obsessively — litigated throughout the campaign. The topic consumed large portions of almost every single debate. If Democrats overwhelmingly chose Biden anyway, perhaps they bought his argument that the political barriers to full single payer are prohibitive, and that building on Obamacare to expand coverage makes more sense.
The Sanders campaign was highly successful in turning the race into an ideological referendum. What Sanders failed to anticipate is that doing so would ensure his defeat. Asked last year if they “would rather see the Democratic Party become more liberal or become more moderate,” Democrats chose more moderate by a 54-41 percent margin. Slightly more than half of its voters identify as either moderate or conservative, and slightly less than half identify as liberal. And Biden ate heavily into the liberal vote, dominating among those who identified as “somewhat liberal.”
The Democratic Establishment certainly played an important role in the contest. Its party elite helped coordinate the non-Bernie vote, foiling his plan to capture the nomination without expanding his share much beyond a third. The Sanders movement has remained genuinely indignant that it was unable to win the nomination and steer the party in a direction opposite of the desire of most of its voters by exploiting a divided opposition. But the Sanders plan for minority-faction rule, while it briefly seemed likely to prevail, always required denying the rest of the party a chance to vote up or down on his revolution. He lost for one simple reason: The process gave the voters, right or wrong, what they wanted.