Biden Can’t Lose, At Least Until November

March 12, 2020

Bernie Sanders badly needed to win the Michigan primary. It was 2016, and he’d lost eight of 12 Super Tuesday contests to Hillary Clinton and split delegates almost equally in the four contests the following weekend.

It looked impossible: The EPIC/Free Press poll said he trailed in Michigan, 31% to Mrs. Clinton’s 56%. But in a shocker, the Vermont socialist upset the front-runner, 49.7% to 48.3%, and gained enough ground to stay in the race until the Democratic convention.

This year Mr. Sanders again needed a reset in Michigan, but he didn’t get it. Just the opposite: Rural Michigan flipped and crushed him. He also lost every county in Missouri, the closest primary contest in 2016. He barely missed the 15% delegate threshold in Mississippi and lost in Idaho. He won a much smaller victory in North Dakota than he did four years ago and leads narrowly in Washington state, where votes are still being counted.

Most Democratic leaders and pundits believe the contest is over—and it almost certainly is. As of Wednesday, Mr. Biden has 801 delegates. He needs 1,190 more for the 1,991 necessary for a first-ballot victory, or 49.9% of the outstanding delegates. Splitting the vote from here on will give the former vice president the win. Mr. Sanders has 657 delegates and must take 1,334 for a majority, or 55.9% of what’s left.

Victory will look even less attainable for Mr. Sanders after next week, when Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio vote. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton swept all four. And the remaining contests offer little hope: In 2016, Mr. Sanders collected only 44.8% of their delegates, not markedly different than the 45.6% of all delegates he received that year.

If next week doesn’t go well for Mr. Sanders, the suggestions—demands, really—that he concede to Mr. Biden will multiply. That might have a big impact on the typical politico hoping to curry favor with party grandees.

But Mr. Sanders is neither a conventional candidate nor a party man. A lifelong independent socialist, he sees himself as leader of a movement seeking a revolutionary takeover of the Democratic Party and a transformation of the government and country. Sharing his aggrievement over what they consider a rigged nominating system, many of Mr. Sanders’s backers will encourage him to keep fighting, even with pretty slim chances for a multiballot convention. Because the scrappy left-winger still wants to influence Mr. Biden’s choice of running mate and get the party on record for a socialist agenda, he may well stay in the contest as long as his resources allow.

Mr. Sanders also may think he’ll do better in a one-on-one race, raising the stakes for Sunday’s debate. It’s perhaps the senator’s last chance to slow the Joe-mentum. But his usual attacks on Mr. Biden’s record on Iraq and trade are too backward-focused. Voters are more concerned with future performance, including vision and fitness for the job. Yet raising questions about Mr. Biden’s mental acuity—his ability to string coherent sentences together—is hard to do without offending some voters.

On Wednesday Mr. Sanders said he will ask Mr. Biden where he stands on Medicare for All, climate action, college debt and a “racist criminal-justice system.” If he can’t be the candidate, sounds like he wants to write the platform.

Mr. Biden isn’t a particularly good candidate, so why is Mr. Sanders running worse than in 2016? Partly because the longer Bernie was on stage, the more concerned traditional Democrats became; his praise of Fidel Castro crystallized their fears. Also, don’t forget that Mrs. Clinton was a dreadful candidate not only in the 2016 general election, but in the primaries as well.

Looking ahead, Mr. Biden must figure out how to keep Bernie’s Brigades voting Democratic this fall. Many of them think they’re more likely to take over the party if President Trump beats Mr. Biden.

Some Sandernistas apparently believed that in 2016. Drawing on a YouGov/Harvard study, Tufts Prof. Brian Schaffner suggests 12% of Mr. Sanders’s 2016 primary supporters voted for Mr. Trump. This would have resulted in Mr. Trump picking up around 48,000 Sanders voters in Michigan, which he carried by 10,704 votes; 51,000 in Wisconsin, which he won by 22,748; and 117,000 in Pennsylvania, which he took by 44,292. That sort of defection Mr. Biden may not be able to afford.

While obtaining a delegate majority, Mr. Biden must also conciliate the Sanders voters. He shouldn’t do that by moving further left. He’s already made himself a juicy target for Republicans by agreeing with many goofy nostrums of the left during this primary, embracing the framework of the Green New Deal and free health care for illegal aliens. Nor should he speculate about future cabinet appointments: Nothing says smug and entitled like doing that this early.

The former vice president must keep campaigning as if it’s South Carolina’s make-or-break moment, while attempting to conciliate Bernie’s backers by emphasizing their common ground and greater goal of replacing Donald Trump. This will be hard to do: Many Sanders supporters are irreconcilable.


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