Polling of head-to-head matchups show both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders beating Donald Trump by the widest margins. But since Michael Dukakis did not beat George H.W. Bush by 17 points, and Mitt Romney lost the swing states polling said he’d win, and it took seven months to write the polling postmortem on the 2016 election, primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday should avoid relying on these poll results alone when deciding who is the most “electable.”
What About Biden?
Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972. Regardless of what we like or don’t like about him personally, and regardless of where we see eye-to-eye politically and where we disagree, the data tell us, as Jonathan Rauch wrote, “no one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency.” If Biden is the Democratic Party nominee this year, he will be running to replace an impeached POTUS with a 52% disapproval rating (as of this posting) who lost the popular vote by the widest margin of any Electoral College winner in U.S. history. Current polls show Biden leading Trump. But I’m here to tell you that Biden is easier to beat in a general election than most of the Democrats currently trailing him in the early primary and caucus states.
Barack Obama’s vice president considered running for President in 1980 and 1984. He ran in 1988, but had to end his campaign after three months because of a stump speech plagiarism scandal. He explored running in 2004. And when he ran in 2008, he dropped out after finishing in fifth place in Iowa (the first contest in the nation). Yet despite his past failures as a candidate, Biden leads national polls. Lili Loofbourow offers a compelling reason why:
“People are tired. They’re tired of reacting; they’re tired of change; they’re absolutely sick of engaging, emotionally and practically. They don’t want to be glued to the news anymore. They want to be able to safely tune out…
Trump’s presidency has, for many Democrats, been an unending emergency… With a government unable or unwilling to check or balance itself, the public has had to go into overdrive and react nonstop… The electorate wants to ignore the news without fear that the government is committing fresh atrocities in their name… for them, Biden is the obvious candidate.
Obama used to describe his politics in terms of Hope and Change; to plenty of people now, the message that might resonate is closer to Hope and Rest.
[Elizabeth] Warren and Sanders argue, rightly, that there is no time to waste if climate change is to be addressed. They may have energy and anger and (in my view) truth on their side, but to much of the voting public, it may be downright reassuring to have a candidate who refuses to participate in politics on those gladiatorial terms. They just want someone to take charge and give them permission to tune out…
There is some power, after all, in not needing to react. In not tweeting out your thoughts. In not having to rush to defend yourself when unseemly attacks come your way… Indeed, ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ might not be the insult Trump thinks it is. We might be in a moment when many Americans just want to go back to sleep.”
Loofbourow’s argument isn’t flippant. It’s based on data. A sizable and often decisive percentage of eligible voters reject political engagement. For instance, 59% of Americans said they were “already worn out” by 2016 election coverage four months before Election Day. More concretely, national voter turnout has never been higher than 58.2% since 1972. And it’s been as low as 49%. In other words, the winner of the 2020 general election will not be elected by a majority of eligible voters. Three-quarters of adults did not support Trump in 2016. But by refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton, or by finding themselves unable to because of voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other forms of suppression and disenfranchisement, nonvoters in swing states helped Trump win once. And they are the ticket to his reelection.
The voter ID laws and voter roll purges and other forms of voter suppression and disenfranchisement that impacted the outcome of the 2016 will still be in place in 2020. This poses a tremendous threat to any Democratic Party nominee, not just Biden. But Biden is especially vulnerable to a Trump reelection strategy that relies on driving down the participation of constituencies critical to the success of the Democratic base on Election Day.
Trump’s path to victory is subjecting Biden to “death by a 1,000 cuts.” In 2016, he spent $44 million on Facebook ads in just five months. Not only did Trump totally eclipse Hillary Clinton’s overall spending on Facebook ads, but he got more bang for his buck. And again, it’s important to note that this is just Facebook spending. We’re not taking into account the hundreds of millions of dollars that went into other ads that folks consumed via social media, online, via apps, through the radio, on television, etc. There is a reason why if you Google “ enthusiasm gap” and “Hillary Clinton” you get nearly two million results. Obama’s vote total in 2012 when he was reelected in 2012 was 65,915,795. Hillary Clinton’s vote total in 2016 was 65,853,514. A difference of of only 62,281 votes is strong evidence that the narrative of an “enthusiasm gap” (advanced by 24-hour cable news and clickbait headline journalism) came from Trump’s 2016 campaign. His $5 billion in free earned media allowed him to shift traditional campaign spending toward unprecedented digital media buys—including the treasure trove that went toward ads tailored to influence the 87 million Facebook users targeted by Cambridge Analytica.
Although it is not often written about, it is very important to note that ads are not designed only to convince you to vote for someone. They are frequently designed to dissuade you from voting all together. To bring this full circle, Trump can win reelection in 2020 by running the exact same playbook that Richard Nixon ran in 1972. After all, as Jeet Heer wrote, “[Nixon’s] Southern Strategy was the original sin that made Donald Trump possible.” To be clear, the Southern Strategy and its appeals to white men and white women to vote for “Tricky Dick” was only part of Nixon’s overall plan for reelection. Nixon lost the House in 1970 because the Democratic Party turned out a historic number of midterm voters. In fact, 1970’s record turnout was not matched until the 2018 midterms. To win reelection in 1972, Nixon had to lower the turnout number. This meant limiting the participation of voters of color through voter suppression and disenfranchisement. And it meant using the “combined effect” of every intra-Democratic Party division, and potentially problematic press story to drain away support from his rival.
Even though Nixon’s approval rating was about the same headed into Election Day as it was when he got trounced in the 1970 midterms in which the Democratic Party set a turnout record, he won reelection in 1972. As Thomas Berger wrote, “Watergate or no Watergate, Nixon would have won.” Nixon’s death by a 1,000 cuts strategy to defeat George McGovern succeeded: Voter turnout declined 5.5% between 1968 and 1972. It wasn’t just the Southern Strategy that delivered victory. It was the bet that if wider margins of eligible voters felt frustrated and disillusioned with politics and politicians, writ large, enough mid- to low-propensity voters would abstain from the polls to allow Nixon’s “Silent Majority” faithful to deliver victory. It was a gamble. But as Joshua Alvarez wrote, “Nixon was absolutely right.”
This is Trump’s playbook: Trump will do in 2020 what Nixon did in 1972 to win.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump believes he can grow his base. There are nonvoters and infrequent voters in key states who sat out 2016 that he has been targeting for over a year: 75,000 in Florida’s panhandle alone. But Trump knows that the path to reelection is guerrilla warfare. In addition to relying on voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other forms of suppression and disenfranchisement, Trump will seek to depress the number of men and women of color, and Democratic-leaning white women, willing to cast ballots for Biden, if he is the nominee. (Sadly, this is the very same strategy he will use against Sanders, if he is the nominee.)
As Timothy Noah reminded us in his two-part essay about the 2008 election: Obama did not win the majority of the white vote. In fact, no Democratic Party POTUS has won the white vote since 1964. Obama lost it in 2008 and 2012. Bill Clinton lost it in 1992 and 1996. Jimmy Carter lost it in 1976. And to be clear, the GOP won the presidency in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2016 because of it. Democratic candidates rely on the over-performance of voters of color, and then work to get close as possible to a 50–50 split among white women (or win a majority of white women voters as Bill Clinton did in 1996).
To deflate Biden’s support among the Democratic base, Trump will use proxies to advance targeted ads that communicate the same “don’t vote” message we saw in the 2010 effort to reduce Latinx turnout in Nevada. He will use social media to spread them, knowing this will trigger the press into asking Biden about matters he would rather leave behind:
- 1975 anti-busing appropriations bill amendment
- 1976 anti-choice Hyde Amendment support
- 1991 Anita Hill testimony
- 1994 Crime Bill vote
- 1996 Defense of Marriage Act vote
- 2003 Iraq War vote
- 2005 support for the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act
- 2006 comment about going to a 7–11s or Dunkin Donuts “without an Indian accent”
- 2007 description of Barack Obama as “articulate” and “clean”
- 2008 telling wheelchair-bound Missouri State Senator Chuck Graham to “stand up”
- 2009–2017 Obama Administration immigrant detention and deportation record
- 2014 interaction with Nevada State Assembly Member and former candidate for Lt. Gov. Lucy Flores which she described as “inappropriate”
- 2017 speech about “Corn Pop”
- 2019 Democratic debate “social workers into [Black] homes… record player” answer
- 2019 campaign trail “keep the boys away from your [13-year-old] sister” remark
This is only a partial list from Joe Biden’s 44-year career—a career in which his largest donor was MBNA, the nation’s leading issuer of credit cards. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Biden’s son Hunter, who did not benefit from corruption while employed by Burisma, but clearly benefited from nepotism. This list provides more than enough fodder to chip away at Biden’s support among Democratic-leaning voters who are not likely to vote for Trump, but also unlikely to show up for someone they find to be impalpable. As Janet Hook wrote, “Biden is [hampered by] carrying a 20th century record into a 21st century dogfight.”
What About Sanders?
Sadly, Sanders is also vulnerable to Trump’s 2020 version of Nixon’s 1972 playbook.
Between 1972 and 1976, Bernie Sanders was the nominee of the anti-capitalist, anti-war Liberty Union Party of Vermont in two Senate and two gubernatorial elections in Vermont. He lost all four races and resigned from the party in 1977. Sanders was first elected to office in 1981 when he won his mayoral race by a margin of 10 votes.
I won my race for mayor by 10 votes.
We had to take on the entire Democratic establishment.
But after a few years, Burlington, a sleepy political city, became one of the most politically conscious and progressive cities in America. pic.twitter.com/WkJcBXZ5mg
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) November 27, 2019
Although not a registered Democrat, Sanders campaigned for Walter Mondale in 1984. He ran for Vermont’s sole seat in the House of Representatives twice. Both times as an “Independent.” Both times against centrist Republican Peter Smith—the former VP of Development at Norwich University who lost his race for Governor of Vermont in 1986. In 1988 Smith won. In 1990, Sanders won handily.
As Jonathan Chait (a true embodiment of the proverb, a broken clock is right twice a day) wrote, “Sanders has never faced an electorate where [his] vulnerabilities could be used against him… [They play] into Trump’s message… [But we act as if] Bernie is too big to fail.”
Sanders is an Aristotelian tragic hero: His greatest strength is, in fact, his greatest weakness.
Conventional wisdom is that Bernie Sanders has been consistent and unwavering in all things for over 40 years. As Matthew Karp wrote, however, “Sanders has evolved… Throughout the 1980s, he argued that the ‘corporate-controlled Republican and Democratic parties… are, in reality, one party—the party of the ruling class.’ His Vermont career was built not on cooperation with Democrats but on bitter competition with them… In the years since, Sanders has gotten much better at passing himself off as a Democrat… But as the 2020 primary takes shape, some have wondered if he will become a victim of his own success.”
Biden and Sanders will both be judged as Democrats with four decades worth of ties to the party: If Biden’s likely to bleed votes because he has supported problematic bills in the past, then Sanders is likely to bleed votes because he hasn’t been able to advance legislation.
Sanders wasn’t the House Member who introduced a bill for single-payer healthcare in 1991. That was Marty Russo, the Democrat from Illinois’ Third Congressional District. He wasn’t the one who introduced the bill for single-payer in 1993, either. That was Jim McDermott, the Democrat from Washington’s Seventh Congressional District. He wasn’t the one who introduced the Medicare For All Act in 2003. That was John Conyers, the Democrat from Michigan’s Thirteenth Congressional District. To his credit, Sanders called said “healthcare is a right” in 1993. But to his detriment, he is vulnerable to a multimedia attack designed to deflate enthusiasm among Democratic-leaning voters —particularly those who are low- to mid-propensity because they are predisposed to be skeptical— that paints him as a “career politician” (as Hillary Clinton just did) with little to show for his three decades in D.C.
As Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote:
“At the heart of Bernie Sanders’ campaign is a promise to bring about sweeping change. But on some of the top issues at the center of Sanders’ presidential bid —health care, taking on the big banks and corporations, fighting for rights, raising attention to income inequality— the revolution has been slow in the decades he’s spent in Congress…
‘I have been criticized a lot for thinking big, for believing we can do great things as a nation,’ Sanders said. Rarely has that thinking translated into actual legislation or left a significant imprint on it, according to Democratic lawmakers and staffers who have worked with him.
Several top Democrats say the difference is a complete contrast to another progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has had a much clearer impact on the financial and inequality discussions in just the years she’s been in the Senate…
Liberal Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a Hillary Clinton supporter who describes herself as a big Sanders fan, struggled when asked ahead of last month’s debate in Milwaukee if she could point to examples of the Vermont senator’s actually influencing the outcome of legislation, other than the much praised bipartisan Veterans Affairs reform he led as chairman of that committee in the Senate.
‘Um,’ she said, pausing for a full eight seconds while thinking, ‘I’m sure I could. In terms of the things that he talks the most about, is when he was chair of the Veterans Affairs committee. But he actually compromised on a whole heck of a lot. Back in … it’s not coming to my mind right now’…
‘He was not a major participant in the financial reform debates, either in the Clinton administration or in the Obama administration,’ said Michael Barr, a Treasury official during the Clinton and Obama administrations who helped write the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. ‘Broadly speaking, I think he’s been consistent in his politics. But when it came to the substance of financial reform, he just wasn’t that involved’…
‘On the issues that are his bread and butter issues on the campaign trail, he’s certainly altered the conversation, but in terms of the change and the result, I haven’t seen a lot of it,’ said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who serves with Sanders on the Budget Committee and… describes himself as a Sanders fan.”
Turnout falls if Sanders is seen as all hat, no cattle (swung mud that stuck to Beto O’Rourke).
Turnout also falls if Sanders’ support among the Democratic base if social media triggers the press into asking him about matters that force him to pivot away from his core message:
- 1972 “woman masturbates while fantasizing about being raped by three men” essay; description of segregationist George Wallace as, “sensitive to what people feel they need”
- 1985 praise of Daniel Ortega, and statement that Cubans supported Fidel Castro because he “educated their kids, gave their kids healthcare, totally transformed the society.”
- 1994 Crime Bill vote
- 1997 use of the n-word in his book Outsider in the House (and 2016 defense of its usage)
- 2007 interview with Lou Dobbs denouncing bipartisan immigration reform legislation by saying, “I don’t see why we need millions of people coming into our country.”
- 2015 interview with Ezra Klein denouncing sharply raising the level of legal immigration by saying, “that’s a Koch Brothers proposal to do away with the notion of a nation state”
- 2015 decision to storm off the stage and refuse to meet with the Black Lives Matters activists who interrupted him and Martin O’Malley at Netroots
- 2016 sexual harassment of women working on his campaign by men in senior positions
- 2016 and 2017 reporting earnings of >$1 million each year, yet giving 1% to 3% to charity
- 2016, 2018, and 2020 reliance on private jets despite their high per rider carbon footprint
- 2017 campaigning on the ground for Heath Mello, an anti-choice mayoral candidate who sponsored two, and voted for five, separate bills to restrict women’s reproductive rights
- 2018 decision to bring nuclear-capable Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets to Vermont overriding objections made by local citizen groups and environmental activists
- 2019 endorsement of Cenk Uygur, a media personality turned congressional candidate, with a history of using racial slurs and making demeaning comments about women
- 2019 interview with Chuck Todd saying “sex-selection abortions” are “of concern,” and “an issue we really have got to deal with”; his response to Martha MacCallum’s anti-choice “terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth” Fox News Town Hall question
- 2020 campaign ad promoting an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a media personality widely considered to be racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic
This is only a partial list from Bernie Sanders’ 48-year career—a career in which the NRA supported his election, and Sanders repaid that support by voting against background checks in 1993, and voting for bill protecting gun companies from lawsuits in 2003 and 2005. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Sanders’ wife Jane, who was cleared of all charges in the Burlington College scandal, but does appear to have a link to Old Towne Media LLC, the “black box” that “lists no employees,” that billed Sanders the campaign $82,773,463 in 2016. As Eli Clifton and Joshua Holland wrote, “The campaign contracted with a front company-possibly created to obscure who made what off the Sanders movement—and in one cozy arrangement, effectively shared a third-party vendor with a pro-Bernie dark money group… The Sanders campaign itself was a parable about the country it was trying to change.”
Just over half of Sanders supporters they will definitely support the Democratic nominee if Sanders doesn’t win. The majority of the other half have stated that it depends on the nominee. And considering that Sanders supporters were just arrested after protesting at a Biden campaign office in Iowa, it feels like a pretty safe bet that he’s not their cup o’ Joe.
Biden didn’t commit to supporting Sanders if he wins the Democratic nomination. He should have. But the fact that he didn’t is telling. For every one article that decries the “Democratic Party establishment,” for impeding Sanders’ progress, and celebrating his campaign’s promotion of Joe Rogan’s endorsement. there are two public statements by men and women of color who feel as César Vargas wrote, “Welcoming bigots [is] a bad sign of how they’ll govern. Plain and simple… Trying to bamboozle us into thinking [this] is some brilliant move that will introduce and sway tens of thousands of ‘misunderstood’ and impressionable young bigots to Bernie’s movement-therefore beating out Trump. I say the opposite is happening.”
What About Trump?
For those who feel as though Trump is simply too unpopular to prevail regardless of who runs again him, I ask for greater sobriety. Trump can lose the popular vote by 5 million ballots and still win reelection. George W. Bush’s approval rating was falling and his disapproval rating was climbing when he was reelected despite the fact that John Kerry won the women’s vote and his base of support in 2004 looked like Obama’s in 2008. Again, no Democratic Party candidate for the presidency has won the white vote since 1964. Obama may have won election in 2008 by boosting voter turnout among the Democratic base and infrequent voters to its highest level in 40 years. But Obama won reelection by using negative ads to depress Mitt Romney’s turnout with Republican-leaning voters. Not just because Black voters surpassed whites and Latinx turnout went up in swing states.
Trump will run ads to depress turnout with Democratic-leaning voters.
How effective these ads will be depends largely on who the nominee is.
While both Biden and Sanders have immensely loyal bases of support that are indispensable in defeating Donald Trump on an Electoral College map that is already tipped in favor of the GOP by voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other forms of voter disenfranchisement and suppression. History tells us that neither can both turnout low- to mid-propensity voters and fold in the vast majority of the other’s base of support. The starting point we have in any conversation involving them begins in the past. Biden has to explain why he did things like support “welfare reform” and overturn Glass-Steagall. Sanders has to explain why he didn’t do things like resolutely denounce the harassment of women by his hyper-vocal supporters on Twitter, or fight for Medicare for All as a candidate (or supporter of Bill Bradley) in the 2000 presidential campaign when the federal government had a surplus instead of a deficit.
Again, we’ve seen this movie before, in 1972 when the Democratic Party broke midterm turnout records and took control of the House so they could take down a criminal POTUS, only to ignore compelling candidates in the primaries and consolidate their support around the former VP and the candidate who led reform of the nominating process after the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention
Trump’s border wall, Muslim ban, MAGA base, especially white anti-choice, pro-Netanyahu evangelicals, and the beneficiaries of the 2017 tax cut, will turn out for him in 2020. He’s got plenty of red meat for all of them. He’s already advanced attacks on birthright citizenship, including denial of citizenship to some of children of those serving in the military overseas. He just expanded the Muslim ban. Not to mention a “peace plan” designed to help Netanyahu win election on March 3, and boost evangelical turnout. And most importantly, the entire Republican Party that is currently in office is in lockstep with Trump, from the elected and appointed officials with tiny constituencies to every single last member of the Senate.
What About Democrats?
The Democratic Party will never be in lockstep, regardless of who we nominate in 2020.
I want to be as clear and direct as I possibly can be: The purpose of this opinion article is not to criticize Biden or Sanders or those who have donated to their campaigns. The purpose is also not to criticize those who are working for their campaigns as paid staff or volunteers. The purpose of this article is not to convince you to support or oppose candidates like Warren, Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Tom Steyer, or Andrew Yang.
In graduate school, we were given an organizational leadership assignment entailing a high stakes auto race. We were broken into teams and told to review data about our car’s success and failure rates given various environmental conditions, and asked to weigh the political and financial factors pressuring us into participation. The point of the assignment was to learn to disregard any and all variables except those that answered the question, “Will our car run well in expected environmental conditions?” Afterward, the instructor revealed that we were debating a superficially altered case study of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. And his point was made: Not heeding what key data reveal can lead to horrendous consequences.
U.S. history and past election data tell us is that the top two candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2020 are the most vulnerable to losses in the general election because over the course of the over four decades they have spent in public life, they have amassed the largest reservoirs of potentially problematic statements, votes, actions and associations.
U.S. history and past election data tell us we are better off nominating someone who can make this election about the ideas that will best help our country, and not someone who has to expend the majority of their time addressing an endless string of matters from their past.
Every minute Kerry spent talking about the 70s was one not spent presenting his vision.
Every minute Hillary Clinton spent talking about the 90s was one not spent presenting hers.
Every minute the 2020 election becomes about anything other than what we are for —not what we’re against, but the specific things we are willing to work toward— is a wasted one.
As JFK said, “Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Unai Montes-Irueste is communications manager with experience in public affairs, government relations, organized labor, mission-driven nonprofits, community outreach, and public policy. He tweets from @unaimi.
Featured images of Biden and Sanders by Gage Skidmore.