He had to leave. There was zero justification for sticking around. We won’t see the Wisconsin results until 4/13, but Joe Biden won. Again. And this was a good 2016 Bernie Sanders state. If you’re mad he’s gone, don’t blame Rona. Yes, his media bandwidth shrunk. But he was set to lose just about everywhere. The postponed primaries would have driven him out if this didn’t. Perhaps the actual exit would have waited until he lost several northeastern primaries originally scheduled for 4/28. Either way, Bernie wasn’t making it to the convention this time.
If you’re virtually or completely mathematically eliminated, but are winning more than a few states here or there, you can remain. That’s how Bernie lingered in 2016, and how Hillary Clinton completed the course of primaries and caucuses in 2008. Super delegates had made it clear each would lose, but why drop out when you are winning about half the time. Bernie went on a long streak in 2016 after the math was against him. I’m too lazy to check, but it was something like 11 out of 12 contests. Hillary, the 2008 Edition, won some big states like Pennsylvania and Ohio after she was doomed.
When they’re competitive, candidates stick around to build leverage, either for when the party comes together to fight the fall campaign, or for future presidential runs. I’m fairly confident Bernie isn’t riding again in 2024. And losing by 20+ points over and over and over again does not build leverage, or a justification to push the nominee in your ideological direction. So he left. This gives us a couple questions.
Will Berners turn out for Biden in November?
What does this tell us about 2024?
We know approximately 12% of Sanders 2016 primary voters did not support Hillary in the general election. That’s a baseline. A few things are different. Last time, some voters stayed home, figuring Clinton had this. Few will assume Donald Trump will lose this time. Even if he’s once again trailing by several points in the polls. Green Party candidate Jill Stein peeled off enough votes in WI, MI, and PA to cost Hillary those states. We can’t be sure there won’t be a Stein doppelgänger this time, but there isn’t an announced obstacle yet. Even if Tulsi Gabbard opts in, she’s less of a clear choice as a Biden protest outlet. She might take as many votes from Trump as she does Joe.
Another issue was lower turnout from African American voters than in the 2008 and 2012 elections. For those who detest Trump, the complacency that he’ll lose is gone. With those who were not regular voters, but supported Barack Obama, there’s at least some chance the reflected glow of serving as Obama’s wingman will help Biden. Having saved him from oblivion in South Carolina, there’s reason to think (older) black voters will feel more ownership in this campaign.
That’s the upside. The downside is Biden is doing worse with younger voters than Clinton did. Voters under 40 are allergic to Uncle Joe. Sanders lost because he couldn’t get enough Boomer voters, but Biden is just as toxic with Millennials, and even more so with Gen Z. Given that younger voters are already less likely to turn out, the lack of enthusiasm is a legit issue. It doesn’t mean nominating Biden instead of Bernie is a mistake. Sanders could well have lost some of the older voters who always turn out to Trump, but Biden has even more work to do with this group than Hillary. Four years later, it’s a larger part of the electorate too.
Then there’s COVID-19. Most states are not set up for pure vote-by-mail. And regardless of pressure, many won’t convert. There are and will be absentee voting options, but if there’s any sort of fall virus resurgence, it will hurt two ways. First, the older voters who like Biden may be wary of lining up in public in states where they can’t vote remotely. Second, younger voters who are already more flaky will have another excuse to stay home. They’re also a lot less likely to make sure they’re set with absentee ballots.
This was all a long way of saying the pros and cons balance out. Biden is no better off with Sanders voters today than Hillary was in the spring of 2016. I’m not sure that political conventions matter very much to the type of Bernie voter we’re discussing here. If they do, that’s one more possible obstacle for Biden. I’d bet against there being an in-person Democratic National Convention this summer.
While I can’t be useful thinking about November, 2020, we did learn some important lessons for 2024 and/or 2028. While Millennials and Gen Z are becoming a larger and larger part of the Democratic Party, and they lean further left than any recent generation, the 60/40 split against Bernie right now indicates mere demographics won’t be enough to get a Sanders-style candidate nominated in one of the next couple of cycles.
When Sanders won the first three states, he had two choices. One, try to extend something of an olive branch to some of the party establishment. Two, double down on his political revolution. We don’t know if moderation in tone (if not policy proposals) would have stopped the semi-moderate majority from throwing in against him. We do know failing to soften the edges failed. AOC is already showing she’s noticed. Unlike 2018, where she actively campaigned for several congressional primary challengers, she’s staying out of it this time. An exception that proves the rule being her support for a successful challenger to an Illinois congressman who was one of the few surviving pro-life Democrats.
The Trump factor won’t be around in 2024, unless there’s a chance of Don Jr. winning the nomination (stranger things have happened.) And if Biden follows Hillary to defeat, it will be tougher to claim that it’s riskier to nominate someone from the far left than the sorta center. Should Biden win, the Bernie/AOC wing would need to decide if they want to primary him in the unlikely scenario where he runs for re-election at 80+, or run against a sitting female VP. Assuming Biden wins and then wisely steps away, would the left challenge an Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris?
One thing is certain. A far left candidate needs to build a bigger coalition next time. That’s just not Bernie’s nature. It’s not something he had to do in Vermont. He got farther over the past five years than anyone would have thought. But a true far left Democratic nominee needs to go even further.