Joementum? Or Joeverblown? Not so fast! It ain’t over.
We’ve already seen two or three unpredictable things. With three months to go, we ought to see more. The race remains wide open for a number of reasons.
First, Joe Biden’s personal appeal is still in doubt. At this stage, more of it derives from who he isn’t—Donald Trump—than who he is. His strongest support has been from a demographic—African-Americans—for whom his actual record is uninspiring, to say the least. He can’t draw a crowd on a sunny day, while Bernie is still packing them in like nobody’s business.
Second, Biden’s strength so far rests substantially on delegates from states that Democrats are not likely to win in November: Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. Democrats in those states certainly have a right to a voice in the nominee. As the weeks pass, those wins will seem less impressive.
The states that matter are the ones we all know: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. The Sunshine State is probably lost to Sanders, but it’s premature to write him off in the other four. If he wins two of them, we’re back to a horse race.
Third, while Super Tuesday voters certainly pulled the lever for Joe, they seem to have liked Bernie’s ideas. Exit polls in Maine, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas and California, for instance, found significant support for, and in some cases strong majorities of Democratic voters evincing a favorable view of, socialism. The rising socialist tendency is also reflected in polling on Medicare For All, Sanders’s signature platform proposal.
A rather starkly worded question proposing to eliminate private insurance and replace it with a single government plan was supported by numerous states’ majorities of Democrats. While more incremental reform choices would have reduced those majorities, they would have drawn more from the alternative as well. One might have expected such a Hobson’s choice to drive more respondents to the side of the status quo.
Another cause emphasized by socialists where Biden is perceived as lagging Sanders is climate change. A poll of Democratic voters in states that have or will run primaries through March 17 showed strong majorities concerned about the issue. As noted above, many of these folks voted for Biden. The question is whether those who did not would return to vote for him in November.
Fourth, the general strength of left-leaning sentiment may foretell a deficit of enthusiasm in November for a Biden-led ticket. Doubts as to Biden’s claim of superior electability will almost surely build once more as additional states run primaries. Even where Biden wins, a narrow victory accentuates doubts as to his electability, and consequently his progress in subsequent primaries. He has to win decisively in blue states to demonstrate his ability to lead the party. So far, he has done that in only three blue states – Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
I’ll admit, Biden’s odds certainly look better than his Sanders’. Among other things, his campaign has yet to play its biggest card—an endorsement from the Obamas. But a lot of the Democrats who have bothered to show up to vote or caucus so far seem to take Biden as a last resort for removing Trump, rather than as a leader to rally behind. Some voters—maybe a great many—may need more incentive.
It is all too evident from their respective events that compared to Sanders, Biden has an excitement deficit. There is no question that turnout can be decisive, no matter how high a candidate's share of voters from his own party. We have to ask how Democrats will vote when they view that vote as an onerous task, rather than the unique opportunity to stand for something new and wonderful. Few will weep tears of joy at a Biden victory celebration.
Meanwhile, the Sanders movement becomes more dangerous, like a wounded bear. It retains its edges in determination, fund-raising, and organization. We are a long way from the end of the road, and defeat can concentrate the mind. The third big prize in delegates—New York State, 274 delegates—lies before us.
The merger of Biden and Mike Bloomberg blunts Sanders’ edge in organizational and financial terms, but it also weakens Biden's ideological argument. Bloomberg is still about buying the election, and the association makes Biden even more a creature of the dreaded establishment at exactly the moment he should maybe be tiptoeing in the other direction to woo Sanders- and Warren-friendly voters to his left.
Another potential pitfall for Biden is the aura of inevitability that is settling around his campaign, one that can give rise to complacency and tactical blunders. It is worth noting that Biden's South Carolina victory was had without benefit of any surfeit of organization, funding, or beneficent external intervention. Immediately after Nevada, Biden was perceived as a spent bullet.
Then South Carolina happened, out of nowhere, followed by a burst of endorsements. In other words, there was no particularly clever gambit pulled off by Biden's campaign; their tactical brilliance remains to be demonstrated. And there’s always the question of Joe’s mouth, which has betrayed him more than once over the years.
The Biden candidacy remains fragile. A couple of Sanders wins that brings them close to parity, and a flock of blue states’ primaries remaining will keep campaign fever up.