It’s Opposite Day in the Democratic primary. Super Tuesday was forecast to be a major victory for the progressive movement, culminating in a possibly insurmountable delegate lead for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with moderates hopelessly divided. Instead, former Vice President Joe Biden will likely come out leading in votes and delegates, and progressives now appear to be in disarray.
What happened? Why? What does it mean? I’m personally still processing these questions and more, and how quickly everything went down. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
Progressives lost power because they attacked one another. This sounds dumb as I write it, but the establishment is called the establishment because they are established. They have power brokers and people who have experience gaining and keeping power. The insurgent left — a significant block of Democratic voters — does not have the benefit of those tools and advantages. What it has instead are numbers: women and minorities who’ve faced discrimination and silencing, African Americans experiencing police brutality and mass incarceration, Latinos demonized by anti-immigrant sentiment, low-wage workers struggling under present economic conditions and ballooning health care costs, disaffected millenials in debt, climate activists dismayed at how politics as usual is destroying the planet, anti-war folks disgusted by our interventionist foreign policy and military industrial complex, and I’m sure some important groups I’m leaving out.
What this powerful coalition has in common is that the status quo maintained by huge corporations and wealthy individuals is not working for them. But it also represents a massive number of people, transcending age, race, class, and education attainment — and not all of them agree on the best way forward.
Bernie Sanders is currently the leading progressive standard bearer, but he’s not the only candidate speaking to progressive causes. Progressives were also attracted to the campaigns of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Pete Buttigeig — and of course liberal stalwart Elizabeth Warren — during the runups to the primaries. In the beginning, all of these candidates were united about the issues important to progressives, such as criminal justice and immigration reform, an expansion of free health care, an increase in the minimum wage, and paid family leave.
Unfortunately, through an incredibly confrontational primary process that pits personalities against one another and plays down the importance of policy — and a media that thrives on conflict — supporters of these several candidates attacked one another, splintering the movement. Supporters of establishment candidates did this, too, but with control of the halls of power, they are more readily able to capitalize on split support and mobilize rapidly to consolidate.
Sexism and racism against the women candidates and candidates of color also clearly played a big role in winnowing the field (all of the major finalists were white going into Super Tuesday, and all but one was male) — and this reality rightly led to resentment with the negative side effect of further splintering the progressive block.
African Americans, particularly in the South, are an incredibly important voting block for Democrats. In South Carolina, where African Americans make up more than half of the Democratic voting population, Biden won that group with 61 percent, according to exit polls. Bernie Sanders, the next highest among that group, received 17 percent. Buttigieg, who was riding high in the early non-diverse states, got only 3 percent.
Biden’s blowout win in South Carolina would not have been nearly as decisive if it hadn’t been for his strength among African-American voters. Buttigieg’s loss wouldn’t have been nearly as devastating if he had been able to compete in this group. If Sanders had won the African-American vote, he would have been in contention to win the state.
What South Carolina’s results and the subsequent Super Tuesday results make clear is that making inroads with African-American voters, and particularly African-American voters in the South, is a must for any serious contender for the Democratic nomination.
Nonvoters don’t vote, at least not in the primaries. Much of Sanders’ messaging around political revolution goes like this: Many people are disaffected by our political system, and inspiring them to come out is a recipe for victory. With 18 states behind us following about five years of organization by the Sanders campaign, it’s not clear that this is the case, at least for primary elections. Why? It could be many things. The byzantine rules for participating in the primaries (numerous dates, open versus closed primaries, registration deadlines, and what even is a caucus?) make it difficult for those not following along to engage. And perhaps those who aren’t politically engaged truly don’t care enough to follow the process over the course of multiple months.
What we still haven’t seen is whether these unengaged voters might arrive during a progressive general presidential election with one of the top nominees appealing to them. It’s not time to abandon the strategy just yet, because there is such a large pool of people to draw from, but it doesn’t seem to be working during the complicated nominating process.
It’s not early, but it’s not over. Biden’s surge happened incredibly rapidly. Three weeks ago, most people had left his campaign for dead. Ten days ago, centrist pundits had theorized about a weak comeback. And it’s only been about three days since the establishment decided to put its weight behind him. Yesterday before votes came in, Massachusetts looked to be a battle between Sanders and Warren — who today is the third place finisher in her home state.
As I write this, many delegates are yet to be assigned, and many votes are yet to be counted in California, but estimates are that less than 100 delegates will separate Biden and Sanders when the dust settles — far fewer than the gulf between Clinton and Sanders after Super Tuesday 2016. Contests assigning more than a third of delegates have passed, but there are more than half the delegates yet to be voted for. Most major swing states likely to decide the general election — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Arizona — have yet to weigh in.
Biden still has the same problems as a candidate that he did when he came in fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and a distant second in Nevada — shaky campaigning, and a problematic record to defend.
If the progressive left manages to galvanize itself and combine in the face of a likely Biden nomination, just as establishment Democrats came together behind Biden when faced with a boogeyman in Sanders, the race could change.
On the other hand, if Sanders supporters continue to bully Warren into resigning (rather than allowing her own supporters to make that call), and if Warren supporters and supporters of other progressive candidates who dropped out continue to distance themselves from Sanders, progressives will be far less likely to be able to claim the nomination.
Even if a progressive candidate is unable to get the nomination, progressive voters and activists must remain engaged, pushing the eventual nominee to adopt the popular positions galvanizing progressive voters — an iron-clad Green New Deal, an increased minimum wage, Medicare for All, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform, among others.
And now that Bloomberg has bowed out, I can once again say that no matter who the nominee is, it is important to support that person in the general election and get rid of Trump.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.