Even with plenty of votes remaining to be counted in Michigan [Biden won] and returns from two other states not yet in, it’s clear that Joe Biden had another very good day Tuesday. He’s essentially wrapped up the Democratic nomination. Yes, Bernie Sanders technically still could pull ahead, but realistically, the race is over.
There are three stories — all correct, at least in part — explaining how Joe Biden did it.
The first is simple: Barack Obama did it. The big difference between Biden in 2020 and Biden in his previous runs in 1988 and 2008 was that when Obama selected him as vice-president, he elevated him to the front of the party. Once Hillary Clinton was off the scene, that left Biden as Democrats’ obvious consensus choice.
Biden deserves a victory lap. He’s been trying to win a presidential nomination since Ronald Reagan was president and Mike Schmidt was the best sports star in his native Pennsylvania, and he’s (almost) finally done it
There’s quite a bit of truth in that; certainly without the vice-presidency, Senator Joe Biden wouldn’t have been a serious contender this year.
That said, he wasn’t as strong a candidate as sitting vice-presidents such as Al Gore in 2000 or George H.W. Bush in 1988, and judging from his pre-Iowa support from party actors, he wasn’t as strong as Walter Mondale in 1984, either. (Mondale was also four years out from the vice-presidency.)
Biden earned it
The second story is that Biden earned it. In part, this is a story of a successful vice-presidency. After all, Dan Quayle couldn’t convert his time in office into a presidential nomination. But the other part of the story is that, as political scientist Charles Olney put it, “Joe Biden has spent his whole career occupying the centre of wherever the Democratic Party currently sits.”
There’s empirical evidence for that in standard ideological scores of congressional voting. Biden has been good at staying in the middle of the Democrats without seeming calculating about it. Mainly that’s because of his, let’s say, exuberant persona; to be less generous, his tendencies toward being a preening blowhard make it hard to see him as cynically shifting to match his party.
We shouldn’t underrate the importance of that ability. Politicians who can jump to the front of a parade at exactly the right time without making it seem like they’re doing any such thing are exercising a very useful skill. True, after a long career, it leaves them with a lot of ugly-in-retrospect votes and statements. But it’s an ability that will come in handy if Biden becomes president.
But that too comes up short as a full explanation, given party actors’ lack of enthusiasm for Biden among all through 2019, and his very real flops in the first two states to vote this year.
No, a third story is needed, and that’s one of contingency and luck. It isn’t correct at all to say that Biden simply led all along. His early polling lead was very likely a mirage based in large part on familiarity, especially in a very large field of candidates. But things went right for him, and I think from his perspective they need to be chalked up as luck.
First, a number of strong candidates flamed out early: Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and perhaps two or three others. Michael Bloomberg, who was able to win a surprising amount of support from party actors once he ran, made the critical mistake of starting very late and skipping the first four states, a strategy that has never come close to working.
Biden got lucky
And then Biden got luckier still when he did badly in Iowa and New Hampshire, because the weakest of the plausible nominees still running, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, defeated Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, both of whom would have received a lot less resistance from party actors. Even worse, the chaos-maximising results in those two states didn’t knock out Warren or Klobuchar, meaning that the field other than
Sanders was mostly in a muddle going into Nevada. All of that made it difficult for the other candidates to expand their coalitions, which in turn allowed Biden to finish a weak but decisive second. That made Biden the logical consensus candidate going forward for anyone who didn’t want Sanders to be nominated.
(It is possible that Biden was the only remaining candidate with a good chance at winning black voters. If so, then Biden probably did wrap up the nomination after Harris, Booker and perhaps one or two others dropped out. But my guess is that several other candidates could have earned support from black voters and party actors had things worked out better overall for them.)
Biden still needed enough support to hang on and take advantage of that luck, and he needed to have the ability to keep fighting when things looked bad. So even this story is one where Biden deserves some credit.
Going forward, Biden will need to find a way to satisfy the left side of the party. He’s a mainstream liberal, and Sanders supporters won’t move to him easily, although for most of them Donald Trump will provide the necessary motivation. (The “moderate” label pundits picked from Biden and some of the others is a stretch, given that he’s always been in the centre of the party and the party these days is almost uniformly liberal.)
He’s also shown some weaknesses with various demographic groups, perhaps especially Latino voters, who have been with Sanders during this cycle, and younger voters, who have been the strongest Sanders supporters. Trump will help with those, too, but Biden will have to work at it.
But for now, Biden deserves a victory lap. He’s been trying to win a presidential nomination since Ronald Reagan was president and Mike Schmidt was the best sports star in his native Pennsylvania, and he’s (almost) finally done it.
There still will be plenty of primaries ahead, and, safety willing, a convention in Milwaukee. But the truth is that the long general election campaign will get started now.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas