Joe Biden’s return from the walking dead may well be the most stunning development in modern electoral politics. What happened?
Although for reasons best known to herself, Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Fox News’ favourite Democrat, remains in the race despite having zero chance. Perhaps she’s simply reluctant to forgo a platform for her views, which are as out of the ordinary as she is: a former army officer, Gabbard is an American Samoan vegan and practising Hindu with an apparent soft spot for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
To all intents and purposes, however, we’re down to three old white guys, although the personnel have changed with former vice-president Joe Biden (77) supplanting billionaire Michael Bloomberg (78). Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders (78) will now duke it out in the remaining primaries to determine who joins President Donald Trump (73) on the ballot in November.
Bloomberg exits the stage with the heartfelt thanks of those media outlets and advertising agencies upon which he showered hundreds of millions of dollars during his unconventional and brazen bid to secure the Democratic nomination. As we know, money plays a massive part in American politics. However, the failure of Bloomberg’s strategy of letting his money do the campaigning and the damp squib that was fellow billionaire Tom Steyer’s “midlife crisis disguised as a campaign” hopefully mean Americans are becoming increasingly sceptical of the proposition that accumulating great wealth makes you presidential material.
Biden’s return from the walking dead may well be the most stunning development in modern electoral politics.
In terms of the dynamics of the primary contest, a few things changed. First, the battleground shifted from the unrepresentative – of the Democratic Party – states of Iowa and New Hampshire. As Biden told supporters after his disastrous showing – he finished fifth, 17% behind winner Sanders – in New Hampshire: “Up until now, we haven’t heard from the most committed constituency in the Democratic Party – the African-American community. Ninety-nine per cent – that’s the percentage of African-Americans who haven’t had the chance to vote. You can’t be the Democratic nominee, you can’t win a general election, unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters. It’s a fact.”
Biden managed to avoid a third humiliation in Nevada – he placed second, albeit well behind Sanders. And having sleep-walked through most of the candidates’ debates, he bestirred himself for the South Carolina primary. And he secured the endorsement of the state’s influential congressman, Jim Clyburn.
Even so, what happened next was more than a little mysterious. Ever since the Iowa caucuses on February 3, the polls had supported the emerging narrative that Biden’s lifeless, poorly run campaign was in a death spiral and Sanders was building up a head of steam that threatened to make him unstoppable.
From day one, South Carolina had been the key to Biden’s campaign, but three heavy defeats made it make or break: he simply had to win to stay in the race. According to the polls, it was a race against time since Biden’s once healthy lead over Sanders had shrunk to single figures and was coming down by the day. But the pollsters didn’t detect a last-minute seismic shift: Biden won South Carolina by almost 30 points.
Straight away, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg withdrew from the race and threw their support behind Biden, signalling the moderate wing’s closing of the ranks and consolidation behind a single candidate, which had to happen – and the earlier the better – if self-styled democratic socialist Sanders was to be deprived of the nomination.
Then came Super Tuesday, when 14 states held primaries. Assessing the last round of polls on the eve of Super Tuesday, the Bulwark’s Jonathan V Last, an anti-Trump conservative who has been arguing the case for Biden for some time, wrote that “the numbers show such a big surge for Biden across the board that I’m not sure I believe it”.
Electability trumps policy
The polls had detected a nationwide shift, but not the extent of it. As CNN’s Jake Tapper said as he watched the wave roll in, “Biden is winning states that he did not actually even attempt to win.” He won states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts, which were considered the territory of Sanders or fellow progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren territory and where Biden didn’t bother to campaign, and Virginia, where he didn’t spend a single dollar on advertising, plus Texas, which was regarded as a toss-up, and swept the south where the black vote was, once again, solidly and decisively his.
This was one of those momentous but mysterious instances when public opinion shifts abruptly and significantly, as if by a process of osmosis undetectable to pollsters and political operatives and reporters on the ground.
What happened? The first of two big takeaways from exit polls in the 14 states – he was later to win more – was that many voters made up their minds very late in the day. That suggests Biden’s big win in South Carolina persuaded fence-sitters that he was a winner after all. Bear in mind this is Biden’s third tilt at the presidency and before South Carolina he’d never won a state or caucus. As James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, said last month: “He’s never been a good candidate. This is not his first rodeo and he ain’t roped a cow yet.” In the space of a few days, Biden roped 11.
The second was that voters wanted a presidential candidate who could beat Trump more than one whose views aligned with theirs. In other words, electability was more important than policy. The obvious extrapolation is most voters in those states that went for Biden didn’t believe the other candidates had a realistic chance of beating Trump. More to the point, given the winnowing of the field and Sanders’ front-runner status going into Super Tuesday, they don’t believe Sanders can beat Trump.
This has been received wisdom among the political class for some time, to the extent that both the Republicans and the Russians – who increasingly march in lockstep – have been doing their bit to promote Sanders’ candidacy.
It should be said that many of Sanders’ policy stances are standard left-of-centre positions in the rest of the Western world and that he particularly deserves credit for his forthright – and politically risky – condemnation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.
On climate change, an issue of pressing interest to the watching world, he has been the yardstick by which the other Democrats have been measured, with his commitments to allocate US$16.3 trillion to the cause and achieve zero emissions from transportation and power generation by 2030 and make the US totally carbon free by 2050.
Going by their ratings of the Democratic field, Sanders was the candidate of choice of green advocacy groups, including Greenpeace, from the word go. His spending plans, total embrace of the Green New Deal and declared willingness to pursue criminal prosecution of oil company executives set him apart from Biden, who had the distinction of introducing the first climate-change bill to the Senate in 1986. (Greenpeace rated Biden B+, Sanders A.) Needless to say, neither man has ever suggested that climate change is a hoax or a Chinese plot to sabotage American capitalism.
But this is America, where it’s hard, if not impossible, to chart a socialist candidate’s path to victory in the Electoral College. Furthermore, the failure of Warren, a less-confrontational figure than Sanders, suggests the progressive vote can stretch so far but no further.
Sanders’ socialism obviously limits his appeal to independents and “Never Trump” Republicans, although that appears to be a source of pride to him and his hardcore supporters. And as hypocritical as it may be given the current administration’s fiscal irresponsibility, Trump would surely have a field day with the questionable arithmetic underpinning Sanders’ proposed avalanche of federal government spending: Medicare for all, free university tuition and cancellation of all US$1.6 trillion of student loan debt, to name just the bluest of his various blue-sky proposals.
Trump of the Democrats
Perhaps, too, there’s unease among Democrats that Sanders is, in some respects, their Trump. As Trump did to the Republicans in 2016, Sanders is essentially embarked on a hostile takeover of a party of which he has never been a member. Like Trump, he has a rancorous troll army whose most venomous attacks are directed in-house, as it were. Like Trump, his disavowals of his supporters’ excesses are equivocal to the point of having it both ways.
Sanders reacted to Biden’s surge by telling his supporters they were up against the “corporate establishment”, prompting African-Americans to ask, since when were they a part of the well-heeled elite? After Super Tuesday, he rushed out an advertisement with a voiceover by Barack Obama edited to give the impression the former president was endorsing him. (Obama hasn’t endorsed anyone in the belief that will make him a more effective party unifier once the candidate has been chosen.) In 2012, Sanders seriously considered running against Obama, whom he dismissed as “a sell-out”.
Perhaps most important, Sanders, like Trump, is a “movement” politician. It’s the nature of movement politicians that they are militants who frame everything in terms of “us and them”, eschewing consensus and compromise because their brand is built on overturning the established order and their political strategy on a perpetually energised base. A Sanders presidency, therefore, might do little to alleviate the polarisation that has poisoned US politics and destabilised its institutions, much to the delight of America’s adversaries.
Last argues that Biden’s personal qualities – his warmth and self-evident decency – make him the candidate best placed to exploit a historic anomaly: “40% of the country may think [Trump’s] the god-king, but close to 55% think he’s an awful person. That distribution is so far outside the norm for incumbent presidents that there’s no modern precedent for it – because even when incumbents have had low job-approval ratings, they’ve never been as personally despised as Trump is.
“Trump’s going to face off against the most politically unobjectionable figure in the Democratic Party, a guy tied to a popular recent president, who has 50 years of goodwill built up with the public and who is as likeable as anyone in politics.”
Sanders is cut from a different cloth. Even his admirers admit he can be “difficult”, a euphemism for a range of disagreeable traits. It doesn’t help that the default setting of his demeanour is peevishness: he looks like the sort of curmudgeon who’d stick a fork in a ball kicked over his back fence by the neighbour’s 10-year-old.
Indeed, if detractors such as Hillary Clinton are to be believed, Sanders would be a deserving recipient of the jibe Winston Churchill directed at a jowly, beetle-browed political foe: “He’s not as nice as he looks.”
This article was first published in the March 21, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.