Biden is showing strengths at this stage of the campaign that Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 nominee, did not. And he is pushing Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, back into his core vote among the young and the left end of the Democratic electorate. Far from expanding, the Sanders electorate is shrinking.
What should alarm supporters of Trump is Biden’s success in rural and small-town counties in Michigan that Clinton lost to Sanders in 2016. Trump, whose 2016 victory margin over Clinton in Michigan was just over 10,000 votes, cannot afford any deterioration of his support in these areas that formed his base.
Just as disturbing for Republican strategists is a shift away from Sanders and toward Biden among Michigan’s white voters, upscale and blue collar alike. In 2016, Sanders carried white college graduates by a decent margin and whites without college degrees by even more. On Tuesday, both groups swung to Biden.
And if Trump’s backing among his core groups is in jeopardy, Democrats are energized in their opposition to him not simply from discontent but from outright anger. For example, among the voters in Michigan, better than 6 in 10 told the Edison Media Research exit poll that the Trump administration made them angry. Almost all of the rest said they were dissatisfied.
Thus, in primary after primary, Democratic voters have made clear that ridding the nation of Trump matters more to them than any particular issue. This was true again in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi, and the voters who prioritize finding someone who can oust Trump flocked to Biden.
Whatever his shortcomings, Biden does not appear to arouse the same passionate opposition that Clinton did. That at least some of the hostility to her was rooted in sexism is inarguable. A long campaign by Republicans to undermine her certainly took its toll.
The upshot is that when Clinton narrowly lost the Michigan primary to Sanders four years ago, 40 percent of those surveyed by exit pollsters answered “no” when asked if she was “honest and trustworthy.” Only 11 percent offered this negative verdict on Sanders, and that was one key to his upset victory.
But without Clinton to run against, Sanders’s candidacy is much weaker. It’s now clear from the primaries so far that many of Sanders’s 2016 ballots came from voters who did not necessarily agree with his progressive-populist political views but were motivated by hostility to Clinton.
It should be said that Biden’s backers were not of the ecstatic sort — just 3 in 10 among Michigan’s voters said they would be enthusiastic if Biden won the nomination. But another 4 in 10 said they would be satisfied if he were the nominee — and just 1 in 10 said this would upset them. The vast outpouring for Biden over the past two weeks is thus an affair of the head at least as much as of the heart. It reflects a quiet judgment that Biden is a safe choice who will not alienate voters Democrats need against Trump.
“Tonight, we are a step closer to restoring decency, dignity and honor to the White House,” Biden said in Philadelphia, where he was speaking after canceling a rally in response to the rising coronavirus threat. He spoke not boastfully but calmly and deliberately. In so doing, he underscored what he hopes to portray in the coming weeks as his strengths in contrast to Trump’s flailing in the face of a global health emergency.
Tuesday’s outcomes present Sanders with several quandaries. There are still plenty of delegates to fight for, and Sanders hopes that his own strength (or Biden’s weaknesses) in this Sunday’s debate will offer a chance to turn the race around. But the upcoming primaries are not promising terrain for Sanders.
He may thus soon have to decide if his candidacy is now more about advancing his issues than winning the nomination. And he will also have to make a judgment as to whether he should campaign hard against Biden, or begin to turn to the task of pulling the party together for the coming battle against Trump. It now seems clear that a majority of Democrats wants him to choose the second path.