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What If Biden Is Simply More Popular Than Sanders?

It’s not just Democratic leaders who recoiled at the thought of nominating the democratic socialist.

Mario Tama/Getty

American radical John Reed called his exuberant account of the Russian Revolution Ten Days That Shook the World. A little more than a century later, American establishmentarian Joe Biden shook the world in a single week—from his spritely performance in the South Carolina debate to his near sweep (east of the Rockies) on Super Tuesday.

Journalists are already publishing dozens of stories chronicling the dramatic inside story of how Biden rose from the canvas to become the leading presidential contender. This predictable spate of how-it-happened reporting will undoubtedly illustrate John Kennedy’s dictum: “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.” 

But few of these breathless accounts will convey how uninspiring Biden was as recently as last week.

On the night before the South Carolina debate, I saw Biden at a typically wan event in a gymnasium at the College of Charleston. The small and largely white crowd (never a good sign in the run-up to a Democratic primary in South Carolina) was treated to every imaginable Biden cliché in the first minute. The former vice president reeled from a “Look, folks …” to a “Here’s the deal …” like a standup comic doing a Biden imitation. 

Eight days later, on Super Tuesday, the media was stunned by the extent of Biden’s surprise victory; California was the only major prize that eluded him. Its prior overconfident projections that Bernie Sanders would emerge from March 3 with an unassailable lead in the delegate count proved as accurate as every other poll-propelled prediction in this Democratic race. (In hindsight, political soothsayers would have done about as well as they did if they had consulted William Jennings Bryan through a Ouija board.)

Nearly 33 years ago, Biden first declared his presidential candidacy, promising to “rekindle the fire of idealism in our society.” But until his triumph in South Carolina on Saturday, Biden had never won a caucus or a primary. By all prior rules of politics, no candidate had ever rallied as Biden did this year from a fourth-place finish in Iowa and an even worse defeat in New Hampshire.

So what changed for Biden?

After nearly half a century in national politics, the former vice president didn’t suddenly reach within himself to find his voice. In the eighth decade of his life, he didn’t transform himself into a New Biden akin to the “New Nixon” that the gullible discovered in 1968. And with a cupboard-is-bare campaign budget, Biden didn’t prevail by ruling the airwaves with uplifting political spots.

While there remain millions of Super Tuesday votes (especially in California) still to count and hundreds of delegates still to apportion, there is one tentative explanation for his victory: Democratic voters—not just the party leaders—recoiled at the thought of Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket. 

In virtually every Super Tuesday state (aside from California, where the data is incomplete), the late deciders broke for Biden by a lopsided margin. In Minnesota—whose senator, Amy Klobuchar, endorsed the former vice president on Monday—nearly three times as many primary voters who made up their minds in the last few days chose Biden over Sanders. The same pattern held in Massachusetts, where Biden beat Sanders among the late deciders by a two-to-one margin. 

Endorsements mattered, especially the blessing of Biden by Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg after South Carolina. What was impressive was how quickly the word got out to voters searching for a mainstream alternative to Sanders. Democrats who had been biding their time suddenly flocked to Biden because of late-breaking news coverage, not TV ads. 

Based on preliminary data, Sanders failed to expand the electorate dramatically. Missing were the younger voters who he promised were primed for revolution rather than reform. In every state, according to exit polls, there were significantly more Super Tuesday voters over 65 than between the ages of 18 and 29.

There are built-in limitations to exit polls, since very few people will agree to stand around after they vote to answer a 14-page questionnaire. But I do wonder what role the sore-loser factor played in Sanders’s apparent failure to score a delegate breakthrough on Super Tuesday.

Ever since Sanders won the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses, his supporters have been threatening major trouble if he were denied the nomination at the Milwaukee convention. Their argument has been that, despite Democratic Party rules, the candidate with the most delegates deserves the nomination, even if he (or she) has not yet reached a majority. They portrayed any effort to take a nomination fight to a second ballot as a conspiracy by the billionaire class and by party elites to thwart the will of the people.

The idea of a tempestuous convention panicked Democrats who believe the party needs to be a united front to beat Donald Trump in November. The only way to prevent massive conspiracy theories among the Bernie brigades was to rally around a single candidate in the primaries, depriving Sanders of a delegate lead. And, after Buttigieg and Klobuchar collapsed in South Carolina, that candidate was, of course, Biden.

Even Mike Bloomberg has now endorsed the former vice president. His crash-and-burn finish Tuesday night reflected three iron rules of politics: Dating back to the nineteenth century, no mayor of New York has ever been elected to another political office—and certainly not president, senator, or governor; no presidential candidate has ever prospered from skipping the early contests, as Bloomberg tried to do this year and Rudy Giuliani did in 2008; and, finally, in presidential politics, news coverage matters infinitely more than TV ads—even when they cost more than $500 million. 

If Bloomberg and his top advisers (all 863 of them) made a tactical mistake, it was probably having him participate in the last two debates. A case can be made that his long-shot candidacy never recovered from his scowling initial performance in the Las Vegas debate. But the debates also provided a real-world contrast between the idealized version of Bloomberg as he appeared in his omnipresent commercials and the reality. Every time voters saw the real Bloomberg up on the debate stage, it prompted them to question the TV spots.

At the moment, Elizabeth Warren is still an active presidential contender, even though her candidacy dangles by a thread. In theory, the Massachusetts senator—who shares many of Sanders’s policy stances, while showing an almost Biden-like dedication to the Democratic Party—could emerge as a compromise candidate at a deadlocked convention. But it is almost impossible to see how she might recover after finishing third in her home state’s primary.

Anyone tempted to offer glib predictions about the road from here to Milwaukee should recall what happened in Michigan in 2016. Even though polls showed Hillary Clinton heading into the state’s Democratic primary with a lead of more than 20 points, Sanders narrowly won the contest. At the time, Nate Silver described it as “among the greatest polling errors in primary history.”

Guess what? Michigan is the marquee contest on next Tuesday’s primary calendar. 

As a result, the only certainty I carry out of Super Tuesday is that the Democrats are poised to nominate a candidate—whether they choose Biden or Sanders—who was born before the Soviet Union won the Battle of Stalingrad