Biden Beat Sanders—But It Won’t Be Easy to Shake Him Off

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Bill Clinton dubbed himself “the Comeback Kid” after experts wrote him off early in the 1992 Democratic primaries. After Tuesday night, Joe Biden can lay claim to the nickname. Left for dead after dreadful finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former vice president came storming back to edge Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the delegate lead and narrow the race for the Democratic nomination to a two-man affair. Appearing on stage in Los Angeles, Biden, always prone to overstatement, for once undersold the scale of his victory. “We are very much alive,” he declared.

The emergence of Biden and Sanders presents Democratic voters with a stark choice about how best to take on President Trump in the fall: Pick Biden and follow the moderate path that delivered Democrats huge suburban gains in 2018 and control of the House of Representatives—or tack left to embrace Sanders’s message of generational change.

For some Democrats, that quandary summons up memories of another recent presidential primary, one they’d like to forget. With the field narrowing down to an establishment favorite and a liberal insurgent, some strategists fear the primary contest could soon mirror the contentious clash four years ago between Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

“What worries me is that we’re looking at a 2016 redux,” says Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, “where the nominee limped into Election Day and then lost to Donald Trump.”

Entering Super Tuesday, the preoccupying concern among most Democratic lawmakers and party officials was that moderate support hadn’t yet coalesced around any single candidate. That problem has disappeared, aided by the exit of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg (owner of Bloomberg News’s parent) from the race this morning. Biden’s surge now creates a different challenge for a party that must unite if it hopes to prevail in November.

In deciding between Sanders and Biden, Democrats are effectively choosing between the past and the future of the party. On Tuesday night, Biden’s ties to Barack Obama and his promise to restore American politics to the era of relative civility that existed before Trump won the day. As Democratic strategist Addisu Demissie notes, Biden, who tirelessly invokes his affiliation with “Barack,” managed to reconstitute most of the former president’s key groups of support—not only seniors and African Americans, but also the white-collar suburban voters who powered the party’s gains two years ago. That represents, Demissie notes, “a pretty formidable coalition.”

Yet Biden is still missing one vital component of Obama’s support that proved decisive in past presidential elections: young people. He has consistently failed to attract younger and even middle-aged voters, leading some Democrats to question whether he can ultimately generate enough excitement to defeat Trump. “Moderation is not what gets people out to vote,” says Katz. “We lost with Clinton, Kerry, and Gore. You win when you do something different.”

Younger voters have instead flocked to Sanders, who’s built a committed following beyond what he drew in 2016 that now includes working-class voters and Latinos. Collectively, they represent the future of the Democratic Party. Sanders showed the possibility of this coalition by decisively winning Nevada’s caucus on Feb. 22, a state whose demographics more closely resemble those of the country—and, especially, the country’s future.

But the “revolution” Sanders has promised has yet to materialize. Even while winning key states such as California and Colorado on Tuesday, Sanders didn’t generate a big influx of new young voters. In fact, NBC News exit polls showed that 13% of voters were age 18 to 29, which means they turned out at only half the rate that seniors did.

In the areas where primary turnout has spiked this year, such as Virginia, it has been primarily fueled by the suburban moderates who drove Democrats’ midterm gains and voted overwhelmingly for Biden. Although he now must unify Democrats, on Tuesday night Biden couldn’t resist taking a dig at Sanders. “People are talking about a revolution,” he said. “We started a movement.”

The question Democrats face now is whether Biden’s movement or Sanders’s revolution can manage to assemble the 1,991 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination before arriving at the party convention in July. If neither candidate amasses a majority of delegates, it would precipitate a historic—and likely damaging—clash when Democrats gather in Milwaukee. The last time a major party convention went beyond the first ballot was in 1952.

In recent weeks, the specter of a contested convention generated intense controversy among Democrats and Sanders supporters over whether the party establishment could deny him the nomination if he entered with a delegate lead. But as with so much else this cycle, that concern has suddenly been turned upside down. For now, Biden, not Sanders, looks likelier to move forward with a delegate lead—and re-create the dynamic that divided the party four years ago and fueled acrimony among Sanders supporters that’s never abated.

This time Biden, not Clinton, is the anointed establishment favorite, whose strength with black voters and other party regulars may be just enough to prevent Sanders from ever regaining his delegate lead.

That would also saddle Biden with the same problem of how to placate frustrated Sanders supporters. “If Biden holds on to his delegate lead,” says Brian Fallon, a top aide to Clinton’s presidential campaign, “his task will be the same as Hillary’s in 2016: How do you bring a disaffected wing of the party into the fold? It would have been nearly impossible if Bernie had the most delegates. But it’s still a chore—one that was never fully accomplished four years ago and contributed to our defeat.”

Biden’s fate ultimately may rest on whether he can convince Sanders, and more importantly his legions of young followers, to accept him as the legitimate leader of the party—and one they will actively support.

In a defiant speech in Vermont on Tuesday night, Sanders gave no sign that he’ll make Biden’s job any easier. “We cannot beat Trump with the same old kind of politics,” he said.

To avoid a repeat of the 2016 primary and an existential crisis for his party, Biden may need to beat Sanders handily in the delegate race heading into Milwaukee. While that will take time, Tuesday’s results are about the best start he could have hoped for.

“Nobody,” says Bob Shrum, a veteran strategist for Democratic presidential campaigns, “has ever come back from the dead the way Biden has come back from the dead.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Wes Kosova at wkosova@bloomberg.net

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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