One reason it was so widely assumed Sanders would take a significant delegate lead on Super Tuesday was that we had a direct analogue — Republicans nominated Donald Trump in 2016 when he jumped out to a lead by winning plurality victories against a fractured field. If Republicans couldn’t unite to blunt Trump, why would Democrats fare any better against Sanders?
That the Democrats managed it speaks to the different mood and dynamic of the party compared with the GOP in 2016.
Four years ago, Republicans loathed their party establishment and had turned their backs on their immediate past president, George W. Bush, who left office saddled with an unpopular war and a devastating financial crisis. Sanders wants to foment a revolution against the Democratic establishment. This resonates with his supporters but isn’t a widespread sentiment within the party.
As Peter Beinart points out in The Atlantic, Bush and his signature initiative, the Iraq War, weren’t popular with Republicans, whereas Barack Obama and his signature initiative, Obamacare, are popular with Democrats.
This made it possible for Biden to run on restoration rather than revolution and find an audience, especially in South Carolina, where many voters told exit pollsters they wanted a return to Obama policies.
It also meant that, as a general matter, pillars of the party establishment hadn’t been discredited. The biggest moment for Biden over the past two weeks was the endorsement of a 14-term congressman and member of congressional leadership who has the credibility to move votes in South Carolina. A jaw-dropping 61 percent of voters said Clyburn’s endorsement was important in their decision.
After Biden’s smashing victory in South Carolina, the party fell in line amazingly quickly. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar got out and endorsed Biden, and former candidate Beto O’Rourke did the same. Buttigieg endorsed after reportedly talking to Obama. It was a collective action of the sort that Republicans couldn’t manage in 2016.
This was in part because there was no one suitable to rally around. Jeb Bush’s association with the two past presidents of his party was a liability because it played into the charge of dynasty and any establishment mobilization on his behalf would have looked untoward. Besides, Jeb Bush had the poor early showings of Biden without the reservoir of support among a key base of voters, like Biden’s strength among African Americans.
It was Ted Cruz who was the only viable alternative to Trump. But no one wanted to come to his aid. He wasn’t a longtime party fixture considered fondly even by his competitors, but an ambitious newcomer who had alienated his colleagues and frightened the establishment. Nor was anyone prepared to defer to him as an elder statesman who had earned “his turn.”
On top of this, Trump scrambled ideological categories with his heterodox candidacy and even piqued the curiosity of elements of the GOP old guard. Sanders, in contrast, catalyzed a straight left vs. moderate fight and occasioned the uniform fear and loathing of the Democratic establishment.
Finally, Republicans wanted to throw caution to the wind. The last two candidates identified with the establishment, John McCain and Mitt Romney, had lost, and the Republican victories in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014 had delivered less than the party’s base had expected. It was a time for risks and for strong medicine — because, really, how could things get worse?
The mood of a swath of the Democratic Party is the opposite — extreme nervousness about messing up its opportunity to defeat Trump, leading to a cautious, practical-minded focus on electability.
What will be the upshot of the party’s effort to stall Sanders? That we don’t know. Party establishments can fail two ways. They can be ineffectual and they can be wrong. Republicans failed to stop Trump in 2016, at the same time that fears he couldn’t win the election proved unfounded. Meanwhile, Democrats tilted the playing field toward Hillary Clinton and succeeded only in elevating a historically weak candidate particularly ill-suited to running against Trump.
This year, the Democratic establishment may yet again, in much more dire circumstances (Sanders never looked like he was really going to defeat Clintonin 2016), thwart Sanders. Yet the party is throwing itself into the arms of a septuagenarian with serious performance issues for lack of a better alternative. We won’t know if this is a smashing success or grievous mistake, born of desperation, until November.