Joe Biden’s Primary Turnaround Calls for Learning Not Celebrating (Yet).
Two major flaws are left open in Biden’s campaign. Closing them is a test of his leadership.
There wasn’t one factor that lost the Democrats the 2016 election. It wasn’t just Clinton, it wasn’t just Trump, and it wasn’t just Comey, either. But the large degree of hubris that infected the party made the loss almost impossible to see coming, much harder to take when it did happen, and probably even harder to subsequently understand. With Democrats being equally accused of both under and over-learning from that defeat.
Joe Biden’s primary turnaround now gives him a greater than 99% chance of securing a majority of delegates. Less than two weeks ago, that number was 15%. That turnaround makes fertile ground for hubris to rise again. Not least because for years Biden has been seen as the strongest candidate to beat Donald Trump, since even before the primaries began. Unexpected victories in Massachusetts, Maine, and Minnesota coupled with over-performances in Michigan and Texas create a threat of complacency. There is even talk of Biden ‘crushing Sanders’ revolution’. It is all very self-congratulatory, and that’s dangerous.
Biden is not Obama 2.0 and his coalition, so far, does not represent the same one his former boss was able to build. I acknowledge there are various definitions of what exactly that coalition was, so I want to define it as consisting of young, progressive voters, minority voters, college education (most female) voters based in metropolitan areas, and white non-college education voters, mostly focussed in rural areas.
Biden’s strength amongst black voters is overwhelming — beating Bernie in Mississippi by 84%-13%. And likely wins in Arizona and Florida will sure up more Hispanic support, too. Similarly, Biden shows strength amongst the white non-college education voters; again beating out Sanders by 78%-19% in Mississippi. In Michigan, too, a more Sanders-friendly state and a general election battleground Biden polls 12 points higher amongst that group than Bernie did (53%-41%). That is not to suggest Sanders does better amongst the higher educated voters either. Biden once again dominates, despite slipping to within 1% of those with a Bachelor’s degree.
A final string to Biden’s bow is women voters, especially those in the suburbs. Take the suburban Livingston Co., Michigan, for example, one of the 73 counties Bernie carried in the primary four years ago. In 2016, Livingston voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by nearly a 2:1 ratio, that’s the same year Bernie took almost 60% of the primary vote. This year, his vote nearly halved, to 35%.
In fact, in the four counties that Trump won by the smallest margin in 2016, Bernie Sanders also won three. This year, his % vote share fell on average 18 points within those four counties. They are hugely positive numbers for Biden’s general election chances.
Suburban women are an especially influential electoral group, partly because of the role they played in securing Democrat victories in 2018 and 2019 elections. In Texas, Biden carried the Dallas and Houston suburbs, as well as nearly every county in Virginia. Based on polling from this week’s ‘Mini Tuesday’, Biden also won the female vote 59%-36% (MI), 64%-32% (MO), and 36%-27% (WA).
But there is one group of voters from Obama’s coalition that Biden has hitherto been unable to win over — the younger voters. In the Super Tuesday voting states, not only did Sanders win voters aged 18–29 (+43), but also voters aged 30–44 (+18). They are enormous margins. To crudely extrapolate, in 2019 there were approximately 85 million Americans aged 20–44.
Another defining feature of Biden’s campaign so far has been the lack of infrastructure it has needed to secure such impressive wins. For example, just before Super Tuesday, Biden had one active office in California compared to Bernie’s 23 and Bloomberg’s 24. Similarly, Biden’s spending on advertising has been staggeringly low. Even when accounting for the Bloomberg and Steyer campaigns — anomalies to this cycle — Biden’s advertising spend is still less than one third of that of Bernie Sanders’. Although, interestingly, Bernie’s spending in South Carolina was very low and he suffered there.
The fact that Biden’s campaign has radically increased its spending on Facebook advertising to $9 million in March from just $734,000 in February is a sign the campaign is learning important lessons.
The message to the Biden campaign, however, should be that this is not the norm. Running a general election campaign with limited infrastructure, limited ability/desire to spend enormous amounts of money, and a limited appeal to a major section of your party’s base should not be worthy of celebration and should prompt the campaign to improve.
Part of this will come from Biden himself. Ultimately, his name is on the ballot and this is the second winnable election for the Democrats in a row. In the words of David Plouffe during a recent Podcast with The Atlantic, if Biden loses it’s unforgivable. But a Biden victory will also come through recognising the strength of the field he was once a small part of. For example, Biden is way ahead in terms of endorsements and needs to use these effectively. Take Michigan, for example, not only has Biden gained the support of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, but remarkably, Mayor Michael Taylor also — a Republican Mayor from an Obama/Trump swing district.
And then there are the recent endorsements coming from Kamala Harris and Corey Booker, and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar — all will play important roles in the campaign and possibly in a future administration or a Democrat controlled Senate. Looking at Biden’s real weaknesses so far, however, there appears to be one candidate who is the true antithesis of them; Bernie Sanders. Who, through his fundraising ability and ability to enthuse younger, progressive voters has arguably had more influence over national politics in the last five years than anyone not named Donald Trump. If Biden can bridge those gaps, it would be a true testament to his leadership.
The question is who cares? I don’t mean that rhetorically, I mean it literally, who cares? Because if coastal twitter users get wound up by Biden’s candidacy, I suspect the party can live with that, but if that dissatisfaction begins to bleed into other electoral clusters i.e. suburban women, non-college education white males, black voters, and independent voters, and Biden’s campaign is unable to combat those flaws then there are problems. While there is little evidence Biden is susceptible to that, there was also little evidence Hillary Clinton would lose, and we cannot afford to be shocked again.