With Joe Biden taking Michigan (along with Mississippi and Missouri), Democrats can heave a gusty sigh of relief that they won’t be nominating a socialist as their party’s standard bearer.
Michigan was Bernie Sanders’ lifeline in 2016; not this time. Things won’t get any easier for Sanders next Tuesday: Florida could very well be his Waterloo, and Ohio and Illinois aren’t looking likely to be feeling the Bern either.
This is a moment to step back and appreciate the magnitude of what has transpired. We have become inured to rapidly changing news cycles, but Joe Biden’s turnabout still amazes. Just 10 days ago, Bernie seemed to have the nomination in the bag.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, it turned out that 2020 Democrats were not as susceptible to the perverse incentives that allowed Donald Trump to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the 2016 GOP.
For Trump, the stars all aligned. For Bernie, they crashed and burned. The question on my mind is: Why the difference? I have thoughts.
First, Democrats benefited from having witnessed Trump’s takeover. They realized that you can’t ignore a problem like Bernie.
Remember, Trump’s Republican adversaries assumed he would eventually flame out (while also hoping they might inherit his rabid supporters). Conversely, Democrats harbored no such illusions about Sander’s potential for collapse. Indeed, his big victory in Nevada seems to have provoked an overwhelming response. (Related, it’s possible that some of Sanders’ success in 2016 had to do with Hillary Clinton’s unique weaknesses as a candidate, not least with some of the Democratic base.)
Second, Democrats retain some semblance of adult leadership. Whereas rank-and-file Republicans had largely turned their backs on their standard bearers (George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney) in favor of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, “establishment” Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama still command a lot of respect from their rank and file. We don’t know what Obama said to Mayor Pete during their pre-Super Tuesday phone call, but we do know that Buttigieg promptly got out of the race and endorsed Biden.
Of course, and this is reason three, the real credit belongs to the sane and normal Democratic voters (most of all African-Americans) who joined hands to become Biden’s firewall.
Because of the diversity in the Democratic Party, winning the nomination requires stitching together a diverse coalition—a project that tends to have a moderating effect.
There were pockets of anti-Trump sentiment in 2016 (think Wisconsin and Utah), but the GOP did not have reserves of moderate voters to serve as a similar circuit breaker.
The lack of moderates in the GOP was, perhaps, best reflected by the fact that Trump’s most formidable rival was Ted Cruz—not exactly an enticing Plan B for establishment Republicans.
Here, it helps to think of the modern Democratic Party as a collection of (a) African-Americans, (b) educated suburbanites, and (c) Bernie Bros of all genders. Conversely, the 2016 Republican Party consisted of (a) white evangelicals, (b) moderate RINOs, and (c) Trumpian populists. White evangelicals are to the GOP what African-Americans are to the Democratic Party: the largest and most powerful coalition. Yet, rather than being a voice of reason, conservative evangelicals backed a candidate (Ted Cruz) whose mirror image would be more akin to Elizabeth Warren than Joe Biden. And once it became apparent that Cruz wasn’t going to win, they were more than happy to jump on the Trump train. Democratic voters are much, much more moderate than Republican voters.
There are also structural differences to consider.
Democrats still have superdelegates, who could potentially weigh in and tip the scales in Biden’s favor. Moreover, Democrats allocate their delegates proportionately (Republicans went with mostly winner-take-all primaries). The rules make it harder for someone trailing in the delegate count to catch up.
Whether it’s because they learned their lesson fast, simply have a healthier political party, or just plain got lucky, one truth has emerged: As an institution, the Democratic Party is much stronger than the GOP. One friend of mine summed it up this way: In 2016, Republicans wanted a fighter. In 2020, Dems want a winner. And, it seems, they might have found one.