I don’t recall any presidential primary season that has seen such a dramatically rapid reversal. Three weeks ago, Bernie Sanders was the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. One week ago, Joe Biden, risen from the dead, was the clear front runner. Today, Biden is all but certain to be the nominee.*
How did this happen? The most obvious and certainly correct explanation is that overwhelming support among African-American voters determined Biden’s big win in South Carolina and gave him a big advantage in most of the Super Tuesday states. The momentum from Super Tuesday created a bandwagon effect which carried into Lesser Super Tuesday.
Less obvious are changes in the ideological and class composition of the Democratic primary electorate that favored Biden. First, Trump has driven many moderate Republican and Republican-leaning voters to the Democrats, shifting the Democratic center of gravity to the right. Second, many nominally Democratic white working class voters, who were receptive to Sanders’s populism and happily supported him over Hillary Clinton in 2016, have exited the Democratic primary electorate, having by now moved over to Trump and his party. The overwhelming and enthusiastic support Sanders gets among young voters was insufficient to counter these trends, because as Sanders himself ruefully acknowledged, young people just don’t turn out that much to vote.
So, the question that I raised in my last post—whether Biden or Sanders would be the stronger opponent for Trump—is now of little more than academic interest. Democratic primary voters seem to have had that question foremost in mind and answered it in favor of Biden, as Sanders noted in frustration:
…[We] are losing the debate over electability. I cannot tell you how many people our campaign has spoken to who have said — and I quote — ‘I like what your campaign stands for. I agree with what your campaign stands for. But I’m going to vote for Joe Biden because I think Joe is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump.’”
Now Sanders has to decide how best to advance his cause, which is much larger than his candidacy. He wants to move the Democratic Party and the country to the left, but his remarks yesterday clearly indicated recognition that defeating Trump is an absolute priority. So, he has a balancing act to perform: continue to put pressure on Biden and the party to acknowledge and accommodate the powerful social movement he leads, but at the same time avoid the bitterness that could develop over the course of an extended campaign for the nomination whose outcome is not in doubt. He was less than successful in finding that balance in 2016. Hopefully, he will do better this year.
* The only possibility for another turnaround in the campaign would be for Biden to turn in a catastrophic performance in the one-on-one debate this Sunday.