Elections

The Democrats Have Had This Primary Before

Joe Biden walks with supporters at a pre-Wing Ding march from Molly McGowan Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, August 9, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
The problem with campaigning on electability is that it’s a brittle rationale for a candidacy compared with organic support from the grassroots.

As of this writing, the Democratic presidential contest looks very fluid, with four candidates bunched up in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the sudden relevance of foreign policy, thanks to the confrontation with Iran, has made it look more and more like a two-person race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Both candidates think the issue helps them, and they’re probably right. Biden’s foreign-policy experience and comparative hawkishness reinforce support from moderate voters, and Sanders’s long record of dovishness helps him among more progressive voters. Both candidates are trying to use the issue to freeze out their nearest competitors, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

If it does become a two-way contest, we could be shaping up for a kind of replay of the 2004 Democratic battle between former Massachusetts senator John Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. And that might be good for Michael Bloomberg.

Biden’s ace in the hole is his support from African-American voters, which hinges on their belief that Biden is the most likely candidate to defeat President Trump. A new Washington Post–Ipsos poll has Biden capturing 48 percent of black votes, and 57 percent of black voters say the thing they’re looking for most in a candidate is the ability to beat Trump. Only a third say their main consideration is how closely a candidate aligns with them on the issues. These “issues” voters skew younger, which might partially explain why Sanders comes in second among black voters with 20 percent.

The whole dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004 primaries. Kerry was the establishment candidate, Dean was the firebrand outsider with a lot of support from young progressives.

It’s largely forgotten now, but Kerry won the early contests not because voters liked him best, but because they thought other voters would prefer him down the road.

“There were a lot of people out there who really liked Gov. Dean’s message of standing up to the Republicans and President Bush, and his strong antiwar stance,” Gordon Fischer, the Iowa Democratic-party chairman in 2004, told New York magazine, “but they ultimately felt that Sen. Kerry was close enough to those principles and was more electable in 2004. They chose their head over their heart.”

In New Hampshire, Kerry won by 12 points. Kerry beat Dean 4-to-1 among voters whose top motivation was selecting a candidate who could “defeat George W. Bush in November.” Kerry and Dean were even among voters who picked their candidate because “he agrees with you on the major issues.” And Kerry’s early successes helped fuel the electability argument in later contests.

The prevailing logic of the “dated Dean, married Kerry” voters was that given the war in Iraq and the war on terror generally, Kerry’s status as a decorated veteran would nullify Bush’s advantage as a wartime president. That’s why Kerry showed up at the Democratic National Convention announcing he was “reporting for duty” with a smart salute. Of course, Kerry’s military record later came under scrutiny, as did his anti-war activism, both of which undercut the advantage voters assumed his war record would give him.

Biden is positioned somewhat differently from Kerry — he’s more likable, if wackier, for starters. And Sanders has a much more robust organization than Dean had. But the similarities are real. It raises an interesting question: What if voters at the time had a better understanding of Kerry’s weaknesses as a “war hero” candidate — the main rationale for his electability claims?

Clearly, the White House (the real Trump campaign headquarters) is trying to test the question by muddying up Biden before the first primary votes are even cast. So far it’s not working very well.

But what if Biden stumbles?

The problem with campaigning on electability is that it’s a brittle rationale for a candidacy compared with organic support from the grassroots. Sanders had a heart attack (!), yet he’s gained support since then. It’s hard to imagine Biden’s candidacy surviving a similar setback or a major stumble. If Biden loses in Iowa and New Hampshire — a very real possibility — will pragmatic voters, including Biden’s firewall of black voters, stand by him?

If they don’t, that would be billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s opportunity. Sanders’s support is deep, but it isn’t wide. Many Democratic insiders and voters believe that the avowed socialist would lose to Trump. Whether that’s true matters less than the belief. Bloomberg’s “break glass in case of emergency” candidacy could do surprisingly well on Super Tuesday (and that’s clearly Bloomberg’s plan).

Of course, it’s not obvious that Bloomberg could seize the nomination or beat Trump. Having Sanders’s socialist dreams dashed by one of the very plutocrats he detests could divide the Democrats and help fuel the Democratic nightmare of a brokered convention. But for those of us with no favorites in this race, it would be fun to watch.

© 2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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