The 2020 struggle for the White House is shaping up to look a lot like the 2016 contest. Once more the Democratic field is narrowing to Bernie Sanders and an establishment Democrat who lays claim to Barack Obama’s legacy — this time Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, rather than his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. And now, as before, the establishment looks to have the edge, though not as much of an edge as last time.
Sanders is far from beaten and the prospect of a contested convention still looms. Democrats should stop to think for a minute, however, about what a rematch in the primaries might mean for a rematch in the general election. Clinton, the establishment Democrat, vanquished Bernie in 2016 only to lose to Trump that November. Will a second establishment Democrat, one who had a much harder time in the early primaries, be a stronger champion against Trump? Hillary Clinton had biography on her side: she could have been the first female president. Joe Biden’s biographical claim for the record books is that he would be the first president to turn 80 in office. Octogenarians are not quite the electoral force that the women’s vote is.
But Biden undeniably had a very good Super Tuesday, blowing past expectations and winning states like Massachusetts and Minnesota outright. Everyone expected him to do well in Southern states — with the possible exception of Texas — after his easy victory in South Carolina last Saturday. Biden has also routed Sanders in the liberal North, however. Sanders’s underwhelming popular-vote wins in New Hampshire and Iowa should have been a clue to his weakness: he could prevail against three or four moderates splitting the vote, but once the anti-Sanders vote was consolidated (while the left remained split by Elizabeth Warren), he would lose. The consolidation happened more quickly than Sanders, or pundits like me, ever expected. In 10 days, the race’s momentum entirely reversed.
Biden owes his political life to Warren twice over now. Her demolition of Michael Bloomberg in the candidate debates crippled the only candidate with the clout to rival Biden for the anti-Bernie vote. If Warren hadn’t taken Bloomberg down, he would have split the anti-Bernie vote with Biden, and the Democratic establishment might have been destroyed.
So Biden and the party elite owe Warren for that, as much as for whatever she subtracted from Bernie’s vote totals on Tuesday. It’s lucky she didn’t drop out between Saturday and Tuesday like the moderate candidates Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Her third-place finish in her home state on Tuesday might suggest she made the wrong decision, but perhaps having the establishment’s gratitude will more than compensate for the humiliation.
Something momentous has been happening with Sanders, however. His critics say he hasn’t expanded his base since 2016, and it’s certainly true that he has not delivered the new voter turnout he’s been promising. But even in states he loses, like Virginia, he wins big among voters under 45 and he wins big enough among Hispanics in places like Nevada and California to seize victory. The importance of the black vote to Biden has received plenty of attention, but the Hispanic preference for Sanders has not. Young Democrats and Latino Democrats may want a very different party from the one Joe Biden is prepared to lead — a party whose economic policies are more in line with Sanders’s.
Joe Biden has been a lucky man these past few days. He’s caught every break a once struggling candidate could ask for. If his luck seems him through to November, perhaps he’ll even win the rematch between an establishment Democrat and Donald Trump. Like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War. Biden supported Nafta; Clinton’s husband signed it into law. The policies that Trump ran against in 2016 are personified by Biden just as well as they were by Clinton. The difference now though is that Trump has a record of his own on these issues that he has to defend — the merits of the new USMCA over Nafta, and the merits of a foreign policy that has involved sending more troops to Iraq again, even if it hasn’t involved any fresh invasions on the scale of the 2003 war that Biden voted to authorize.
Will Trump voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere feel that the President has delivered what the candidate promised in 2016? The country is prosperous, and that might be enough. But Trump’s appeal four years ago was rooted in the idea that America was no longer as great as she should be, and Trump was the man to return us to greatness.
Trump was an insurgent on the offensive; playing defense this year may be a very different game, especially if he can’t draw the sharp distinctions between the political insiders and outsiders that he drew when he ran against the Republican establishment and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Complicating Trump’s effort will be his own campaign, which promises to be more professional and less imaginative than the ramshackle yet successful campaign he ran four years ago. Republican campaign pros who gave Trump a wide berth even after he won the nomination in 2016 are eager to work for him now — these are specialists in how to lose elections, and even a losing campaign for an incumbent president looks great on a résumé. You can charge top-dollar for that. The fleas and ticks that found Trump’s populist blood poisonous in 2016 have developed a taste for him since he turned out to be a winner.
A rematch between a populist Trump and an establishment Democrat is one thing; a matchup between a more typically Republican Trump and an establishment Democrat is something else entirely. Of course, even if he loses to Biden in November, in 2024 Trump will only be as old as Biden is today. A rematch of the most literal kind could be in the offing… But for now, Biden still has to worry about Sanders, who like Trump — and like Biden himself — will not go gentle into that good night.