Joe Biden joined the Democratic presidential primary race in April as the anointed frontrunner. Inevitably, as some had predicted, the more attention he received, the more his popularity tanked. Five months and countless gaffes and nonsensical ramblings later, he is barely holding on to his lead.
Biden’s steady fall in the polls is not hard to explain. His campaign excites exactly nobody. Its political lethargy was best expressed by his wife, Jill, who explained, “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win.” A truly stirring case for her husband.
The reason that Biden was dubbed frontrunner from the start, and the extent to which he’s tenuously clung to that position since, can be summed up with the words “Barack Obama.” Biden’s eight years as Obama’s vice president have bestowed upon him the highest name recognition among the Democratic candidates. More important, he has draped his campaign with the nostalgic blanket of the Obama years, defining himself with a term he self-servingly coined as an “Obama-Biden Democrat.” Three desperate and miserable years of Dementor-style governance in this country have created a wide, if thin, national nostalgia to tap into.
The problem with Biden’s lean-on-Obama strategy, Obama’s aloofness notwithstanding, is twofold. First, Biden’s political vision is significantly more limited than Obama’s was. He prefers that rousing message of “returning to normalcy” to Obama’s 2008 (however vague — and soon broken) promises of hope and change and “yes we can.”
Biden’s campaign has mostly relied on pledging that it will do very little, apart from getting Trump out of the White House. Promising nothing at a time when economic polarization and political alienation have led to the deepest and widest dissatisfaction among the electorate in decades is a train wreck of a strategy.
Second, it was precisely eight years of frustrated hopes and deteriorating living standards under an Obama-Biden administration that opened the way to Trump’s victory, a point that even the pathological tweeter-in-chief himself seems to have absorbed: “Funny, I’m only here because of Biden & Obama. They didn’t do the job and now you have Trump who is getting it done – big time!”
The Obama administration responded to the Great Recession with trillions of dollars for bank bailouts and austerity for the rest of us. The economic recovery that followed was a recovery for corporate profits, not for working-class living standards. Years after the recession was officially over, most people believed we were still in a recession.
Yet Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign failed to admit to, much less put forward solutions for, rising inequality and economic hardship. Trump’s right-wing populism mixed one part rhetorical attacks on the political establishment with one part racist scapegoating, and he managed to tap into widespread disaffection with the status quo. We thus found ourselves in a bizarre situation in which a billionaire real-estate mogul and television celebrity whose signature line was “You’re fired!” got away with painting himself as a people’s champion. Meanwhile, the disaster of Clinton’s campaign was summed up by her response to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with: “America is already great!”
In 2020, Trump couldn’t ask for a better contender than Joe Biden, who will repeat Clinton’s approach but with less brainpower.
Biden’s politics are more of the same: champion the for-profit health industry, go after immigrants, ramp up the military. “Trump’s sweet spot is where he’s running as an indictment against politicians of both parties,” Trump’s 2016 communication director, Jason Miller, told the Atlantic. Even though Trump is the incumbent, Miller said, “Biden being in the race allows him to be the change agent, allows him to be the reformer.”
Even running against a historically unpopular incumbent can’t solve this problem for Biden. Circle back to 2004. A deeply unpopular war and its bumbling war-criminal-in-chief had led to mass protests around the world. Bush had climbed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare “mission accomplished” in 2003, only to face an explosion of armed resistance in Iraq in the months following.
Democratic candidate John Kerry ran a campaign whose sole platform was that he wasn’t Bush. The American electorate was expected to eagerly dump Bush and replace him with another pro-war, pro–USA PATRIOT Act, pro-neoliberal candidate. Predictably, Republicans voted for Bush, Democrats voted for Kerry, and tens of millions of America’s nonvoters stayed at home, unconvinced that the election really mattered at all.
In fact, the Democratic Party’s base of support has been dwindling since the early 2000s. The elimination of federal programs for the poor, the shrinking of the labor movement, and the dashing of even minimal Democratic promises have all contributed to a smaller and less engaged base. Meanwhile, the “Party of Nonvoters” was mostly on offer for the many millions who felt shut out of the political process.
As a recent Pew Research Center analysis of 2016 shows, compared to those who voted in 2016, “nonvoters were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite. And nonvoters were much more Democratic . . . Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents made up a 55 percent majority of nonvoters.”
Today, all three top Democratic contenders — Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders — show wide leads against Trump in the polls. As Meagan Day has argued, there’s no way to know for sure this early on, and with the dubious predictive powers of polls, which candidate is most “electable.”
But logic has it that our most likely bet has to be the candidate who has a volunteer army, the widest breadth of support across the country, and, most importantly, a commitment to the issues that can drive masses of people: health care, ending mass incarceration, debt-free college, and tackling the climate crisis.
It flies against the conventional wisdom of the punditry, but it’s actually Bernie Sanders who is “electable” — not Joe Biden.
A Winnable Campaign
Bernie puts forward a political vision that not only “energizes” his base but actually mobilizes it. As David Sirota, a speechwriter for Sanders, told the Daily Beast, it’s an approach they’ve dubbed “show, don’t tell,” which showcases Sanders “as a movement leader who can attract voters by giving them a vision of the presidency he’d lead.” It involves “actions like attending an annual Walmart shareholders meeting to confront the owners of the company, marching into a recent Iowa Democratic Hall of Fame dinner with McDonald’s workers protesting low wages, and using the campaign’s email list to support and encourage attendance at labor protests around the country.”
Bernie’s appeal was borne out in the 2016 Democratic primary, at a time when many fewer people knew who he was, much less believed he could win. Yet Sanders came close to winning the nomination, and he fared particularly well in those states that the Democrats must win back in this election. He won Michigan and Wisconsin, taking all but one county in Wisconsin.
His ability to do so rests on his commitment to the issues that working people, young voters, and those disaffected with the status quo care about. Bernie’s capacity to speak to a much wider audience than Biden ever could was on display at a Fox News town hall this spring. He dominated the appearance, at one point even leading “the network’s audience in a call-and-response that found them cheering loudly for his policies.”
According to a study by the Progressive Change Institute, among “drop-off” voters, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but did not vote in the 2014 midterm elections, the policies that would motivate them to vote in 2016 were debt-free college, universal pre-kindergarten education, and a living-wage job guarantee. A recent Pew Research Center study found that among the top issues listed as “very big problems” among US adults are: health-care affordability (67 percent), ethics in government (67 percent), and affordability of education (63 percent).
The issues that Bernie stands on are those same issues that animate the hopes of millions of people. As Luke Savage has argued: “Add to the geographic breadth of his support the considerable popularity of policies associated with him — like Medicare For All, higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal — and there’s a strong case to be made that his campaign can assemble a broad, working-class coalition the likes of which American politics hasn’t seen for decades.”
Biden’s appeal to “normalcy” and more of the same has already fallen flat. Judging by one metric, campaign contributions, we can see a deep contrast in mobilizing capacity. Bernie has raised more money than any other candidate in the Democratic primary. This, in and of itself, is nothing short of remarkable given the fact that he has banned corporate donations, PAC money, and private, high-dollar fundraisers from his campaign — and that his average campaign contribution is $18.
The establishment’s “electable” shoo-in, Biden, has only raised $15 million in contributions; Bernie has raised more than $25 million.
Most important, Bernie’s war chest comes from more than a million donors, whose top employers are Starbucks, Walmart, and Amazon, and the most common profession among them is teacher.
As Politico reported, by way of comparison, “In 2008, Obama reached the 1-million mark in late February. In his first campaign for the White House, Sanders’ campaign said he received donations from 1 million people by early January.”
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Robin Wittemann is probably typical of many torn voters. She explained, “It’s sensible versus heart. Biden’s sensible. Bernie’s heart,” she said. “It’s a hard choice. But defeating Trump is priority No. 1.”
The truth is that Bernie is sensible and heart. Rather than contort ourselves into political acrobatics of “electability” versus what we actually want, we should recognize that the two go hand in hand. What we want happens to be what masses of people want, too. Now we just need to fight for that vision through Bernie Sanders’s very winnable campaign.