Joe Biden placed fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in the New Hampshire primary. Nobody has ever recovered from such a dismal showing to win a party’s nomination. Until now. While Bernie Sanders is still in the race, Biden is extremely likely to be the Democratic nominee.
The most common explanation from pundits for Biden’s rapid change of fortune paid tribute to the health of the Democratic Party. The Republican establishment, the story went, had been unable to beat back Donald Trump’s insurgency in 2016. While only a minority of Republican voters wanted him, several candidates stayed in the race and split the non-Trump vote. Democratic candidates this year, the story continues, acted in the interests of the party rather than in their narrow self-interest. After performing poorly in the South Carolina primary, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar promptly exited the race and endorsed Biden. Michael Bloomberg did the same a few days later, following the Super Tuesday primaries.
The comparison obscures more than it reveals. It is true that most Democratic politicians and strategists fear that nominating Sanders would throw away the party’s chance of winning the general election, just as Republicans feared about Trump in 2016. But many Republican officials nonetheless preferred Trump over his last real rival, Ted Cruz. The fear that nominating Trump would doom Republicans to defeat also proved incorrect: a point one would not think needs to be made, but the prevalence of this comparison suggests otherwise. Trump won the election, Republicans still have the Senate, and many Republican Party priorities, including reduced corporate tax rates and a more conservative judiciary, have been advanced as a result.
Nor have Democratic politicians acted with great farsightedness and altruism. As John McCormack observed in National Review Online after the South Carolina primary, the voters left them with little choice but to support Biden.
Sanders won the most votes in the first three contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. He was nearly universally viewed as the front-runner at that point, and he benefited from a dedicated core of supporters and a divided opposition. None of those states, however, had a large number of black voters, and Sanders did not get any momentum among them from those performances.
Nor did Biden’s poor showing dissuade South Carolina’s black voters from sticking with him. His second-place finish in Nevada, even though it was a distant second (20 to 47 percent), may even have helped him keep his support. In the South Carolina primary, 61 percent of African Americans voted for Biden. He beat Sanders in the state by roughly the same margin that Sanders had beaten him by in Nevada.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar were left with no way to win the nomination. They had attempted to do well enough in Iowa and New Hampshire that they would get a lift everywhere. The first part of their plans went pretty well, but the second didn’t. Buttigieg was below 15 percent in most polls of the key states that were going to vote after South Carolina — meaning that, under the Democrats’ nomination rules, in a lot of places he would get no delegates at all. Klobuchar was well below the threshold. After South Carolina, it was clear that the Democratic nominee would be either Biden or Sanders.
The first several Republican primaries of 2016 went very differently. Cruz narrowly beat Trump in Iowa. Then Trump won a strong plurality in New Hampshire, with John Kasich coming second. Trump won again in South Carolina, while Marco Rubio took second. National polls had Trump ahead, with a strong plurality. Cruz and Rubio were in a near-tie for second, with both adding up to be competitive with Trump. If Cruz or Rubio had instead beaten Trump soundly in South Carolina, the Republican nomination contest might well have become a two-candidate race. In actuality, it remained unclear who Trump’s top rival was — which helps explain why the position remained contested.
Voters’ decisions, not strategic behavior by elite party actors, consolidated the non-Sanders vote behind Biden. (The great exception to this generalization was the endorsement of Biden by Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina right before his state’s contest.) The question that these decisions ought to raise is why Republican voters in the 2016 race never made a similarly decisive move to one of Trump’s rivals. And a likely answer emerges from polling data.
After Rubio lost his home state of Florida, the candidates left in the race were Trump, Cruz, and Kasich. Cruz was positioned to Trump’s right, Kasich to his left. A Quinnipiac poll found that Kasich voters mostly preferred Trump to Cruz, and Cruz voters strongly preferred Trump to Kasich.
Exit polls from the 2016 primaries showed that Trump was running up the middle. In the North Carolina primary, Cruz beat Trump 54 to 33 percent among voters who considered themselves “very conservative.” Kasich cut into Trump’s support among voters who considered themselves “moderate,” winning 28 percent to Trump’s 40 percent. Trump did best among the voters in between: the plurality that considered themselves “somewhat conservative.” Trump got 46 percent of them and won the state. Trump was the major Republican candidate who opposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants and who also wanted Social Security left alone and abortion allowed in cases of rape and incest. A lot of Republicans were, and are, right there with him.
The Super Tuesday exit polls this year show a similar pattern, but with Biden as the candidate in the middle of his party and Sanders on its edge. In Minnesota, Sanders won a majority of voters who identify as “very liberal,” and Biden won a strong majority of “moderates.” Biden beat Sanders by nine points among “somewhat liberals,” the largest group of voters. In Virginia, the “very liberal” voters were again the only ideological group Sanders won, and that narrowly. Biden won both states.
Biden has always been in the center of the Democratic Party, moving left as it has. He was for the 1994 crime bill when nearly all Democrats were, and he has become critical of it now that Democrats have decided it was monstrous. He was against public funding of abortion back when Democratic activists tolerated that stance. Now that they don’t, he has abandoned it.
In the early days of this primary, though, a lot of people — candidates, strategists, journalists — misunderstood where the center of the Democratic Party was. They spent too much time on Twitter, where the young, woke Left is disproportionately loud. They mistook the high-profile victories of some left-wingers in heavily Democratic districts in 2018, notably those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad,” for a shift by the party at large. (The vast majority of Democrats who took House seats from Republicans that year were not running on a platform of democratic socialism.) They didn’t keep in mind, or didn’t realize, that white progressives have shifted far to the left on racial issues, and well to the left of nonwhite Democrats. They were writing off Biden before anyone had voted.
Several of the other candidates mimicked Sanders by endorsing Medicare for All and then found that a lot of Democrats, not to mention independents, didn’t like the idea that their health-insurance plans would be outlawed. Elizabeth Warren touted the endorsement of “Black Womxn For,” which describes itself as “an organizing collective of leaders, activists, artists, writers, and political strategists.” Black women, without the “x,” stayed with Biden.
Sanders, probably out of habit and conviction more than calculation, spent the days after his Nevada win arguing, repeatedly, that Castro’s record in Cuba was not all bad — the kind of note he manages not to sound when talking about, say, American pharmaceutical executives. It was not the gesture of someone convinced he needed to court Democratic voters more conservative than he, or those worried that most Americans are more conservative than he.
Biden himself may have followed the ideological fashions of the party’s most vocal members too closely for his own good. His new positions on immigration, the environment, abortion, and health care will create vulnerabilities for Trump to exploit. But he has less of this kind of baggage than any other Democrat who was ever in the top tier of candidates.
One neglected parallel between the 2016 Republican contest and the 2020 Democratic one has held up. The candidate who is in the center of his party and who has spent most of the contest at the top of the national polls has a very good chance at winning the nomination. In 2016 for the Republicans, that candidate was Trump. In 2020 for the Democrats, it’s Biden.
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