There are reasons to panic, and people really should understand why Putin is boosting Bernie. But panic can be useful and there are signs that Democrats may be ready to rally behind Joe Biden. My predictions for South Carolina and (an early stab at) Super Tuesday.
WASHINGTON — As the wounded, screeching animal that is the collective of the Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls and, indeed, the Democratic Party itself, limps forward after the Nevada caucuses, I am filled both with a deep sense of dread but also have reasons for reasonable hope.
The Bad and the Ugly
First, the dread.
One almost has to admire the near-total lack of self-awareness of Bernie Sanders and so many of his followers. Yes, countries are unique, but they do not exist in a vacuum, and as they march confidently forward, Bernie and his followers act as if they are not at all aware of the some fairly overwhelming global trends that are affecting Western democracies in particular but hardly Western Democracies alone.
The most prominent example is just from a few months ago, when a blithely confident Labour Party chief Jeremy Corbyn and his army of young and diverse Corbynistas were happy to condescend to all those questioning them as bad-faith, corrupted actors and never really prepared any serious answers to the valid concerns of those not on board as they sought to foist an ideology and scale and pace of change most Britons were nowhere near ready to accept. The result was the worst electoral show for Britain’s Labour Party since 1935. More than the following cases, the case of Corbyn and Labour in the UK should be a warning to Democrats, just as Brexit should have been a warning for Trump’s prospects in 2016, as I cautioned at the time.
Still, there are many more cases to consider. We can look to Israel’s politics over the past two decades, which has seen its once mighty Labor Party fall to near political irrelevance, the same journey of the overall Israeli left. Now, Israel is just days away from a third election this cycle in which, it seems, Israel’s left will be yet again be part of a failed effort to oust a rightist coalition.
The long-powerful French Socialist Party has likewise seen a crushing of its power recently. In fact, all across Europe and beyond in places like Brazil, once popular leftist parties in democracies have crumbled and the far-right has risen. While there are certainly some brighter spots for leftists electorally of late (e.g., Mexico, Canada), this collapse is stark and widespread, and not unrelated to Trump’s rise and current American political dynamics. The collapse is also accompanied by a collapse of long-standing societal institutions—or at least a collapse in the public’s confidence in them—everything from government and organized religion to journalism and marriage to political parties and financial entities, even our faith in each other. Such things had been stable for some time (sometimes a very long time), but in many ways now, we live in an era of dangerous declines in the very fabrics of society (in such a context, it is understanding, though still disturbing, that so many people have fallen on nationalism, ethnic identity, and/or fundamentalist religion).
It is within these contexts that Sanders’s would-be Sandernista revolutionaries have approached a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party. And let us make it clear that we are talking about a hostile takeover: in 2016, Sanders only won about one-third of registered Democrats running against Clinton, who was the preference of about two-thirds of registered Democrats. The reverse was the case for their performance among independents who voted in the primaries and caucuses.
Again with the lack of self-awareness, they seem not to know in what “good” company they traverse. For there is a massive international campaign—the primary mover behind which is none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin, including Russian military forces and intelligence—designed to destroy democracy by destroying the political center (including the center-right and center-left) throughout the Western democracies, particularly the United States and within the EU. This is not by just attacking mainstream political parties, but by boosting many far-right and far-left parties and candidates as well as secessionist movements (Brexit, California, Texas, Catalonia, Scotland, and Ukraine are among the most prominent). The idea with the former is to help far-right ethno-nationalist parties (espousing politics similar to Putin’s own nationalist brand inside Russia) take power; in this context, boosting the far-left parties, which are almost universally unviable today, serves to weaken the center in the face of the far-right. With the latter secessionism, the idea is to literally break apart key European nations and alliances, destabilizing Europe and weakening its unity and that of NATO in the face of a Kremlin eager to expand its influence on the continent. Especially with Trump’s anti-European and anti-NATO views—whereby the U.S. before Trump had been Europe’s biggest supporter against Russia—Putin’s support of him and others is helping to systematically weaken the post-WWII system set up by the U.S. that has brought about the greatest level of peace and prosperity in Europe since the height of the pax-Romana over one-and-a-half millennia ago. This war on the political center contributes to a goal long-held by Putin: an overall global decline in democracy and the rule of law, happening right now to his delight. And neither Bernie, nor his people, never, ever seem to stop to ask how things they say and do are advancing Putin’s exact agenda in their own quest to destroy the center.
So, basically, the world does not revolve around Bernie Sanders at all for the Kremlin, he is just one of many far-left “useful idiot” candidates the Kremlin favors not at all as an end, but as a means to a destabilizing end, whether in 2016 or now, as was just revelated to little surprise to those who have been following (Jill Stein is simply another, just less prominent, example). Unlike Trump, with Sanders I do not believe that he solicits or accepts such interference (though, quite unhelpfully, he seems to be blaming the media for making a big deal of this when this is a serious issue, and he did, rather astounding and infuriatingly, also seem to blame Russia for the Bernie bro phenomenon; sure the Russians amplify, but Bernie bros are real).
What is even more remarkable is that nearly all of his supporters with whom I have interacted with online or in-person are “useful idiots” for the Kremlin, a term popularly attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Lenin himself used to describe those who unwittingly propagate Kremlin propaganda because, simply, the believe in it. These Bernie people basically dismiss the idea that Russia is boosting Bernie as “fake news” in spite of the detailed evidence for this (and much in the way Trump and Republicans do along with the Kremlin itself). They deny it in spite of the obvious reality that a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” who honeymooned in the Soviet Union, is an apologist for Fidel Castro and the 1979 Iranian hostage-takers, who broadcast Sandinista propaganda as mayor of Burlington, and seems to hate capitalism has close to zero chance of being elected president of a conservative, capitalist country with Electoral College and gerrymandered congressional voting district systems that strongly favor conservatives, that the Kremlin clearly wants Bernie to run against Trump so Putin can keep his favorite useful idiot in office.
These Bernie Supporters (I know these are not all of them, but still do represent a big chunk) do not like anything that does not fit the narrative that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are entirely to blame for the 2016 loss to Trump, so they are also usually all-too-quick to dismiss the clear reality that Russia interfered in 2016 at all to help Trump (journalistically, the incredibly selective, irritatingly myopic, and downright nasty Glenn Greenwald and his fellow Intercept folks Jeremy Scahill and Aaron Maté also fall into this useful idiot category). They could care less about their role in the wider world or even the country: all that matters is their agenda and their crusade to see the center-left be obliterated by the Bernie left, they are not willing to even entertain the idea that they should adapt to add a larger spectrum of people to their camp, no, everyone else needs to join them and that is the only way they can see meaningful progress happening. The very idea that they might do anything to appeal to people to their right, be they less liberal Democrats, independents, or even Republicans, offends then. Sanders exudes this style from the top.
They do not care about the Democratic Party other than its utility to them as a vehicle to power; their aims are to hijack and destroy it from the inside out, not mold or remake, but to totally take it over and “bern” it down hence, they demand while offering no compromise.
And Sanders has practically won all three of first three states (technically two in terms of actual delegates so far but all three when looking at the popular vote in Iowa). He is the overall leader in delegates and has all sorts of positive press coverage that comes along with winning. He is the frontrunner by the main standards that count (delegates and votes), and his opposition for the nomination is fractured and far too numerous. If Super Tuesday were held with the latest polls as the results, in many cases Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar would dilute the moderate vote so much so that Bernie would walk away with by far the most delegates and many of the moderates would be so weak individually they would not even receive any delegates (a candidate must get 15% statewide and in a state’s congressional districts to get any statewide or district-level delegates, respectively, and it is delegates that award the nomination). A look at the current weighted polling averages in California, the state with the most delegates by far (415) at stake, makes how dire the situation of the non-Bernie Democrats is very clear:
So Bernie could be on a march to the nomination in what would be certain, barring some unforeseen calamity like an economic collapse orchestrated unwittingly by Trump, to hand Trump four more years in the White House, which could lead to the destruction of the American republic as we know it, as I have warned for years.
For this to sink in, ponder the actual distribution of political ideology in America:
Gallup has self-identified liberals at only 25%, while moderates are 35% and conservatives 37% of the population, and only six out of fifty states have more liberals than conservatives; Pew still has moderate and conservative democrats combined slightly outnumbering liberal Democrats in real life, though not in Twitter’s cesspool.
In other words, given the Electoral College and the fact that liberals are greatly outnumbered by moderates and conservative in general and even more so by states, it is truly madness to run Bernie Sanders in a national election. Hypothetical polling should be ignored, as both Democrats and Republicans have avoided throwing the mountains of negative opposition research against Sanders because Democrats want to win over Sanders’ supporters and have Bernie play nice if they beat him, while Republicans want to see him do well against other Democrats so they can then fire point-blank at him during the general election, when they can see the whites of his eyes.
The signs so far are more or less that this will happen, that we are stuck with Bernie… until now.
For those Democrats reasonable, not myopic, and self-aware enough as to their relative strength and position in the overall Democratic and national electorate, and for other non-Democrats who dread Bernie as a choice against Trump, there are still reasons for hope.
1.) There are signs Bernie still is not winning many Democrats and his performance thus far gives ammunition to this idea
Looking at where contests have been held to far, it is important to note that the Iowa caucuses allowed same-day registration (meaning you did not need to be registered before you went to the caucuses), the New Hampshire primary was open (meaning you did not have to be a registered Democrat to vote in it), and the Nevada caucuses also allowed same-day registration. In Iowa’s caucus entrance polls, only 20% of people identifying as Democrats were saying they were going to support Sanders. In New Hampshire’s exit polls, only 26% of Democrats voted Sanders, and Democrats were only 52% of voters. And in Nevada, only 30% of Democrats said they were supporting Sanders in entrance polls (and nearly one-fifth of voters were not Democrats).
The open quality of these contests, however, is not representative of the overall situation going forward, as a large chunk of upcoming contests have closed primaries in which only Democrats can participate, including New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania, the states with the second, fourth, and fifth most delegates up for grabs. Most states also will not have same-day registration available, though a decent chunk will. For Bernie supporters who are not loyal Democrats and disdain the party system, this means that unless they register early as Democrats in many places (a thought that would make a fair number of them sick), they cannot vote in the nomination contests. Considering how at least 70% of Democrats in each of the first three states have not voted for Sanders, that is not a good sign for Team Bernie.
State registration deadlines
2.) From South Carolina forward, the overall territory of the contest is far less favorable to Bernie
Bernie does well and, in 2016, did well in three types of states: a.) states with open primaries, as noted above b.) very white states
Highest percent-white-alone states, 2019 U.S. Census data
and c.) caucus states (lots of overlap in b and c). Sanders’ message in 2016 and his approach just did not resonate with voters of color, who overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Sanders; she easily won the most diverse states, which are also the most populous states. So far this year (as before), the first two states were also two of the whitest: Iowa and New Hampshire are almost 91% and over 93% white, respectively, the sixth and eight-whitest states in the country (Bernie’s Vermont is the second-whitest state).
That gave Sanders quite a boost and hurt, say, Biden, going into Nevada. But Iowa and Nevada are also caucuses, which are undemocratic abominations (as I have noted before) that, overall, dramatically depress turnout and favor certain privileged and enthusiastic groups over others and introduce social pressure by forcing caucus-goers to cast their votes publicly in front of their neighbors and force lobbying during the voting process. The system is so chaotic, bad, and unrepresentative that in 2016 (besides this year’s obvious mishaps), when Washington State and Nebraska held non-binding primaries after the binding caucuses, Clinton beat Sanders in contests with dramatically higher turnout even though Sanders won the caucuses and, therefore, most of the delegates. This year, mercifully, half the states with caucuses have already gone over to primaries, and only two states—North Dakota and Wyoming, tied for the least delegates of any state—and three U.S. territories are holding caucuses going forward, whereas fourteen states had caucuses in 2014 (twelve of which Bernie won by large margins and two of which Clinton won rather, and relatively, narrowly). Basically, in 2016, Bernie outperformed and dominated in caucus states.
In summary, this year the first two states were states with built-in advantages for Bernie, where he only won barely with the popular votes with about 26% support, and in Nevada, where he did far better, that was still a caucus state that inflated his support.
But Bernie will find South Carolina and the more populous Super Tuesday States a whole different ballgame, with far more diverse populations bestowing bountiful delegates in primaries.
3.) Dynamics are generally setting up to favor Biden and hurt Bernie and others
Apart from the aforementioned structural, geographic, and demographic reasons, other things are coming together to help elevate former Vice President Joe Biden and stall Sanders.
For one thing, apart from Sanders not having a terrible debate, everything else went about as well as Biden could have hoped for in the Nevada debate. Biden easily had his best performance to date. Yes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren stole the show, but she is competing mainly for other “progressive” voters with Sanders, not with Biden voters. And she did Biden a huge favor by eviscerating the hapless former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has taken a lot of support from Biden within the moderate lane. The other two moderates, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, tore into each other. Warren also tore into each of them and even Bernie, and Pete went after Bloomberg, too. Biden needed Klobuchar and Buttigieg and especially Bloomberg to take hits, and they did in dramatic fashion. He needed Warren to do well to siphon off votes from Sanders and she performed better than anyone else.
In part as a result of these dynamics, Biden did far better in Nevada than in Iowa or New Hampshire, and though he came in far behind Sanders, he also came in far ahead of third-place Buttigieg in terms of delegates, with Klobuchar being shut out. This was just what Biden needed going into South Carolina: a strong debate performance; a solid and clear second-place performance, a reminder of his relative potential strength compared to Buttigieg and Klobuchar in more diverse states; Warren hanging tough and keeping some “progressive” votes from going to Sanders; Bloomberg scaring the hell out of his supporters (some of the least committed in the race, along with Buttigieg’s voters) with that awful performance; and with businessman Tom Steyer—a virtual one-hit-wonder with high polling in South Carolina and nowhere else, except for some polls in Nevada but, encouragingly, he was a dud there—not even on stage, a reminder of his lack of a national profile.
Then came the South Carolina debate, in many ways a repeat of Nevada’s. Bloomberg did not look as awful but still did not look good, and Warren was good but not as dominant. Joe, though, had another of his best debates, the best one yet—a far more assertive and dominant Joe than we have seen—in which he was often the center of attention, and, helpful for Biden, everyone focused most of their fire on Sanders and kind of ignored Bloomberg for much of the debate. Sanders was consistent as usual but also responded poorly and angrily—even to the audience!—when confronted. For the most part Klobuchar and Buttigieg were fine but also non-factors other than solid attacks against Sanders, as was Steyer, who looked pretty bad when Biden brought up his $90 million investment into for-profit prisons. This was an even more ideal debate, then, for Biden.
As if all this was not good enough for Biden’s chances, the legendary South Carolina politician, U.S. Rep. and House Majority Whip (the number-three Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) James Clyburn, endorsed Biden today, the next morning. This was expected but is still quite welcome, as Clyburn is a titan of South Carolina politics, where he fought for civil rights in the 1960s and was arrested and jailed for his efforts. Clyburn is a revered figure for many African-Americans, elected to Congress in 1993 and selected for the number-three leadership position for House Democrats back in 2006, which he has held in both majority and minority roles since.
So just about everything Biden could reasonably hope for (save for Steyer dropping out) has happened in the run-up to South Carolina. If Biden win and wins convincingly there, some Democrats who have flocked to Bloomberg and Buttigieg (who are, relatively, uncommitted to them in polling) would easily flock back to a winning Biden. Buttigieg has no path going forward without any serious black support and the weaker Klobuchar even more so for the same reason has no path forward, and after they are very likely crushed in South Carolina, pressure on them to drop out will be overwhelming. If they are not myopic or narcissistic, they will heed the call and back their fellow moderate Biden to prevent Sanders form having a high chance of piloting the Democratic Party like the Hindenburg.
Only three of fifty states have weighed in, and there are also the District of Columbia and various U.S. territories to vote, too. A candidate needs to win 1,991 delegates to win the nomination on the first-round ballot at the convention, and Bernie Sanders so far has a whopping total of… forty-five, 2.2% of the total he needs. Biden is just a mere thirty delegates behind, which is nothing, an easily surmountable lead that Biden has a decent chance to overtake in South Carolina.
Even if Biden does not become the frontrunner with a delegate lead immediately after South Carolina, in big Super Tuesday states, Biden is already polling well or ahead (though far lower with Bloomberg’s rise) even before the events in South Carolina impact those numbers. Bernie is doing as well as he is in Super Tuesday polls in part because of Bloomberg’s previous surge chipping support away from Biden and Bernie’s Nevada bounce. But Bloomberg is falling and, if Biden does well in South Carolina, we can expect his numbers to go up at the expense of Bloomberg and also Buttigieg and Klobuchar. If one or more of them can be convinced to drop and out and endorse Biden before Super Tuesday—just three days after South Carolina, when over one-third of all pledged delegates will be awarded—that would go even farther. On that day, two of the four states with over 200 pledged delegates up for grabs—California, with the most, and Texas, with the third-most, of all states—vote.
As in 2016, Bernie may have peaked in February in 2020.
The Moment of Truth for Non-Sanders Democrats Is Now
Until recently, Biden was ahead in most of the larger Super Tuesday votes and was competitive, as we saw above, in California, but Bernie built up a lead that could drown Biden out in California (again, if candidates do not get at least 15% statewide and in individual congressional districts, they do not get any delegates), however, this is at Bernie’s current peak. And Biden is still neck-and-neck or ahead in Texas.
A strong South Carolina performance could seriously stop and reverse the gains Bernie has been making in these states, but it may come down to California: if too many other moderates take away enough support from Biden so that he is below 15% and gets no delegates out of the whopping 415 delegates at stake there, that could be an advantage for Bernie that might be very difficult, maybe even impossible, for Biden to overcome. However, Bloomberg is doing tremendous damage to Biden there in current polling and in many of the larger states, and if he keeps fading, this prospect could be mitigated. Conversely, in Florida, (voting later on March 17th) Bernie is flirting with not being viable delegate-wise at all, so that, too, with that state’s fourth-largest delegate haul of 219 delegates, could offset to some degree a poor Biden showing in California.
But if Biden beats Sanders in Texas and take fare more delegates than him, combined, in other Super Tuesday states—something that would require Biden gaining a lot in California in the short time after South Carolina—then he would be the frontrunner.
I would argue this scenario is the hardly to be dismissed, and I would bet on him being viable there, given that Biden’s main competitors in the moderate lane have a good chance of continuing to fall or may even drop out after South Carolina, but it certainly is a serious possibility that they will not fall enough and Biden could be shutout in California. If that scenario happens it will remain to be seen whether Biden or Bernie gets the nomination, and it will come down to a long fight over each remaining state, much like Clinton vs. Obama in 2008. However, Biden will need the resources to compete and do respectably against Bernie in less populous, rural, and whiter states, and, currently, Sanders is way outpacing Biden in fundraising, yet, if other candidates give way to Biden, it is reasonable to think a lot more fundraising will come to Biden. If Biden clearly outperforms Bernie on Super Tuesday, just like with Clinton, it would be hard to see Bernie overtaking Biden.
Still, rather than Bernie running away with it on Super Tuesday, South Carolina should significantly alter the dynamics of this race to give Biden a huge boost and pressure his moderate rivals to clear the way for Biden to take Bernie on mano a mano. It is very likely that this boost will make Biden competitive for most of the rest of the nomination process, but the main question is if dynamics before Super Tuesday will boost Biden enough in California to be competitive and take a big chunk of delegates from there—which would almost surely make Biden the frontrunner—or if Bernie will dominate California to the degree of shutting or almost shutting Biden out of delegates, which could lead to a protracted, scorched-earth campaign and maybe, perhaps likely, a Bernie win.
However, Bernie Sanders being Bernie Sanders, even if Biden is the clear frontrunner, I fear, just like in 2016, Bernie and his Bernie bros will fight tooth and nail even when it is clear Bernie would not be the nominee. Either way, the party will likely be torn apart, but apart from Bernie being the nominee and getting crushed by Trump—by far the most likely outcome with nominee Sanders—the worst outcome would be Bernie dominating in California but still losing to Biden in a very tight race, thus making Biden’s challenge of uniting the Democratic Party that much more difficult. Still, if Biden can limit Bernie’s delegate advantage in California or even beat him there (the latter of which looks unlikely unless several people drop out), he should be a clear favorite to clear the 1,991-delegate threshold.
So I would say, roughly, there is probably a one-third chance that Biden will be a clear frontrunner, a one-third chance it could be pretty unclear until the end (I would still favor Biden then), and a one-third chance Bernie could get enough delegates on Super Tuesday, especially in California, that he would be a clear frontrunner. But with so many x-factors—especially the behavior and performance of Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren (whom we have not discussed much, but her exit would help Sanders significantly)—in the mix, it is hard to narrow things down to one most likely scenario. In contrast, in 2016, polling made it clear even after New Hampshire that Clinton was a heavy favorite in South Carolina and, as I noted at the time, Nevada was Bernie’s last chance to win over the type of non-white voters he needed before South Carolina and Super Tuesday to be viable going forward. It was clear with her win in Nevada that Clinton would be the nominee and that Sanders had failed to dent Clinton’s formidable majority coalition. But, since there are so many more candidates in this 2020 race, the outcome could remain in doubt for some time.
Democrats who want to win in November who are currently backing Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Steyer need to realize that all they are doing is helping Sanders and to switch as quickly as possible to Biden. In theory, with his fantastic ad campaign, Bloomberg could have been a viable alternative if Biden had continued to tank in Nevada and was more vulnerable in South Carolina. Reality punctured that finely crafted image and possibility of Bloomberg’s with two far-from-good debate performances by Bloomberg. If Biden had tanked, there would also have been a case for Buttigieg and Klobuchar remaining in the race, but with Biden poised for a clear South Carolina win, history will remember Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar for not getting out of the way and handing the nomination to Sanders if they persist in way that kneecaps Biden’s chances to overtake Sanders. Sanders has a decent theoretical chance in South Carolina, but it seems very unlikely given the dynamics I have mentioned.
If there is one thing the anti-Sanders crowd can count on, it is the abilities of Sanders and his supporters to keep their high floor and low ceiling, sticking to their messianism, and doing little to nothing to win over those not already persuaded. Thus, Bernie will be easy to defeat if the moderate candidates consolidate quickly around Biden, but if Sanders is the nominee winning mostly 20-to-30-something % throughout, it will be because the other main non-Biden candidates could not put the country and the party before themselves even when it was clear they had virtually no chance to be the nominee, and it may be too late after Super Tuesday. At stake is not just the soul the Democratic Party, but the soul of the nation and its survival as a democratic republic.
In the interest of full disclosure, Brian interned for Joe Biden from September-December, 2006.
© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981. He also just recently authored A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia.
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