Joe Biden

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Analysis

Did the Left Misread the 2020 Democratic Primary?

In a matter of weeks, moderate Joe Biden has gone from dead-on-arrival gaffe machine to undisputed front-runner. But progressive activists think they can still bring him down.

Continue to article content

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ.”

For a huge swath of political observers, from pundits to Democratic activists, it was obvious that Joe Biden was going to flop. Before the former vice president entered the race, he was written off as a relic. He was too old (a problem for a party pulsating with millennials and Generation Z). He was too undisciplined (a flaw exposed during his short-lived presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008.) And he was too wedded to a bygone era of bipartisanship—a centrist out of step with rising progressive stars like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.

“Biden is opposing where the center of energy is in the Democratic Party,” Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid said.

Story Continued Below

“I think there’s going to be a lot less air in the room than it looks like for Biden. The reality is that Biden’s time is passed,” predicted Democracy for America chairman Charles Chamberlain.

“We’re in a new moment. This is not Joe Biden’s moment,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said.

But it was Joe Biden’s moment, and it sure still seems to be Joe Biden’s moment. He has dominated the polls since he entered the race last month. Before Biden announced, he was at a measly 29 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, only 6 percentage points ahead of progressive favorite Bernie Sanders, who not all that long ago looked like a genuine co-front-runner. Since then, Biden has surged to 40 percent, kicking Sanders down to the mid-teens. In the past week, Biden has posted intimidating double-digit leads in polls from the early-contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His dominance of the Democratic Party’s moderate wing has helped stall the rise of Mayor Pete Buttigieg while also squeezing the ability of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris from positioning themselves as more viable progressive alternatives to Sanders.

It’s not just Biden’s rising poll numbers that suggest that the activist left is out of step with most Democrats; it’s the ideological makeup of the entire Democratic Party. Fifty-six percent of Democrats self-identify as “moderate” and 9 percent even embrace “conservative,” according to an April poll from the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. While leftist activists pine for the end of the legislative filibuster to grease the skids for partisan legislation, a December GW Politics poll found that 66 percent of Democrats said they prefer elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” over those who “stick to their positions." Only 36 percent of Republicans said the same.

It’s too early to declare this the year of anything, whether progressive change or centrist Bidenmania. But Biden’s commanding lead has left the party’s resurgent left with a question: What to do if it never stops being Biden’s moment. Despite circulation of Biden's 1970s opposition to school busing and Anita Hill's rejection of his apology for his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his appeal crosses nearly every demographic group, with the mild exception of voters under 35; he still leads with young voters, just not by as much as with other groups.

And Biden’s lead is at least in part because of his relative moderation and not in spite of it. Even voters who disagree with him seem to be drawn to his centrism. Polls from CNN and Monmouth University found that Democratic primary voters put the ability to defeat Trump ahead of ideological purity when picking a presidential nominee. It’s true that a recent poll from ABC and the Washington Post seemed to show the opposite result, with 47 percent of Democrats saying they preferred a candidate “whose positions on the issues come closest to yours” and only 39 percent said they favored one “most likely to defeat” Trump. But the cross tabulation showed that it was largely moderate and conservative Democrats who wanted an ideologically like-minded candidate, while liberal Democrats tilted toward the more electable candidate. Democrats in both ideological camps, it seems, are nervous about a nominee too far to the left.

Beyond the polling data, there were other indicators that the Democratic base wasn’t quite ready for the revolution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps throwing brushback pitches at Ocasio-Cortez and her allies without suffering any significant loss in popularity among Democrats. Despite all the attention around single-payer health care, there are fewer House Democrats co-sponsoring such legislation in this Congress than in the last Congress, even though there are more House Democrats, suggesting that many elected Democrats aren’t feeling pressure from their base to check the democratic-socialist box.

In theory, political tacticians confronted with this kind of data would recalibrate, reassessing their strategies for how to get the Democratic moderate majority to overcome its bout of Biden fever. Yet, when I contacted a number of the leading progressive activists who had previously dismissed Biden’s prospects, they saw no need for Plan Bs (at least, among those who were willing to respond.) Biden’s initial strength was always expected, they said. They maintain that the progressive nature of the Democratic electorate will soon make itself known, to his detriment.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the Obama-Biden administration,” said Chamberlain, whose progressive outfit, Democracy for America, grew out of Howard Dean’s insurgent 2004 presidential bid. “The problem is Obama’s coattails only last so long for Joe Biden. And as people start to investigate his track record, and continue to see how Joe Biden campaigns,which we’ve seen before, isn’t very good … then I suspect we're going to see the wheels come off the cart.”

Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, argued that it’s too early to conclude that Biden’s history of not-so-progressive positions won’t be his downfall. “There’s this issue of penetrating with actual voters,” Green said.

He is looking forward to seeing Warren confront Biden about the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill, which Biden supported and Warren has long believed was friendly to credit card companies. “Given how many millions of people are suffering with … debt at the hands of banks and credit card companies,” Green said, “let’s see him try to defend that,” as well as his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, “point/counterpoint in front of millions of people.”

Chamberlain expects Biden will be hammered on race issues during the debates: “I think you should expect that Bernie Sanders is going to hold him accountable for his racist rhetoric during the push for the crime bill. He’s going to hold him accountable for opposing school desegregation, which is something Bernie was arrested trying to stop.”

Green disputed the importance of the number of Democrats who identify as moderates and conservatives. Ideological “labels are overblown,” he told me, citing his group's polling of Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats: “While people might not use the word liberal or progressive as a kind of self-label, 80 percent of primary voters want Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, and 70-something percent want the 'Green New Deal.' A very high percentage support 'Medicare for All.' …. When the issue debate actually is litigated, even self-professed moderates will instinctively support the Elizabeth Warrens of the world who advocate ideas like universal child care that benefit their family.”

Green said his group’s think-tank arm, the Progressive Change Institute, plans to conduct “some very deep-dive polling testing the back-and-forth arguments on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal” to prepare supporters for the toughest attacks and arm them with the best rebuttals.

Yet anxiety about the Trump administration seems to be making Democrats more cautious and less radical. Progressives “have misread the mood,” Wason Center political scientist Rachel Bitecofer told me. “The current mood of the Democratic electorate is ‘terrified.’ When people are terrified, they seek safety and become risk-averse.”

Bitecofer warned progressives not to view the relative success of Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign as a harbinger for 2020. “Turnout in 2016 for the Democratic primary was low because Democrats were unmotivated and uninterested after eight fat and happy years not having their sensibilities attacked during the Obama years,” she said. “Many simply assumed Obama would be replaced by eight years of Hillary. As such, the 2016 electorate was slightly more ideological than I expect the 2020 electorate to be. I am expecting extremely high turnout in this primary. That increase will come primarily from moderates and liberals, not from the progressive base.” Bitecofer defines “progressive” as further to the left than “liberal.”

Five months ago, when Al Gore’s former running mate, Joe Lieberman, said he didn’t believe Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would be the future of the Democratic Party, she memorably shot back, “New party, who dis?” After the Biden surge, progressives should be less sure that they own the party.

So far, they are not ready to concede. They believe that Trump has given Democrats a hunger to dream big on policy and to exploit America’s polarization, not temper it. It’s indisputable that such a faction exists among Democratic primary voters. But if the left is wrong about its breadth, it will take more than a good clapback tweet for them to figure out what to do next.

Jump to sidebar section