The Comeback Kid

Going into last Saturday, Joe Biden was on life support. His campaign was all but broke. He needed a decisive win in South Carolina to stay alive. Anything short of that and his candidacy – the third of his political career – would be over. Well as luck would have it, Biden not only got that decisive win in the Palmetto state, he would follow that up seventy-two hours later with a Super Tuesday performance in which he won ten out of a possible fifteen contests.

Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Texas, the last one was a come from behind victory that was the result of a wave of same-day voting for the former VP. And with 93 percent of the vote accounted for in California – a state that Berne Sanders was expected to win big – Biden is trailing Sanders by only 8.7 percent: 33.8 to 25.1. When all is said and done, Sanders will be lucky to net 75 delegates out of the state. Given there were 415 total delegates at stake, that is a bitter-sweet pill to swallow.

No one saw this coming. Not even Biden himself could’ve predicted it. Pundits who’ve been covering political campaigns for decades were stumped. There’s never been such a dramatic turnaround in this short a period of time. A candidate who was left for dead and whose campaign was on the verge of bankruptcy, is now the prohibitive front runner for the Democratic nomination. Go figure.

So how did this metamorphosis happen? I believe there were four factors that led to it.

First, Elizabeth Warren’s attacks on Michael Bloomberg during the debates mortally wounded the former mayor of New York in a way that no one could’ve anticipated, and gave Biden the time he needed to steady a reeling campaign that was in a virtual free fall. Prior to those debates, Bloomberg had risen to within a point of second place nationally and was looking more and more like the moderate alternative to Sanders. After the debates, it was Bloomberg who was reeling.

Second, Jim Clyburn’s endorsement last week didn’t just propel Biden to a huge victory in South Carolina; it seems to have had the effect of giving his campaign a new lease on life. In early January, Biden was polling at 49 percent within the African American community. As Bloomberg picked up steam, that support dipped to 29 percent. Clyburn’s intervention was almost a permission slip for blacks to reevaluate Biden, and it worked brilliantly. They showed up in record numbers throughout the Mid-Atlantic and the South in support of him.

Third, Bernie’s base simply didn’t turn out as expected. Sanders’s entire strategy – both in 2016 and 2020 – was to build a coalition of young people to usher in a revolution that would transform American politics forever. But like we saw four years ago, huge rallies do not necessarily translate to huge turnout on election day. Sanders has been unable to win not because of some bogus conspiracy theory about the system being rigged against him, but because the very demographic he is counting on the most – namely Millennials – are the least reliable voting bloc in the country. A friend of mine on Facebook summed it up best:

Turnout was up across the country. Most exceeding the 2016 turnout. A few places even exceeded the 2008 turnout. Turnout was up in every demographic. It was up in the African American demographic. Way up with Hispanics. Women. Urban. Rural. Voters older than 45. Up across the board. Except for one. Voters aged 18-29. The youth vote, as it has since JFK, didn’t show up. As a result, the two candidates who count the 18-29 demographic as their base, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, didn’t have a good night.

Bernie Sanders has done a phenomenal job of getting people engaged, especially young people. I’d even say that he’s been better at it than Obama was. He got their attention. He got them excited. He got them engaged. But, like every other candidate in the last half century who banked on the youth vote, he couldn’t get them to vote. Big rally crowds, raising big money and recruiting an army of volunteers means nothing if you can’t get folks off the couch. If he can get them to fill up huge arenas but can’t get them to fill the ballot box then I don’t think “revolution” means what he thinks it means.

Sanders hosted HUGE rallies coast to coast, and came into Super Tuesday with $40 million more than Joe Biden. But Biden won states that he didn’t spend a DIME in. He won states that he never even campaigned in. He went into Sanders backyard, Maine and Massachusetts, and won. He won in Texas where he was at the bottom of the field in terms of money spent and organized ground game. He was outspent, out organized, and out campaigned in almost every state. One look at the turnout breakdown explains why last night happened. Joe Biden’s base showed up. Bernie Sanders’s base did not.

And fourth, contrary to what Sanders and his supporters keep insisting, there just isn’t the appetite for the kind of revolution he wants to bring to America. Roughly 15 percent of Democrats identify as very liberal; another 32 percent identify as somewhat liberal. If you can’t even get to 50 percent within your own party, how on Earth do you expect to get there with the rest of the country? The bottom line is that while Sanders may have the undying loyalty of his followers, the rest of the party, not to mention the nation, views him somewhat more skeptically.

But getting back to Biden, where does he go from here? Well for starters, now that Bloomberg has decided to cut his losses – sorry, I just couldn’t resist – and suspend his campaign, Biden needs to take some of that cash that started flowing in after South Carolina and run some decent ads in states like Michigan, Florida and Ohio. Last week was the first time I saw an ad of his on Facebook. Not for nothing, but someone on his campaign needs to remind him that this isn’t the ’90s anymore. He needs to be digitally engaged with voters if he expects to win a general election.

Speaking of Michigan, I would move my entire base of operation into that state and stay there until it votes next week. If Biden can eke out a narrow victory there and crush Sanders in Mississippi and Missouri, he can begin to put the final nails in his coffin. Because after next week, Florida, Illinois and Ohio vote, and all three of those states are winnable, with the Sunshine state and its 219 delegates the largest haul. Wouldn’t it be a pity if Bernie ended up not qualifying for any delegates and Biden wound up with them all? Gee, that’d be a shame!

And finally, Biden needs to be aware that Sanders will be gunning for him in the next debate. Biden has had a distinguished career, but he’s never had a presidential campaign go this deep before. He’s gotta be prepared to take the gloves off and go toe to toe with Sanders. One suggestion I could make is for Biden to keep the focus on Trump and not Sanders during the debate. It never hurts to be in general election mode while you’re opponent is still in primary mode.

And another thing: Taking a page out of Bloomberg’s playbook, Bernie is running an ad in which he is buddy, buddy with Obama. Considering he threatened to primary him back in 2012, that’s rich. It’s obvious why he’s doing it. The sight of Obama standing next to a candidate can do wonders for a campaign’s approval rating, especially a campaign that just took a gut punch. Biden might want to remind the audience that between the two, he’s the one who worked with Obama on actual policy.

Yes, it was indeed a Super Tuesday for Joe Biden. But this thing is far from over. We still have a long way to go. As we found out all too well in 2016, Bernie and his supporters will not go down without a fight. I suspect that even if Biden clinches the nomination by securing the necessary 1991 delegates – a distinct possibility – Sanders, like Ted Kennedy in 1980, will likely attempt to challenge the results at the convention.

Author: Peter Fegan

Progressive but pragmatic. Lover of music, die-hard Giants' fan and reluctant Mets' fan. My favorite motto? I'd rather be ruled by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.

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