Pete Buttigieg was supernaturally articulate and had a killer organization that allowed him to finish first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, but his momentum led nowhere.
Elizabeth Warren was a deadly debater who had a plan for everything — except for winning any primaries.
Amy Klobuchar was also a skilled debater with Midwestern roots and tons of experience, but none of that did her much good.
And, finally, Bernie Sanders had a passionate base, lots of money from small donors, and a signature issue — Medicare-for-all — that polled strongly with the base. He won New Hampshire and was the front-runner for a week, but he no longer has a path to the nomination after another crushing defeat on Tuesday.
The winner is going to be Joe Biden, who had just about everything going against him. He is old, inarticulate, uninspiring and gaffe-prone. He doesn’t have a radical agenda. He isn’t a new face; he has been involved in national politics longer than the median American has been alive. He had little money or organization (Sanders raised nearly three times more money in January). He finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, and since 1972 no candidate has won a major party’s nomination without finishing at least second in one of those states.
A year ago Biden was expected to win. Two weeks ago he was expected to lose. Now he is all but certain to be the nominee after the most surprising turnaround in the history of primaries. Although future history books will treat Biden as the inevitable winner, he was anything but. His triumph owes to a series of contingent events, from Rep. James E. Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) endorsement to Bloomberg’s debate gaffes.
Ultimately, I suspect, the outcome can be ascribed to the simple fact that most people like “Uncle Joe.” It’s a little dispiriting to admit that presidential elections, like student council elections, are essentially a popularity contest, but it’s true. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation found in a 2016 study that 84 percent of men and 90 percent of women say it is important that they like an officeholder they support.
Think back, and likability is usually the key to presidential electability. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had terrible favorability ratings, but a Rasmussen poll in June 2016 found more voters would rather have a beer with Trump than Clinton. Barack Obama was more likable than Mitt Romney and at least as likable as John McCain. George W. Bush was more likable than Al Gore. Bill Clinton was more likable than Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush, who in turn was more likable than Michael Dukakis. Ronald Reagan was more likable than Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale. Carter was at least as likable as Gerald Ford.
Richard Nixon was a major exception — he was less likable than Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern. But Lyndon Johnson was more likable than Barry Goldwater. John F. Kennedy was more likable than Nixon. Dwight D. Eisenhower was more likable than Adlai Stevenson. Harry S. Truman was more likable than Thomas Dewey. And Franklin D. Roosevelt was more likable than any of his opponents.
In this Democratic race, the outcome was predicted by a CNN-University of New Hampshire poll of likely New Hampshire voters all the way back in July 2019. It found that although Harris and Warren — then seen as front-runners — had high “favorability” ratings, only 4 percent found Warren the most “likable” candidate and only 5 percent said the same of Harris. The leaders in “likability,” at 20 percent each, were Biden and Sanders. It might be sexist and unfair, but it’s no coincidence that Biden and Sanders are the top two finishers in the primaries.
Given how important this metric is, it’s astonishing how seldom it’s measured. Pollsters often ask whether voters have a favorable view of candidates and whether candidates share their values, but seldom about likability. But using favorability as a proxy, it’s striking that in a recent CNN poll, voters have a far more favorable impression of Biden (+4) than of Sanders (-10).
There’s a good reason Trump, whose own favorable/unfavorable rating is -11 in that CNN survey, would rather face Sanders. Biden is Trump’s worst nightmare: a Democrat who is far more likable than he is. Based on that metric alone, Biden has a strong chance of prevailing in November.