Bernie would have already won
There's a reason Biden supporters predicted a landslide - and a reason that he didn't get it.
Up until election day, Biden supporters and pundits alike were earnestly contemplating the possibility of a landslide victory over Donald Trump. “This may be the biggest landslide possible in this polarized country,” Stan Greenberg predicted in The Daily Beast. “This thing is not going to be close,” James Carville said on MSNBC. Astead Herndon, meanwhile, wrote in The New York Times that
Mr. Biden could pull off a landslide in November, achieving an ambitious and rare electoral blowout...such a scenario is entirely plausible based on the weeks and the breadth of public polls that show Mr. Biden with leads or edges in key states.
There’s a reason people were entertaining this possibility, and it had little to do with Biden himself. Donald Trump is the most unpopular president in modern history. He has presided, during the coronavirus pandemic, over the deaths of more Americans than Nazis managed to kill during the Second World War. In that time he has largely left the sick and unemployed to their fates, providing only a brief round of welfare payments that was by any reasonable standards miserly and grossly inadequate. He has praised murderous neo-Nazis as “very good people,” he has personally deployed the police in an assault against peaceful protesters, he brought the US to the brink of war and brazenly violated national and international law with the assassination of Qassim Suleimani — and all of this was in the past year.
Pundits predicted a landslide because anyone should have been able to landslide Donald Trump. But that hasn’t happened. Even if Biden manages to eke out a win — no sure thing as of this morning, given his dwindling lead in Arizona and his tough road ahead in Pennsylvania — he still will have grossly underperformed. What happened? How did Democrats blow this historic opportunity? And could anyone have done better?
The answer to that last one is clear: if you wanted to landslide Trump, you should have nominated Bernie Sanders. There are two basic prongs to this; let’s address them both in turn.
I. Biden’s supposed advantages over Sanders have proven to be grossly overstated.
One major argument for Biden, promoted by everyone from his campaign to Lincoln Project / Never-Trump pundits, was that his candidacy would be uniquely appealing to conservatives and Republicans. But here’s what the exit polls have told us so far:
Despite highly publicized defections from Trump among elites and a historically unprecedented outreach campaign to Republicans and conservatives, Joe Biden has performed worse among these groups than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
Consider a similar argument for Biden: that his ability to avoid the “socialist” label would pay dividends nationally. Here’s what Biden said himself in early February as Sanders began to build momentum during the primaries:
We not only have to beat Trump, we have to win back the Senate…are you going to walk into any of those states we have to win, like Florida, and…Georgia and North Carolina, and say ‘by the way, [Sanders] has described himself as a democratic socialist’?
So how’d that work out? As of now, Democrats are losing the Senate. Biden may manage to catch up in Georgia when all of the votes are counted, but as of now he is still losing. He is also likely to lose North Carolina, and he lost Florida decisively,
That last state is particularly telling because Biden’s biggest setback in Florida came in Miami Dade county. Clinton carried it by 30 points in 2016, but this time around Biden only managed a seven point margin. Supposedly, Sanders’ identification as a socialist would have doomed him with the Cuban and Venezuelan Americans who call Miami Dade home, while Biden would have been uniquely immune to this attack. But predictably, Trump spent the final weeks of his campaign in Florida painting Biden as a tool of socialists, and the Biden campaign was completely unable to escape the charge.
Biden’s failure to deliver these crossover votes points us to a fundamental crisis of centrism as a political strategy. On one hand, there is significant evidence that voters want policies popularly associated with socialism: for example, on election night, a series of Fox News polls showed 72% support for “a government-run health care plan” and 60% of respondents saying that the government “should do more” as opposed to “it does too much”. On the other hand, there is just no evidence that Democrats can ever avoid being characterized as socialists, even if they inexplicably want to. The charge has stuck to every Democratic president for the past century; it demonstrably has nothing to do with their actual politics.
A related argument for Biden over Sanders is that he was simply more popular with the Democratic base than Sanders was, as proven in the primaries. This is true as far as it goes, but of course it does not follow that Biden voters would have refused to vote for Sanders. On the contrary, poll after poll consistently showed that Biden voters were a much smaller flight risk than Sanders voters were; a typical Emerson poll, for example, showed that 91% of Biden voters would vote for any Democratic nominee, as opposed to only 76% of Sanders voters.
To put this another way, both Biden and Sanders promised to deliver voters outside of the reliable vote-blue-no-matter who base. The polls give us credible reason to believe that Sanders would have been able to make good on his promise, and they also demonstrate that when it comes to conservatives and Republicans, Joe Biden abysmally failed to deliver on his.
II. Biden’s weaknesses were Sanders’s strengths.
On top of the supposed advantages of Biden’s candidacy that never actually materialized, he also suffered from known weaknesses that came to haunt him at the polls. Consider for example how Biden performed with the the lowest income bracket:
Biden may have slightly improved on Clinton’s poor showing with poor voters, but he is still significantly underperforming the standard set by Obama in previous years. We have good reason to believe that Sanders — running on a platform of single payer healthcare, generous welfare benefits, and other programs aimed specifically at the poor - would have fared much better. Here’s how their coalitions compared in an analysis I put together in May:
Note that Sanders also had a higher proportion of voters among the middle income bracket: the group where Biden overperformed, winning a 13 point margin among voters that Democrats have lost since 2008. Meanwhile, the only income group that Biden tended to fare better among — the wealthiest — is the group that he lost to Trump by a decisive 11 points.
These numbers correspond directly with standard socialist intuitions about how a Sanders campaign would have played out. He would have run on class war, running up his margins among the poor and middle income brackets (IE, the overwhelming majority of voters) while boxing Trump in among the wealthiest voters. And while one has to take primary season head-to-head crosstabs with a big grain of salt, they typically affirmed this scenario: Sanders outperforming Biden against Trump among the lower two income brackets, while Biden outperforming him among the top.
Sanders also performed strongly among another major voting group that Biden struggled with: Latinos. Nationally, Trump won 4 points back in 2020 from Clinton’s 38 point margin in 2016. While this may seem like a slim gain, Latinos may end up deciding Biden’s fate in hotly contested states like Nevada, and could have even put Texas in play. In the former, Sanders won by a stunning 36 point margin; in the latter, Tío Bernie won by a decisive 13 points.
In the months approaching election day, Sanders officials repeatedly warned that Biden was neglecting Latino outreach. It appears to have cost him. In Starr County, Texas for example, Aída Chávez and Ryan Grim note that the Democratic margin of victory among the area’s overwhelmingly Latino voters dropped from 60 points in 2016 to just 5 points in 2020. In Nevada, meanwhile, the Associated Press puts Biden’s margin among Latinos at around 10 points — down from 31 in 2016.
The false mandate
Even if he manages to win, it is clear that Biden massively underperformed the polls, the predictions of pundits, and what anyone should have reasonably expected after four years of Donald Trump. Even so, centrists have predictably set to work declaring his win a mandate for their agenda — and a rejection of everyone to their left. In one typical statement, for example, former presidential candidate John Delaney declared that “We will soon have a decent and normal POTUS in a divided government…We won’t be packing the court, making private insurance illegal or banning fracking…The time for nonsense is over, bipartisanship is back!”
And in another statement, Yelp Senior Vice President Luther Lowe rehearsed another central point of this narrative: “Bernie would’ve lost.” Win or lose, opponents of socialism will insist as they always have that Sanders could never have won — not because of any reasoned or factual assessment of the election, but simply because they see in Sanders the possibility of a politics they diametrically oppose.
There is of course every reason to believe that Sanders would have faced a hell of a fight — including the same opposition and sabotage from his own party that has plagued Jeremy Corbyn. Nevertheless, faced with a historically unpopular opponent in Donald Trump, a once-in-a-century pandemic that has vividly vindicated his fight for Medicare for All and a generous welfare state, and riding a wave of popular support as indicated in poll after poll — amid this perfect storm, there is every reason to believe that Bernie would have already won.