Why did Joe Biden win the Democratic primary and Bernie Sanders lose it?
Everyone has a theory: Sanders went too far left, or too far woke; he couldn’t expand his base, particularly into the black electorate; his surprise 2016 showing mostly owed to anti-Clintonism, and his insurgent campaign turned off loyal Democrats; meanwhile, Biden was an electoral powerhouse able to excite voters with his “moderate” agenda and historic ties to the party.
Accepting all this has meant crashing headlong into a series of inconvenient facts. Sanders’s leftward stances on issues like immigration supposedly lost him rural counties, but he had the best standing with rural voters, out of all Democrats. He supposedly alienated rank-and-file Democrats with his rhetoric, yet held sky-high favorability ratings among them throughout 2020. He failed to expand his base, but won nearly every demographic in Nevada, even moderates and conservatives, and led nationally among black voters on the eve of South Carolina.
Then there’s the downright inexplicable. How did Sanders lose when surveys and exit poll after poll showed the public, and especially Democrats, overwhelmingly supported his policies, even in states he lost badly? How was he so decisively beaten despite being the first in either party to ever win the popular vote in the opening three contests, given that every Democrat since 1976 who’s won the first two alone has clinched the nomination? And when no nominee since 1972 has placed below second in either, how did Biden pull off a historic rout after coming a lowly fourth and fifth? More strangely, how did he do it when he neither visited nor even had a campaign operation in many of the states he ended up winning?
Answering these questions means understanding the topsy-turvy world of the 2020 election, the continuing power of legacy media, and how primary elections can swing wildly based on delicate shifts in perception.
All About Trump
The 2020 primary was all about Donald Trump. From the contest’s beginning to its end, anywhere between 55–65 percent of Democratic voters prioritized picking a nominee who could beat Trump over one they agreed with on the issues, unsurprising for an incumbent election. This was favorable turf for Biden, who made defeating the president the crux of his campaign, to the extent that he once told audiences the first thing he’d do as president was “make sure that we defeat Donald Trump.”
Just as consistently, voters saw Biden as the candidate by far most likely to win against Trump. For the seven months to January 2020, he hovered around 40 percent on that question in a Washington Post–ABC News poll, while Sanders trailed a distant second in the teens.
“If there would be a horse leading right now for me, it would probably be Biden, because all the polls indicate he would beat Trump handily,” one fifty-seven-year-old voter told the New York Times.
“Basically whoever can beat Donald Trump, but I think Biden has the best chance,” another older voter said when asked who she was backing, pointing to head-to-head polling.
As Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth University Polling Institute told the paper, voters in Iowa felt “they have to vote for Joe Biden as the centrist candidate, to keep somebody from the left who they feel is unelectable from getting the nomination.”
Besides a corporate and political establishment united against him, Sanders had to overcome something else: decades’ worth of conventional wisdom, internalized by mostly older Democratic voters, that only unexciting centrists can win elections, and running leftward is electoral suicide.
This sentiment wasn’t just in Iowa. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, mostly older voters in the state’s rural parts told VTDigger the same message: they preferred Sanders, but were going to vote for Pete Buttigieg because his more centrist politics would appeal to non-Democrats.
“It’s more important to get Donald Trump out. Period,” one retired pilot told the paper, having decided against voting for Sanders after watching Trump survive impeachment. “It’s more important than my personal politics.”
In Pennsylvania, one 2016 Sanders voter now focused on beating Trump fretted that “the S-word” would sink him in rural Pennsylvania. Interviewing thirty suburban voters, the Philadelphia Inquirer found a “consistent dividing line”: those most concerned with winning went for Biden, while those who prioritized a particular issue went for Sanders. In the wealthy Virginia suburb of Ashburn, one progressive health and wellness consultant reported her mostly Republican clientele “hate Trump, but they won’t vote for Sanders,” leading her to go for Biden. “Whoever can beat Trump is what I care about,” she explained.
The corporate media, particularly cable news, was pivotal to this. As I found when I studied two months’ worth of MSNBC’s Democratic primary coverage in 2019, these themes were relentlessly advanced by the network: beating Trump was all that mattered, Biden was the safest bet to do so, and running Sanders — when the network deigned to mention him at all — would be a risk. This was on top of the way cable news, chasing ratings, had whipped up fear of Trump among its viewers, prompting a spike in anxiety among news consumers that psychologists began noting.
These narratives were reinforced by the invasion of liberal news sources by the tiny, unrepresentative group of “Never Trump” Republicans, who incessantly warned Sanders was an electoral liability. (“A sociopath will beat a socialist, I think, seven days a week and twice on Sunday,” said the man who brought us Sarah Palin). “I thought Never Trump Republicans wouldn’t vote for Sanders,” one older voter, a former professor, told the Times in March, switching to Biden despite her support for Sanders’s ideas.
The Three Days That Decided the Race
All of this had an impact. Unlike Republicans, Democratic voters have a high degree of trust in legacy media, CNN especially, and get much of their news from television — particularly so for voters over fifty. This is, incidentally, the same demographic that most consumes cable news, votes in disproportionately high numbers in primary elections, and increased its share of the vote in this year’s primaries.
Sanders’s greatest obstacle was arguably convincing this cohort of voters to abandon their long-held skepticism about the Left in electoral politics, and to defy the relentless media messaging that reinforced it. And for a brief moment, he did. After winning the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, and after Biden failed to crack third in either, perceptions of Biden’s electability collapsed, and for the first time in the race, Sanders led the field in both electability and voting intention.
But rather than momentum, these developments prompted a barrage of attacks and apocalyptic warnings from Democratic officials and pundits about Sanders’s threat to Democrats’ chances in November. A group of party centrists spent millions blanketing South Carolina with ads making these charges. Party leaders and rival candidates openly vowed to deprive him of the nomination if he won the most votes.
When Sanders defended Fidel Castro’s literacy program on 60 Minutes it was seized upon by anti-Sanders officials in Florida for a round of withering attacks and warnings of how they would play in the state. A statistical analysis by In These Times found CNN covered Sanders three times as negatively after his blowout Nevada win as they did Biden after his romp through South Carolina, assailing Sanders’s electability above all.
Many factors led to Biden’s triumph in the Palmetto State, from its conservatism and Biden’s close association with the nation’s first black president to, most importantly, Rep. Jim Clyburn’s endorsement that Sanders, crucially, never tried to head off. But it’s difficult to argue this media narrative didn’t play a role in the old, white tidal wave that swept Biden to victory.
Data show that while the nonwhite vote in South Carolina rose 10 percent since 2016, the white vote more than doubled. And while the number of voters aged eighteen to forty-four rose by 42,028, turnout among those forty-five and older skyrocketed by nearly three times that (123,130), with most of the gains concentrated among those sixty-five and over. As he would in every state that followed, Biden dominated among this group, and among voters who prioritized beating Trump.
Biden’s electability and support rebounded overnight, buoyed by more than $100 million in free media, much of it positive. As In These Times found, while post-Nevada negative coverage of Sanders fearmongered about the senator’s electability, what negative coverage there was of Biden focused mostly on the challenges he faced to win the nomination, and was even encouraging (“Vice President Biden has to get a little more inspirational”). While CNN never interviewed Sanders after Nevada, instead inviting Biden on to ask him if his chief rival would be a “McGovern-like mistake for this party,” it did interview the former vice president after he dominated in South Carolina. The network didn’t give Sanders the same courtesy it had given Biden to comment on his rival’s win.
What happened next is well known: with no path forward in the more diverse states ahead, and at the urging of former president Barack Obama, Biden’s fellow centrists stepped down and endorsed him, adding to his momentum; Sanders neither sought nor received the same assist from his only ally, Elizabeth Warren, who vowed to win the nomination by overturning the judgment of the primary voters.
Not-So Super Tuesday
The race essentially ended on Super Tuesday. Biden swept to victory in various conservative Southern states on the back of older anti-Trump voters, many of whom settled on Biden at the last minute. Virginia, competitive on the eve of South Carolina, saw a record turnout that suddenly swung behind Biden, with two-thirds concerned about nominating someone “too liberal,” and some explicitly saying they were out to block Sanders.
“The idea of risking the nomination to somebody like Bernie Sanders, the concern would be that he wouldn’t have the broad appeal to defeat Donald Trump,” one voter said.
“[Trump] has been the single biggest driver to the Democratic Party of Virginia,” former governor and lobbyist Terry McAuliffe told the Times. “There are a lot of like-minded Republicans who said, ‘I can’t vote for Trump but you got to give me somebody who we can vote for.’ Biden was always at the top of that list.”
Meanwhile, in states that Sanders should’ve won, Warren’s presence took a further toll. Sanders’s losing margins in Maine, Massachusetts, and Texas (1, 7, and 4 points, respectively) were dwarfed by Warren’s totals (16, 21, and 11 percent). In delegate-rich California, in which Sanders had heavily invested but won by only 7 points, she received 13 percent. We can only speculate how exactly these numbers would have shifted had Warren followed Buttigieg and Klobuchar’s lead. But it’s clear it would have made a difference.
On the eve of South Carolina, a slim plurality (21 percent) of Buttigieg voters had Sanders as their second choice, with Biden and Warren splitting 19 percent. Yet when the dust had settled a few days later, it was clear Buttigieg’s largely older, white voter base had shifted mostly to Biden in the wake of the South Bend mayor dropping out and endorsing the former vice president. At that same point, a whopping 40 percent of Warren voters had picked Sanders as their second choice, with Biden and Buttigieg splitting a mere 16 percent. How might a Buttigieg-style exit from the race have not just arrested Biden’s sense of momentum, but impacted these numbers?
These kinds of decisions had vast reverberations in a race where many voters weren’t sure what to do until the moment they got in the voting booth. Late deciders, a significant fraction of Super Tuesday’s voters and more likely to be looking for a candidate to beat Trump, swung overwhelmingly for Biden. In Minnesota, Maine, and Massachusetts, all states in which Biden was given little chance to win on the eve of voting, 55, 47, and 51 percent of voters made up their minds in the last few days, lifting him to victory.
The Super Tuesday result, made worse by the slow count of California’s votes, fatally dented Sanders’s perceived electability among the key older demographic, and did the opposite for Biden. Such voters had allowed themselves to be persuaded by the septuagenarian socialist after his first three primary wins; Biden’s victories in South Carolina and Super Tuesday gave them permission to go back to where they had always been most comfortable. In every state thereafter, Biden held a near-monopoly on voters over fifty, mirrored by Sanders’s domination of those below that age threshold. But 2020 wasn’t the year of youth turnout surge.
The irony was, the fears driving many older liberals from Sanders were never well-founded. He annihilated his rivals in donor numbers from Obama-to-Trump counties, had historic electoral strength in such areas, and had the largest lead among independents in head-to-head polling with Trump among all his rivals. This trend continued in the primary. As the Wall Street Journal later noted, “where voters are older, moderate or closely aligned with the Democratic Party, rather than independents, Mr. Sanders doesn’t win”; but in states with “either unusually large shares of self-described ‘very liberal’ voters, or unusually large numbers of independents participating,” he did.
According to exit polls, Sanders won independents in eighteen of twenty-three contests between February 3 and March 17, including in twelve of the seventeen states he lost to Biden. By contrast, Biden won Democrats in seventeen of those contests. Even in California and Colorado, primaries he convincingly lost where non-Democrats were allowed to participate, his losing margins against Sanders among Democrat voters were slim: 33–30 and 25–23, respectively. Democratic voters tried to imagine what people who weren’t like them wanted; unwittingly, they actually did the opposite, mostly voting in line with how other Democrats voted, and rejecting the leaning of a majority of independent voters.
One could point to any number of the Sanders campaign’s strategic errors to explain its defeat, including a failure to aggressively prosecute Biden’s record. One could also point to the unquantifiable impact of voter suppression, regularly cited to cast doubt on Republican victories, but shrugged off by the media when it disadvantaged Sanders.
Perhaps the overarching mistake, though, was declining to adjust to the political climate of the Democratic Party in 2020, where cautious, fearful, and mostly older Democratic voters concerned primarily with simply beating Trump needed assurance that someone with Sanders’s politics was “electable.” Ironically, Sanders may have benefitted from flipping the conventional advice, and running a more centrist campaign for the primary to assuage these voters’ concerns, before moving left in the general, when they had nowhere else to go.
Instead, Sanders ran the same issue-focused campaign he had run in 2016. Absent the historic youth voter surge he promised, always a questionable prospect, and with the campaign declining to expand to a national level its innovative organizing approach aimed at turning out nonvoters in the early states, running this strategy could work as long as the field remained divided. Once the establishment got its act together, Biden, the sole corporate Democrat with any significant nonwhite support, ended up the only warm body who could serve as the vessel for panicked stop-Sanders Democrats, and voters were driven to him by a unified front of messaging from the media and party establishment.
Biden ran a poor, often nonexistent campaign, and was on the wrong side of the issues from most of his party’s rank and file. And yet in many ways, he and the establishment that dragged him over the finish line more accurately took the pulse of the Democratic voting public in 2020, capitalizing on a political climate they helped create. Sanders ran a campaign to win the presidency; but Biden and the establishment that willed him to victory ran one for the Democratic nomination.