Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
We are all ridin’ with Biden now. Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden took up the mantle of leadership for the Democratic Party after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders formally suspended his campaign for president and endorsed the Vice President. Joe Biden’s win over Sanders and his 27 other competitors caught many of us by surprise. In a late February column, I finally ceded the possibility of a Bernie victory and made the case for moderate-to-conservative Democrats like myself to prepare to rally behind Bernie and direct our attention to down-ballot races.
Thankfully, I was premature to write Joe off like so many others. At first glance, he seemed like the most unlikely of the remaining candidates to surpass Bernie, but hindsight is 20/20. For the majority of the primary season up to that point, I was beholden to the belief that the whole of the Democratic party did not want to nominate a socialist to be president. My theory was that Bernie, while broadly liked and respected, lacked the necessary support from Black voters, southerners and women in order to win. All previous nominees were victorious because of strong delegate hauls thanks to these key demographics. I never discounted the possibility of a Bernie victory but believed his campaign lacked the conditions necessary for it to be sustainable for the entirety of the race. However, I was consistently challenged by Bernie’s persistent strength in public polling and early contests.
The conditions that I thought unsustainable just kept sustaining. What proved to be behind his strength was the historically large field of Democratic candidates with 29 serious contenders at the start. As far back as 2016 and due to his extremely ideological politics, Bernie’s campaign has always had an extremely low ceiling of support in the high 30s to low 40s. In a binary field, these kinds of numbers would produce an early lead for a non-Sanders candidate, like Hillary Clinton’s in 2016. However, with a divided opposition, Bernie was free to perform strongly purely on the support of his very loyal and passionate base supporters. He consistently held steady whereas most other candidates suffered from crowded “lanes” and volatile poll numbers.
Coming off the heels of his 2016 run, Bernie entered the 2020 campaign equipped with a massive political organization and a Democratic party decisively more liberal than it has ever been before. Moreover, with favorable rule changes and a large field, Bernie had every advantage going into the early contests: superior organizing, more money and better name recognition than most of his competitors. Nonetheless, Bernie’s dream for a “revolution” continues to be just a dream. Despite his competitive advantage, his campaign still managed to mangle it up, which is because his reach never stretched beyond college dorm rooms and the Twittersphere. Without Hillary Clinton to run against, Bernie’s rural and blue-collar advantage evaporated, and without a divided field, his mile-wide-inch-deep support became all the more apparent.
Joe Biden’s nomination marks the end of the current incarnation of the Sanders experiment. As the general election battle against Donald Trump begins, Bernie’s departure from the race assures Biden the nomination and forces his supporters to face a choice: rally behind Joe Biden or don’t. In Sanders’ own words “the choice is pretty clear” and earlier this week, he went further and endorsed Biden on a Livestream broadcast, saying, “We need you in the White House. I will do all that I can to see that that happens, Joe.”
The Democratic Party now must struggle to put itself back together after yet another divisive primary. Joe Biden has in recent weeks sought to impress resistant progressives wary of an “establishment standard-bearer.” Which is all well and good, but the thing to remember is that their side lost and their ideas proved not popular enough to win. The Bernie project was rejected by a majority of Democrats for the second time in four years, which is an important fact to remember when gauging how much power the Democratic party should award its left flank. My message to Joe Biden would be to not overstate the importance of Sanders’ very vocal supporters and forget about the less vocal majority of moderates that got him where he is today. He does not need Bernie’s base in order to win in November. Bernie voters will either vote for Joe Biden or they won’t. No amount of appealing to red rose Twitter will ever be enough to change that.