Some of that might be because Sanders is running against someone this time who is less polarizing — even on the left — than Hillary Clinton. Nearly half — 49 percent — of voters had a favorable view of Biden in the most recent CNN poll. Clinton’s favorability in March 2016 was 43 percent in CNN polling.
White men and white working-class voters in states like Michigan and Missouri backing Biden suggest that at least some in these groups may have voted for Sanders in 2016 more because they were anti-Clinton than because they were pro-Sanders.
As The Washington Post’s John Wagner reported:
In 2016, Sanders won white voters over Clinton by nine percentage points in Missouri and 14 points in Michigan. This year, Biden won whites by 23 points over Sanders in Missouri and by 10 points in Michigan, according to preliminary exit poll data. Sanders underperformed his 2016 showing among both white college graduates and those without four-year college degrees after winning both groups four years ago. Biden won whites without college degrees by a 18-point margin in Missouri and by seven points in Michigan; he won white college grads by 28 points in Missouri and 14 points in Michigan.
Sanders also lost Idaho, a predominantly white state that he carried overwhelmingly in 2016.
Accusations of sexism were prevalent during the 2016 campaign as an explanation for Clinton’s loss in the general election. Seeing Biden perform so much better than Clinton in some states could make it hard to disprove that gender was a bigger factor for her loss than political ideology. Ideologically, the former vice president is more closely aligned with the former secretary of state than with Sanders. Biden and Clinton worked closely together in the Obama administration and campaigned on continuing the objectives of that presidency.
White men swung more than 20 net points tonight from 2016 away from Sanders and toward Biden via @CNN exit polls:— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) March 11, 2020
White men in Michigan:
'16: Sanders 62%, Clinton 37%
'20: Sanders 49%, Biden 46%
White men in Missouri:
'16: Sanders 61%, Clinton 38%
'20: Sanders 45%, Biden 49%
Clinton had a “white male” problem in 2016 — one she attempted to address by picking Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) as her running mate, much to the chagrin of the voters of color who make up much of the base of the left.
White working-class voters
Clinton often struggled with white voters who did not attend college. The Yale Law graduate who attended a women’s college in New England was often viewed by her critics as “out of touch” and too far removed from the challenges and worldviews of the white working-class voters who ultimately chose Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire from New York City. But Biden’s success with white working-class voters suggests Democrats might be able to do better with this group in November with a ticket led by a candidate whose identity and image is more rooted in the blue-collar culture that he often cites on the campaign trail.
Michigan’s white working-class voters — many of them men — backing Sanders in 2016 gave the impression that these voters might be more liberal politically on labor issues than they actually were. But in backing Biden on Tuesday, these voters communicated that if given a chance, they are more likely to support the centrist politics of the former vice president than the revolutionary worldview of a Democratic socialist in Trump’s America.
In 2016, Sanders performed well with voters in rural counties — most of them white — who voted in the primaries of Michigan, Missouri and Idaho. But the lawmaker lost all of those states Tuesday to Biden. Trump went on to win rural voters in the general election, but Biden’s performance Tuesday — Sanders lost all of Michigan’s rural counties — gave Democrats confidence to believe they could possibly put a dent in with these voters.
While Biden’s own roots aren’t rural, his often folksy manner — his frequent usage of “malarkey” seems intended to communicate that he’s not a member of the urban elite — can endear him to rural Americans or at least voters whose politics are less connected to urban centers. While he did not perform well in the Iowa caucuses, one of his most high-profile endorsements came from someone whose performance in these states’s rural counties did — former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Ultimately, Tuesday showed one of the top motivators for liberal voters is a desire to defeat Trump in November.
And supporting Biden has shown that many Democratic voters have confidence the former vice president has more of a chance than Sanders to win support from independent voters, suburban voters and other groups that previously backed the president. As the race moves forward, there will be great interest in seeing if that trend continues.