Lessons From the 2020 Democratic Primary

In just over two weeks, former Vice President Joe Biden went from a washed-up old warhorse fading from the race to essentially having the nomination wrapped up while front-runner Bernie Sanders, ostensively the leader of the now ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic party, has been relegated to also-ran status. Most Sanders surrogates and the campaign itself will tell you this is far from over given how many votes are still up for grabs in the coming primaries, but this is a half-truth at best. Sanders needs a miracle to unseat Biden at this point– he’s way behind where he was against Hillary Clinton four years ago and has an unkind map coming up. The fat lady has warmed up and is ambling onto the stage now.

How did this stunning turn of events happen? To start with, it wasn’t all that stunning. While the media narrative around the race since Sanders consolidated most of the progressive vote after returning from his heart attack (with a boost from AOC’s endorsement) has been that he has the ground game, financial backing, and enthusiastic support to sweep up the nomination. None of the other candidates were drawing the donations, crowds, or poll numbers that Bernie Sanders had. It was his race to lose. Right up until it wasn’t.

Sure, Pete Buttigieg stunned him a little in Iowa, but Pete bet everything on an early momentum play in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bernie just had to weather the storm and wait for Pete’s lack of minority support to sink him (it did). Warren never recovered from her M4A plan debacle– just one of many unforced errors her campaign committed. Seriously, anyone with a role in strategic consulting that worked for that campaign should be done in politics. From her disastrous geneology reveal to her inexplicable decision to run as Bernie-lite while not trying to eat into his base while alienating the same moderate voters that Sanders does, the Warren campaign is a master class in how to make the least out of a strong candidate in a weak field. A true masterpiece in shitty politics. Bloomberg’s millions bought him a small slice of the moderate pie, but Warren effectively kneecapped him at his first debate (and basically put a cigarette out on his chest in the second one). Amy Klobuchar made sense on paper but with little national recognition, few favors built up with the electorate outside her state, and no real groundswell of support never really had a path forward. Then there was Joe Biden. Sleepy Joe, running on auto-pilot. Little ground game, even less money, and seeminly no enthusiastic support. A repeat of Clinton, but without the novelty of potentially being the first female President. Who wanted that? Not the caucusgoers of Iowa. Not the voters of New Hampshire. Not people who attend rallies or talk politics all day on Twitter. No, this election belonged to Bernie Sanders and “the people.”

With this narrative, it is easy to see why Sanders surrogates and supporters feel so blindsided. It looked like they had a wide-open path to the nomination and in a flash it was over. Conspiratorial thinking, always a problem for the populist part of Sanders coalition, has gone into over-drive. The “establishment” did this to us! Boomers are literally trying to kill young people by stopping the revolution! Corporate interests are not going to allow the revolution to happen! None of these conspiracies are true. The establishment didn’t force anyone out or to endorse anyone– candidates made clear-eyed choices about their chances, their resources, and the direction they wanted policies to go for the next four years. Boomers do not have some sick desire to kill their grandchildren. They do have different political concerns and policy preferences though (as the current 18-29 crowd will find to be very true when they are older as well). And if our corporate overlords were so all in on Joe Biden, why was he running out of money and unable to even visit or open offices in so many states?

The truth is simple. Bernie Sanders could only win the nomination as long as the moderate vote was split in this primary. The moment that vote coalesced around one candidate (and likely any one of them), Sanders was toast. He didn’t have the votes. And crucially, he never really tried to get them.

Moderates outnumber progressives in the Democratic party. This is true in the GOP as well, but unlike Republicans in 2015-16, Democratic candidates and voters didn’t allow their vote to be fractured all the way to the convention. Pete Buttigieg, who had the best claim to the “alternative to Biden” lane dropped out first. He had no path after South Carolina. Had he run neck and neck there with Biden or beaten him this conversation would be very different. But Mayor Pete lacked the coalition Joe Biden spent 40 years building and being a prominent face in. He lacked the black vote. Simple as that. Buttigieg, unlike Jeb!, Marco, Cruz, et al, bowed out. Klobluchar, who had less claim than Buttigieg, followed suit. Bloomberg only got in because Biden looked weak and he wanted to offer an alternative. His losses showed him that Biden was the candidate he himself wanted to be. No need to hang around. Of course they all endorsed Biden– they were all running in the same lane! And Warren, who could have dominated this lane had she taken a more pragmatic approach rather than trying to split some weird middle between the Bernie wing and the moderates, had no real lane at all and saw most of her support disappear and dropped out herself without endorsing anyone. Sanders supporters are seething over this final betrayal from Warren, but there is little reason to think it would swing anything. Look at where she was scoring in these contests! She had no support to swing to anyone at the end.

(Also, all those snake emojis and hissing sounds at her might not have been a super smart outreach strategy from the online Bernie brigade)

To repeat: Biden won because he dominated the middle-age and elderly black vote and consolidated the moderate lane of the 2020 Democratic primary. His rivals for that lane got out and endorsed him when they saw they had no path forward. Biden made this easy for them because he never attacked them or insulted their supporters and the friends and allies he spent 40 years collecting spent political and social capital on his behalf to do help spur that consolidation along. This is not corrupt, it is how politics (and life) work. Relationships matter.

Sanders lost because his strategy was to emulate what Trump did in 2016– count on a fractured moderate/establishment lane never uniting its strength behind one candidate and allowing him to essential hijack the party’s platform and nomination. It was always the only path forward for him.

Sanders could have chosen other strategies, but I honestly doubt they would have worked. The purity tests his campaign really built itself around sort of precludes the sort of compromise other strategies require. He could have tried to grow his coalition by listening to what moderate voters wanted or tempering the policies that they feared, but this would have alienated that part of his base that thinks Elizabeth Warren is a neoliberal shill. He could have gone for the kill on Warren when she still had support to give, but this often backfires and sends that candidates voters into literally any alternative’s hands.

For the revolution to succeed, it had to have a fractured moderate vote.

Now the Sanders campaign is on life support. Some supporters, like Nina Turner, are trying to put all focus on this weekend’s scheduled debate. Color me sceptical that a debate in front of an empty studio will sway the electorate. It isn’t like voters are unaware of who Joe Biden is. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well recognized Democratic politician not named Obama or Clinton. Everyone knows who Joe Biden is, what his administration would look like, and his propensity for gaffes. This is already baked in. I suspect that Sanders surrogates are preparing their last-ditch play: hope that the debate gives enough “Biden is sundowning” moments that they can scare the electorate off the moderate position, leaving only Sanders as an alternative to sure defeat against… checks notes… gaffe machine and frequent target of “is he mentally unstable/demented/narcissistic” Donald Trump.

Short of Joe Biden having a stroke on stage, it will not be enough. Again, we have all seen Joe Biden do this for decades. No matter how convinced “you” are that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the electorate clearly does not agree (or actually prefers a person suffering from dementia to what you are offering).

Likewise, other scare tactics are unlikely to sway primary voters in Florida, Ohio, and Georgia in the coming weeks. Furthermore, they betray what a shallow understanding many Sanders supporters seem to have over how politics works. Take this example:



For one, if young people were “the base” of the Democratic party, Bernie Sanders would be running away with this election. They are not. They talk a lot on social media. They attend a lot of rallies. But as a voting bloc, they are not the base of the party. What I assume this commentator is trying to say is that the youth vote has been instrumental in electing Obama and was what gave Clinton the popular vote victory in 2016. Again, this is misleading and contextless information. Those 18-29 year olds who voted for Obama are now 30-44 year-olds and includes a good number of the Obama-Trump voters that were key to winning back the House in ’18 (and will be key to winning the general election). Two, this information is basically useless electorally. Unless you can show how Biden, despite winning the primaries in most of the key swing states that will determine the Electoral College vote, is somehow losing the key demographic (hint: it ain’t young people) that will swing the state blue you aren’t really saying anything of value here.

This is one of the more mild and veiled versions of this tactic, which is meant to suggest that despite Biden winning the majority of these primaries and how consistent the polling numbers of the moderate lane have been measured against the progressive lane, Biden is a surefire loser in the general due to his politics, his mental health, and (most insidiously) because Sanders voters are threatening to stay home in the general. The more crude ones give away the last part of that strategy. Take for example this tweet, retweeted by Sanders Press Secretary:

Nothing says “inclusive campaign” like having their press secretary endorse hashtags mocking the front-runner’s cognitive functions and threatening to leave the party because you are losing the primary.

The #DemExit shows how little the Sanders movement ever understood about American politics and basic leverage. Historically speaking, what Trump did to the GOP is rare. Movement’s do not typically hijack existing parties. Trump sort of did, though I would argue it was more about exposing how hollow the commitment to morality and classical liberal thought was in the base than anything else. More often, they require a collapse of the existing party which leaves a vacuum for a new coalition to form around. The Federalists were not overtaken by the Whigs. Their party collapsed, unable to effectively organize or combat the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, lost electoral support, and fractured. Some in later years would become Whigs. Others joined the Democrats. Coalitions reformed around new issues, finding the ground more fertile with former opponents or new geographic areas. Likewise, the Whigs fell apart over the issue of slavery, seeing some join the new anti-slavery Republican Party while southerners joined the Democrats (and eventually rebelled against the nation itself). The dramatic 1960s realignment around the issue of black peoples civil rights is the rare exception. The strategic embrace of anti-black politics by Nixon and pro-civil rights positions by first Kennedy and then more seriously by LBJ and RFK was hardly a grassroots revolution. Likewise, the “Goldwater” revolution ended in defeat and got seriously mixed up with the Southern Strategy, to the point that even now it is hard to tell where the hardscrabble, bootstrapping, individual liberty-loving, traditional values, grassroots movement ends and where the cynical, top-down, race-baiting begins.

At no point in the past has an American political party been hijacked by a segment of it threatening to leave the coalition. All it can do is destroy the party. For some Sanders supporters, this seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome. To hear them tell it, if Democratic voters don’t support Sanders plans for healthcare and the environment then they are condemning millions of fellow Americans to death and they deserve to have their party die. The privilege that you must have to hold that position is something to behold. It posits a lazy binary. If you do not agree with our conclusions you are essentially the same as Donald Trump. It is very easy to say this when the de facto and de jure aspects of the Trump presidency do not personally impact you.

The privilege is clear in the demographics. Bernie supporters can point to the youth vote and how their fears are being callously ignored by “Boomers,” but they do little to reconcile their own dismissive attitudes towards fears different than their own. Sanders voters on a whole tend to be younger, more educated, and live in areas where density and environmental degradation are serious problems. They grew up with more creature comforts, more access to education, and more options for pursuing a good life than their parents and grandparents. They are free to marry who they choose. Seriously, if you cannot see progress in the breakdown of de facto banning of interracial relationships and de jure laws against homosexual marriage I do not know how to help you. In spite of this (or because of it) many Sanders supporters think that they have been left a world worse off in every way than the one their parents and grandparents were handed. This is absurd.

Every generation faces new challenges and opportunities. For my generation, these have been the war on terror, the sky-rocketing cost of college and healthcare, the non-stop growth of income inequality, and climate change. Polls show most liberals and democratic voters agree that these are real problems. However, clearly, most Democratic primary voters have a more pressing concern– beating Donald Trump and overturning a decade of dysfunctional government that the Freedom Caucus, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Trump have presided over. They want an end to emboldened racists shooting up black churches and synagogues and marching through our streets. They want Congress to pass more than tax-breaks and to actually present realistic legislation that can move us forward in dealing with higher education funding, improving access and decreasing cost in healthcare, fixing our crumbling infrastructure, and providing clean air and water. They don’t want a revolution– they just want things to continue to improve.

This isn’t class warfare for most Democrats. And that isn’t because Republicans have done such a good job of poisoning the terms “socialist” or “communist.” Socialists and communists did a fine job of that all on their own.* The much-chided Boomers remember a time when America was ACTUALLY ON FIRE. They remember politicians and activists being murdered. They remember lynchings– physical ones, not social media mobs. You might feel like things are worse than they have ever been, but for people with a longer memory or a historical reference point, this claim seems hyperbolic. Many of them, especially older black Democrats, remember that so often the progressive wing of the left has sold out the interests of minority communities for their class-based goals. You do not get to handwave that off. Donald Trump sold a group of disaffected people on the right the idea that the changes since 1950 were bad. That change itself was what “ruined” America and that he could restore it to some prior glory. MAGA. To moderate Democrats, the Sanders campaign is selling a similar story, only now it is one where there was never a glory day to return to. Things have always been shit, let’s tear it down and build a new society is a risk most people are not willing to take.

*Spare me the Republicans called Obama a socialist too– they did and it didn’t work. Voters are not simpletons.

It turns out, most Americans do not hate their lives. We all agree that things are not perfect. Most of us accept that they never will be. There are plenty of things to feel outraged by, but rage itself is a poor way to conduct government. The majority of us want the political scene to calm down. We don’t want to scream at our opponents and vilify all who disagree with us. It is one of the fundamental reasons we oppose Trump. We want a functioning democracy. We understand that this means making compromises that will undoubtedly leave us frustrated. But that this beats four more years of gridlock and stagnation. Biden’s campaign offers that. It seeks to prove that democracy still works. It is a counter to the idea that the American experiment has entered its decline or an era of decadence. It is a bet that coalitions can still move the ball downfield without storming the barricades and killing the opposition, but instead by leveraging relationships, making deals, and settling for better rather than ideal.

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