What started with 24 candidates had dwindled to only a handful by Super Tuesday. Now the race is between Biden, the pick of the party’s centrist leadership, and Sanders, an insurgent leftist. After Biden’s win in the Michigan primary, the party’s leadership is faced with a new challenge: whether to negotiate terms of cooperation, or try to isolate the left from the July convention and the campaign.
Most of the prior contenders had attempted to supplant the party’s ranking candidate, Biden. A few came close along the way, each with their own party and business backing, positioning themselves close to Biden’s centrism. They outshone Biden as an advocate for the party, but couldn’t clear the hurdles to winning acceptance with primary voters, financial backers, and party leadership.
Racism played a role, as usual. Five nonwhite contenders found their way into what had long been and continues to be a white men’s club, except for Barack Obama. Senator Kamala Harris of California was seen initially as the rising star. A first term Senator, and only the second black woman Senator in history, Harris came out of African American political circles in the San Francisco Bay Area. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey first gained attention as Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and had become a national figure amongst black elected officials. Julian Castro, the Latino former Mayor of San Antonio and President Obama’s HUD Secretary sought an insurgent campaign. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii ran on a mix of populist themes, and Andrew Yang, an Asian-American entrepreneur rose to prominence campaigning on the idea of a guaranteed universal basic income (UBI). All made some strong impressions in the early debates, yet all were out of consideration or had dropped out by March.
The decamping left this reality show with an all-white cast, most now tilting more to the right. The only other non-moderate left was Senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposed neoliberalism and supported Sanders’s plan for a Green New Deal (a green jobs program with Medicare for All and other sweeping reforms), while forgoing his socialist label. The only others were both centrists who had their moments to show their stuff: former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg as a bright young midwesterner, a puppy dog with a PhD; and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, as a tough middle aged, middle class manager. Buttigieg came in the top two in both Iowa and New Hampshire, with Klobuchar coming in third in New Hampshire—both ahead of Biden.
Yet both dropped out just before Super Tuesday, clearing the way for Biden’s nine-state sweep. Ordinarily, candidates drop out immediately after a poor primary showing or having run out of money. In this case, both prominent campaigners exited just before a decisive balloting. This was more than a fortunate break for Biden. It was an organized coordination of the center in the face of a left challenge – something the Democratic leadership has pulled off easily in decades past. This time, however, they had to retrench rapidly and awkwardly around a very flawed candidate.
Before this turn of events, Biden was viewed more as a problem for the center. Two very wealthy men, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, tried to duplicate Trump’s 2016 trick, entering politics with no base but enough private money to advertise nonstop. They lacked Trump’s skills at media manipulation. But the addition of Bloomberg was significant: like Sanders, he never held office as a Democrat, after serving three terms as Mayor of New York as a Republican. He entered when Biden was wavering, a self-financed savior of the political center. Had he succeeded, it would have undercut the party’s role as a component in an ostensibly democratic process.
After Bloomberg’s poor showing on Super Tuesday, he threw his support to Biden, highlighting that his primary concern alongside beating Trump was blocking Sanders. Bloomberg suffered greatly in the debates, particularly from a deft head-on attack from the left by Warren. Her own poor primary showings raised the question of where she stood between Biden and Sanders. After dropping out of the race, Warren had sharp words for both Biden and Sanders, but while Sanders’s program is closer to hers than Biden’s, her base includes those still upset with Sanders for challenging Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sanders’s chances to win over Warren supporters were damaged by a flurry of online attacks on Warren and her supporters, purportedly by Sanders followers. (Sanders disowned the attacks, to little avail.)
Several days after Super Tuesday, the field was, in effect, down to two elderly white men – one a socialist, the other a neutral hack in visible decline – one of whom will take on Trump in November. Super Tuesday was a showdown for three protagonists fighting for hegemony: money (Bloomberg), machine (Biden), and mass movement (Sanders). With Biden’s sweep of Southern states, it seemed that machine has won. Or has it?
Biden’s supporters have argued that whoever wins the Southern black vote will win the nomination (though not necessarily the election). On Super Tuesday he proved he could do this. He is considered the best shot at unseating Trump by many very worried Democratic voters, despite real detriments. To secure constituencies polarized against Trump, Democrats have tacked to the left, challenged by unexpected approval – especially among voters under 35, for Sanders’s anticapitalism. Biden’s legislative record is close to that of the anti-welfare state stance of Bill Clinton. His previous track record in seeking the presidential candidacy is awful. Worst, he can’t seem to get through a speech without blurting nonsense, in his ineffectual attempts to appear sharp and engaging.
Sanders has continued to run on growing enthusiasm for reforms that threaten the power of major industries, particularly private insurance rackets, corporate drug pushers, and the planet poisoning fossil fuel purveyors. For Sanders to win, he needs enough votes to overwhelm both Biden and Trump – in the face of concerted voter suppression schemes. On Super Tuesday, Sanders took the largest state, California, despite disrupted operations at polling places in Latin areas and other Sanders strongholds – proving that his own difficult projections were obtainable. But Biden’s win in Michigan showed that this mass movement was not quite enough to break the machine hold on the party’s direction.
Biden’s burden is to meet the expectations from his sudden windfall of support by beating Trump, more or less without strong support from Bernie voters – even if Bernie makes good on his promise to campaign for the primary victor. While Biden’s supporters came out in greater numbers than Sanders’s, the age gap is as pronounced as ever. Sanders is favored overwhelmingly by voters under 45. But Biden, who two days before Michigan had indicated again that Medicare for All was too expensive to allow, seems to have foreclosed serious negotiations with the left. By turning his back, he is setting himself up for a rout.
Biden’s best hope seems to be that, between the ongoing health crisis, a disastrous market, and general fear of Trump-generated chaos, the election will fall into his lap. Of course, similar expectations propelled Clinton last time. The Democratic centrists seem to have chosen to ignore that key lesson of 2016: never underestimate the ruthlessness of the Republicans, particularly when a segment of population are near panic. Sanders has rejected calls for an end to the primaries and will take his movement’s case to the convention.
Gustavo Sanchez and Charlotte Swasey