Tuesday night’s big wins for Joe Biden in Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi came with an ironic twist. The voters did not favor the centrist stances of the former vice president. They preferred the “radical” ideals of the candidate he was defeating: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
In Michigan, the delegate-rich state where Sanders has focused his energies in hopes of securing a victory that would renew the fortunes of a campaign that suffered setbacks in last week’s Super Tuesday voting, Biden was ahead by a 53-38 margin with most votes counted. In Missouri, Biden was at almost 60 percent. In Mississippi, he was at 81 percent.
In all three states, according to exit polls, Sanders ran well with young voters and liberals. But Biden enjoyed overwhelming support from African American voters, women, older voters, and moderates.
Even as the campaigns awaited full counts from three Western states where Sanders was doing better—Idaho, North Dakota, and Washington—Biden was claiming victory and reaching out to Sanders backers with a unity message: “I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion. We share a common goal. And, together, we will defeat Donald Trump.”
The delegate count, which Biden led going into the March 10 election, widened substantially in his favor, to a point where cable commentators began discussing “the path” the once and again front-runner now has to a nomination that—just a few weeks ago—those same commentators said was beyond his reach.
The Sanders camp has indicated that it will carry on, through the first one-on-one debate with Biden on Sunday and on to next Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio. But in 2016, Clinton won those four states, and most indications suggest it will not be easy for Sanders to win them in 2020.
So here’s the twist: On the signature issue of the Sanders campaign—establishing a single-payer Medicare for All system that provides health care to every American as a right—57 percent of Michigan voters said they favored “a government plan for all instead of private insurance.” Just 37 percent opposed the Sanders position.
In Missouri, 59 percent favored the government plan.
In Mississippi, 60 percent favored the government plan.
That aligns with results from previous primaries and caucuses.
But this time, the exit polls in several states asked an even more telling question: Does the economic system of the United States work well as it is, need minor changes, or need a complete overhaul?
Sanders, a democratic socialist, has called for bold structural changes in how the economy works—as did Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who left the race last week.
In Michigan, 44 percent favored a complete overhaul—a statistical tie with the 47 percent who favored minor changes.
In Missouri, “a complete overhaul” won with 48 percent, over 43 percent for minor changes.
In other words, the ideas that Sanders has popularized were running better than Sanders himself. As former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed explained on Tuesday night, “Let us not forget that ideas that Bernie has been running on for the past four years plus, these ideas are ascending: government-run health care, fundamentally changing our economy.”
Ascending. But not winning.
In an election season where overwhelming majorities of voters say the elusive quality of “electability” matters more than shared values and policy positions, Biden has been identified—by pundits and party insiders—as the candidate who is better positioned to “beat Trump.”
The Sanders campaign has always disputed that claim. But Tuesday evening’s results pointed to a clear conclusion: Substantial numbers of voters who have been convinced by Sanders on the issues have not been convinced to vote for Sanders.
Sanders had hoped to avoid this disconnect, framing his 2020 race as the completion of a mission that began in 2016. As he launched this year’s campaign, the senator ticked off the ideas that
were considered by establishment politicians and mainstream media to be “radical” and “extreme”—ideas, they said, that nobody in America would support. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Too radical. Guaranteeing health care to all as a right, not a privilege. Too radical. Creating up to 15 million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure with a one trillion dollar investment. Too radical. Aggressively combating climate change. Too radical. Reforming our broken criminal justice and immigration systems. Too radical. Not taking money from super PACs and the rich. Too radical.
Then, with a broad smile and a lilt in his voice, he said,
Those ideas that we talked about four years ago that seemed so very radical at that time. Well, today, virtually all of those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people and have overwhelming support from Democrats and independents—and they’re ideas that Democratic candidates for president to school board are now supporting.
Sanders referenced the ideological shift not to brag about the past but to suggest a prospect for the future. The theory from the start of the current campaign was that the senator’s second bid would close the deal. If he won the battle of ideas the last time, then surely he would win the battle for the nomination this time.
The math seemed right in February, when Sanders tied for first in the Iowa caucuses, won the New Hampshire primary, and then swept Nevada. But nothing has gone according to plan since the senator lost the February 29 South Carolina primary to a resurgent Biden. Sanders fell short of expectations on Super Tuesday and began to trail in the delegate count that he had expected to lead going into the critical contests of mid-March.
And in the most critical of those contests, while his ideas were winning, Sanders was having a very hard time making the calculus work.