Extraordinary times produce extraordinary events. One week ago, the most relevant question about Joe Biden was whether he could exit the presidential contest with grace and end his political career with dignity. Today, he sits atop the Democratic field with the most delegates and a clear path to the nomination. If there is a more stunning turnaround in American political history I can’t find it.
Days will pass before California counts its ballots and we have the complete Super Tuesday delegate tally. But the final numbers are incidental to the coast-to-coast earthquake that struck two days ago. Bernie Sanders entered Super Tuesday in a commanding position and looked to end the day as the prohibitive frontrunner. There was a viable scenario where he dominated the California contest and emerged as the presumptive nominee. Instead he trails Biden in delegates and faces a challenging map disproportionately populated with states he lost in 2016.
How could such a thing happen? Biden had run an awful campaign. He was out of money. He had no organization on the ground in most Super Tuesday states. Yet he stands today as the delegate leader in this unprecedented race with the best odds of winning it all. It took a confluence of unlikely events to make it happen:
- When Elizabeth Warren eviscerated Michael Bloomberg at the Nevada debate, she revealed him to be a petulant and arrogant candidate who wasn’t ready for the big stage. Until that moment, Bloomberg had positioned himself to step into the establishment void created by the hapless Biden campaign. But his support plateaued, then dropped, as he appeared no more able to reassure voters than the erstwhile frontrunner.
- Shortly afterwards, Bernie won Nevada, where the press exaggerated his strength in the state by focusing on his overwhelming delegate haul instead of his modest first-ballot margins. After his New Hampshire win and with the field still crowded and divided, Bernie was days away from what polls suggested would be a surprisingly strong showing in Biden’s firewall state of South Carolina. From there it was going to be a sprint into Super Tuesday and perhaps an insurmountable delegate lead.
- This prospect instilled fear in the hearts of members of congress from districts where they believed Bernie would be an anchor at the top of the ticket and from party regulars who worried that a Sanders nomination would hand Republicans complete control of government. But Mayor Pete couldn’t expand his appeal much beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar couldn’t get out of single digits, Warren generated some of the same fears as Sanders, and Bloomberg was in the process of disqualifying himself. There was nowhere to turn.
- At the same moment, for inexplicable reasons, Biden came alive. It’s impossible to know why or quantify what changed, but he began to channel the happy warrior he once was. He turned in a couple of debate performances that, while forgettable, were not bad. He started speaking with the passion of someone who wants to be president rather than the plodding and disjointed manner of someone running out of a sense of obligation.
- Then, just before the South Carolina primary, the suddenly revitalized Biden was endorsed by Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip whose emotional and personal testimonial signaled to African American voters in his home state that Biden was the one. Candidates who finish fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire never get major endorsements. They drop out and go home. But in the upside-down 2020 race, Biden had lasted long enough to be the only realistic option to fill the void his awful campaign had created. He give desperate party regulars a vehicle to ride, even if it had a lot of miles and was recently refurbished. A fluid electorate responded overwhelmingly, handing Biden an unexpectedly lopsided victory that opened the floodgates.
- Within hours, Biden’s opponents started dropping out and endorsing him in a way that didn’t happen for Bernie or Mayor Pete after Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg went first, then Klobuchar. Then came the announcement that they were going to join Biden for a Super Tuesday eve rally where Biden was also endorsed by Beto O’Rourke.
- The rally was a free media bonanza. From the moment Saturday evening when the scope of Biden’s South Carolina victory became clear until hours before the first ballots were cast on Tuesday, the airwaves and social media were dominated by images of the Democratic Party rallying behind Joe Biden. As we saw with the House impeachment vote, public opinion can be shaped when elites send strong and consistent cues. To voters who for weeks couldn’t make up their minds or were unsettled about their options, the message could not have been more clear or timely. Biden surged in the polls at exactly the right moment.
- Perhaps more significant than any of these factors, the Biden love-fest shared a split screen with coverage of the Coronavirus and the Trump administration’s bungled response to it. If timing is everything in politics, the Biden surge came at a moment when normalcy and the promise of competence had to seem comforting to an awful lot of people. During a global health emergency that feels frightening and out-of-control, not many voters are in the mood for a revolution.
Before South Carolina, I left open the possibility that those invested in the status quo could still find a way to pull the party back to their position, but I had no idea it would happen so suddenly. From the start, the nomination contest had been a marathon quest for delegates in a crowded field where the 15% qualifying threshold was more important than winning states. Then overnight it became a conventional momentum contest where winning generated a bandwagon effect. Bernie can rightly say that the forces of the establishment never rallied to his side when he won New Hampshire and Nevada, and he was denied the momentum boost candidates traditionally get for winning the early states. But it is also true that he was unable to overcome his shortcomings. While Biden finally broke out with victories in the South, Southwest and New England that brought in new voters from Virginia to Texas, Bernie has yet to figure out how to grow beyond his base of support or expand the electorate. His weaknesses were exposed by Tuesday’s smaller field.
That said, Bernie represents a large and important segment of the Democratic Party. The most significant characteristic of the Democratic race has been the divide between those who wish to attack the foundations of neoliberalism and those who just want to return to a period of what we used to call normalcy. It’s the “go big or go back” divide that has defined this campaign from the beginning, and it continues to drive the election even after Tuesday’s stunning events. It will be on display more dramatically than ever in the stark differences between Bernie and Biden as they compete head-to-head.
The numbers favor Biden in that showdown. Unless he can expand his appeal, Bernie may be destined to end up with the 40% of voters who have consistently supported candidates who want to go big, leaving Biden with the 60% of voters who have reliably gravitated to a version of the go back message. If that is a large enough group to secure victory, it is far too small to dictate the terms of defeat. Bernie’s voters are a significant and growing share of the Democratic Party and a victorious Biden would ignore them at his own electoral peril. I wrote last Sunday that the status quo is being threatened by agents of change. This remains true despite Biden’s surge, and he cannot win the election without acknowledging and respecting voters who want to see a progressive America.
The next leg of the campaign will be bruising and hard fought, but once the result becomes apparent the party has to heal. If Biden is the nominee, he needs to listen carefully to what Bernie’s revolutionaries are saying and find a way to bring them into his tent, because even though Biden became the first candidate this year to demonstrate the ability to win nationally and across demographics, he is incomplete without the under-40 and Latino voters who feel Bernie and only Bernie is listening to them. Should that time come, there is a way for Biden to bridge the canyon and unify Democrats. It will require an open mind, bold gestures and an honest sense of his place in history. And as the last Democratic nominee might have said, it will take a village. More on that in my next post.