Two different strains of virus hit the financial markets in recent days: One was the coronavirus; the other, a Bernie Sanders virus. COVID-19 is a slow-onset bug; the Bernie one was immediate and dramatic. The corona variation, coupled with fear of its potential effect on supply chains and the world economy, triggered massive stock-market losses a month ago and something of a roller coaster since. A fear among some investors of Sanders winning the Democratic nomination and pulling the political conversation in a socialist direction might have created gyrations as well. Indeed, the markets recovered some when his nomination began to look less inevitable.
But it wasn’t just markets that were concerned about the Bernie bug. When Sanders says the party establishment is out to get him, he is not being paranoid, it’s quite true. At this time last week, the vagaries of the Democrats’ proportional-representation system for selecting delegates appeared to give Sanders a real chance, if not a probability, of building up a potentially insurmountable delegate lead on Super Tuesday.
What a difference seven days makes. The shifts in polls, election results, momentum, and the makeup of the field over the past week has been extraordinary. The last time I remember the electorate shifting this much over a short time was the five or six days leading into the 1980 general election, when President Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan were locked in a very close race. On the night before the election, on Air Force One, Carter was informed by his press secretary Jody Powell that the election was effectively over. Presidential pollster Patrick Caddell (who died a year ago last month) had seen Carter’s numbers go into a free fall over the weekend, telling Powell, “it’s gone.” The election turned into a 10-point landslide.
As someone who watches elections and political trends for a living, the events of the last week or so have left me simultaneously vindicated and humbled. The former stemmed from the reality that while the Democratic Party was united in its commitment to unseating President Trump, there was a major split between a pragmatic majority and the somewhat smaller group of ideologues primarily populated by supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. My assumption was that the 60 percent in the center-left, establishment-oriented wing of the party would never go along with nominating either Sanders or Warren, that the race would boil down to one candidate from each wing, with the larger, more pragmatic wing ultimately prevailing. While many conventionally wired Democrats had preferences for the nomination, above all else, they wanted someone who would beat Trump.
Yet as their side remained badly splintered among four more center-left candidates while Sanders gradually consolidated the other wing, the establishment went into panic mode. By Monday, just after Biden’s Saturday South Carolina victory, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg announced that they were dropping out of the race and endorsing Biden. Mike Bloomberg followed suit Wednesday morning after the Super Tuesday results were known. While all three might well have been inclined to stay in the race a bit longer, the pressure to get out and not risk the nomination going to Sanders forced their decisions.
In Super Tuesday voting, we saw many voters shift away from their first-choice candidates like Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, toward Biden. It was reminiscent of the tactical voting we often see in European parliamentary systems. The result was a Lazarus-like comeback for Biden.
Where I was wrong was the who and how. I was convinced that Sanders or Warren would lose one-on-one against a more centrist candidate; it just looked like it would not be Biden. His candidacy sure looked dead.
Since the Iowa caucus effectively began in 1976 with Jimmy Carter’s win, every Democratic nominee came in first, second, or third in Iowa, then first or second in New Hampshire. To see Biden clear the field after finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire was, well, surprising. In the RealClearPolitics average of major national polls, Biden, who entered the race last spring with 41 percent of the vote, dropped as low as 17 percent on Feb. 17, less than three weeks ago.
There had been other ominous signs for Biden. One might think that a well-liked candidate who had served in the Senate for 36 years and then as vice president for eight years to a still-very popular president would have no problem raising money, yet Biden did. Obviously a lot of Democratic donors were either holding back or not digging very deeply into their pockets to help him out.
It is also true that online fundraising benefits highly ideological candidates. Having a million people sending a candidate $20 a month, as Sanders does, adds up in a way that is hard to compete against, even if a rival’s donors max out at $2,800 per person.
The other warning sign was that voters, who clearly knew and mostly liked Biden, kept shopping, not buying. Stories about Biden’s son Hunter earning very generous compensation on the board of a Ukrainian energy company hurt him as well, though among Democrats it was less from a feeling that either Biden did anything illegal. Rather, they saw this story as a cudgel that the pro-Trump side would bludgeon him with every day of a general-election campaign.
Prior to his first debate, I was bullish on Michael Bloomberg, who ran an exquisitely well-managed (and free-spending) campaign. But he hadn’t debated in 11 years and it showed. That severely undermined his electability argument, which was a pillar of his campaign.
But it all came down to fear of Sanders that made the establishment do something it had resisted for the better part of a year—pull behind Biden. With the nomination now a binary choice between Biden and Sanders, the establishment will be opening their previously closed or parsimonious checkbooks.
This nomination race is not over; indeed, with all of the twists and turns already, it’s hard to imagine it suddenly becoming predictable. The economy is the most obvious variable that, looking ahead to the fall, could deprive Trump of the tailwind that has helped his approval rating climb about 4 points since summer.
But Democratic politicos are now a couple of moves down the chess board. For some, the fear of Sanders winning the nomination has diminished and the hope of having a strong ticket and a good downballot year is up.
The New York Times’s incomparable Jonathan Martin reported this week that Gov. Steve Bullock is about to jump into a challenge to GOP incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, something that Bullock has been resisting for over a year. Martin’s report dovetailed with an email I got earlier Wednesday from a friend in Montana that the rumor was that it was about to happen, that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer cranked up the pressure and virtually gave Bullock an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Probably not the offer from The Godfather, but don’t be surprised if you see Bullock with his arm in a sling (half joking).
With the party seemingly pulling behind Biden, maybe it is premature but Senate Democrats are suddenly becoming bullish, after what they had thought would be a near-death experience.