Why did Joe Biden do so much better in Michigan against Bernie Sanders in 2020 than Hillary Clinton, who lost state, did in 2016? I think the answers to this say something, maybe obvious, about the voters’ preference for Biden this year and their support for Sanders in 2016.
First, here are some reasons, based on exit polls and my windy speculations, why Biden didn’t necessarily do better against Sanders than Clinton did. He did not do significantly better among black voters. Blacks went 68 to 28 percent for Clinton and 66 to 28 percent for Biden. He did better, but not super significantly, among older voters. Voters 65 and over went 69 to 30 for Clinton and 73 to 21 for Biden. It was mainly that Sanders did worse.
There aren’t polls to show this, but I would guess that voters this year didn’t see Biden better prepared for the presidency than they saw Clinton in 2016. Voters valued her experience and intelligence. They may value Biden’s experience, but I doubt that they see him as super-smart. Some Biden supporters I know hold their breath every time he opens his mouth. And policy-wise, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference. Maybe Clinton was a little more liberal on economic and social issues. (In Michigan, she did much better than Biden among “very liberal” voters.)
Another non-reason: Sanders did not run a better campaign in 2016. He ran virtually the same campaign. And Biden did not run a better campaign than Clinton. He only started campaigning in Michigan right before the primary and had no field offices in the state.
So what are the big factors?
1) Voters put electability before anything else. In 2016, with the Republican field apparently in tatters, they were complacent about the Republican challenge in November. Biden was the anti-Trump. You could see that even more clearly in Super Tuesday states like Massachusetts where he didn’t spend a minute or a nickel campaigning. I don’t think voters were scared off by Sanders’ policies per se, but by the thought that other people would be scared off in November. For instance, in Michigan, the Democratic voters supported the idea of a single-payer health care system by 58 to 36 percent. That’s Sanders’ signature program. But of the 58 percent, they only went for Sanders by 59 to 36 percent. So over a third of those voters chose Biden anyway. That’s even clearer if you look at Mississippi, where Sanders didn’t even make the 15 percent threshold, but where 62 percent of the voters favored Medicare for All.
2) This is related to #1. Voters had good feelings about Biden that they did not have about Clinton, so they were willing to vote for him even if they had doubts about his capabilities. Polls ask a “cares about” question that is the clue to whether a candidate has reached voters. Clinton lost to Sanders 56 to 40 percent in 2016 on “cares.” Biden bested Sanders by 48 to 40 in 2020. (Bloomberg, if had survived Warren’s onslaught in the debates, and remained competitive after Super Tuesday, would have had trouble with this question and with getting the nomination.)
3) Biden’s big margins over Clinton in 2016 – and I think it had something to do with #1 – were among white college graduates and particularly white women college graduates. In 2016, college grads backed Sanders over Clinton by 53 to 43 percent. In 2020, Biden won these voters by 55 to 41 percent. In 2020, Biden won white women college graduates by 59 to 35 percent. (I can’t find exit numbers for this in 2016, but Clinton actually lost white women by 51 to 47 percent.). Biden’s vote margins also increased as you went up the income scale. I strongly suspect – and you see this in which counties he won – that these were white voters in upscale counties like Oakland outside of Detroit. They were – as often noted – the voters who elected the center-left female Democrats – the Spanbergers, Flectchers and Slotkins — to the House in 2018. They don’t like Trump, to say the least, and will be critical to defeating him in November 2020.
So to summarize: Biden’s victory was certainly due to his margins among blacks and older voters, but many of these voters went for Clinton in 2016. The real burst in support was among upscale whites. Biden’s coalition looks a lot like the one Ruy Teixeira and I described 18 years ago in The Emerging Democratic Coalition: minorities, women, and professionals (the latter used as a catch-all category for the college-educated in many better-paid service sector jobs). To win in November, he will have to win 40 percent or so of the proverbial white working class voters in the Midwest and maintain high margins among blacks and Hispanics. If Biden doesn’t visibly stumble in the next months, I believe he has a better chance of putting together a winning coalition than Sanders did. He also has a better chance of stemming the outflow of older voters to the Republican Party, which began to accelerate in 2010. That could be important in Florida.
One more observation: A lot of the pundits, notably the never-Trump neocon Republicans, are cluck-clucking over the electorates’ repudiation of “the left.” But it is very hard for new ideas to penetrate the two-party system. If America had a multi-party system, “the squad” and Sanders and a lot of the House Progressive Caucus would be in it, and there would be a center-left party and perhaps center-right and rightwing parties, and the leftwing party would get in this election 20-25 percent of the vote, and be able to build up its support over the years the way rightwing populist parties have done in Europe.
In government, a leftwing party could act in coalition with the center-left party and get part of their program adopted, and if there were another big crisis, perhaps they could get a plurality and govern. But as things stand, electability is a genuine concern in both parties, and particularly in 2020 in the Democratic party, which has made it difficult for a candidate like Sanders who identifies himself as a “democratic socialist” to make much headway. The fact is that most people over 45 grew up during the Cold War and (with some exceptions like me and my wife) still identify democratic socialism with totalitarianism. I am astonished and pleased that Sanders has done as well as he has done, but I also think that in the interest of beating Trump, he has to make a graceful exit if next week’s primaries go as expected for Biden.