WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, Joe Biden was left for dead by the proverbial side of the highway after his dismal finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Now, with his Tuesday sweep of the Arizona, Illinois, and Florida primaries, Biden has won 18 out of 26 primary elections. He is almost sure to be the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) trails Biden by nearly 300 delegates; a Sanders comeback, given past performance and the states still to vote, is nearly mathematically impossible at this point.
Biden and Sanders now face uncomfortable questions.
Will Sanders stay in the race and continue to bloody-up Biden over past positions on Social Security, bankruptcy law, the Iraq war, and reproductive rights? If Sanders drops out, when should he endorse Biden — now, to begin unifying the Democratic Party, or later this year, giving him time and leverage to pressure Biden into making changes to his policy platform? How does Sanders use his current position to pull the country to the left without doing something that accidentally aids Trump’s march to the fascist right?
Biden, for his part, confronts questions that are equally urgent: How does he begin to win over the young voters and stalwart progressives who back Sanders? Will he welcome Sanders into his camp if Sanders offers his support? Most of all, can he avoid the mistakes of 2016 and rebuild the multiracial, cross-generational coalition that twice elected Barack Obama?
“I don’t think there is a more important strategic imperative for the Democrats than to figure out how to coalesce that majority of voters around the Democratic candidate, which we failed to do in 2016,” says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked for Obama’s two campaigns. “This is not about winning over fucking Trump supporters. Trump supporters aren’t going to move; he’s going to get his 46 or 47 percent of the vote.” The most pressing question, Belcher says, is this: “How do we rebuild the Obama back-to-back winning coalition?”
Biden’s ability to do that, Belcher says, rests in large part on his ability to win over younger voters and voters of color in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina. Four years ago, some younger voters saw the election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as an unpalatable choice between two subpar candidates. And so instead of holding their noses and casting their ballots for Clinton or Trump, they voted third-party or didn’t vote at all. Clinton’s support among young voters sagged compared with what Obama received in 2008 and 2012 — and that was especially true in the half-dozen battleground states that decided the 2016 election.
“You had these younger voters, especially in places like Wisconsin, refuse to make a binary choice between the lesser of two evils,” Belcher says. “In the margin of their protest vote is Hillary’s loss.”
The 2020 campaign thus far suggests that Democrats have yet to come to grips with their youth-vote problem. Sanders may have attracted the majority of young voters in the 2020 primary, but his campaign has not galvanized young people and other new voters in the historic numbers that Sanders needed to win the nomination. Democrats “have still not solved that problem,” Belcher says. “That same disgruntled percentage of voters on the left that refused to coalesce around Hillary in 2016, I am afraid that they will also hesitate to coalesce around Biden in 2020.”
So, what can Biden do to make inroads with those young liberal voters?
The first thing: A genuine embrace of Sanders, his ideas, and his people. “You can’t be perceived as pushing him out the door,” says Addisu Demissie, a Democratic operative who ran Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. “You can’t be perceived as spiking the football at the five-yard line.”
Demissie says someone inside the Biden campaign should be — if they aren’t already — talking with their counterparts inside or close to the Sanders campaign, asking: How can we bring you in? Are there good staff that would come work for us? What are the issues of particular importance that we should take up?
In the end, though, what matters most for Biden, if he’s the Democratic nominee, is landing Sanders’ endorsement and his support in the general-election campaign. After the bitter 2016 primary, Sanders waited for a month after effectively losing the nomination to endorse Clinton. (By contrast, Clinton endorsed Obama just four days after the then-Illinois senator clinched the party’s nomination.) Sanders went on to campaign hard for Clinton, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a subset of Sanders voters from voting third-party or not at all.
Some of that was unique to the 2016 election and an illustration of the anti-Clinton anger in parts of the Democratic Party. But it’s also a testament to the loyalty of Sanders voters who are reluctant to compromise on their belief that a political revolution is needed and nothing short of systemic change to American government will do.
Perhaps only a plea by Sanders himself can sway those people to vote for Biden. “The thing that is most useful is Sanders himself,” Demissie says. “He’s going to have to stand up there and give a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. There’s nothing that would be more powerful than that.”