'Electable' or Not, Biden Will Lose
By John Brabender, Published in the Wall Street Journal
August 26, 2019
Democrats will pick a left-wing nominee once his weaknesses become clear.
The Democratic contest for president might seem impossible to predict, but primaries often follow narrative patterns. I saw one classic story unfold up close in 2012 as senior strategist for Rick Santorum ʼs campaign, which ended in a loss to Mitt Romney. This year Joe Biden is the Democratsʼ version of Mr. Romney: clinging to his lead despite little enthusiasm and zealous challengers. Democratic voters will soon decide whether they want to nominate Mr. Biden and risk watching his quest for the presidency end the same way.
Mr. Romney wasn't loved by the Republican base; he was tolerated. Many conservatives didn't believe he shared their values, and he seemed insincere when he attempted to redefine himself as “severely conservative.” They knew this was the same Mitt Romney who previously bragged of being as liberal on social issues as Ted Kennedy and who created RomneyCare, a forerunner of ObamaCare.
Many of Mr. Romneyʼs supporters held their noses and voted for him simply because the media said he had the best chance of beating President Obama. Electability mattered more than ideological consistency or personal appeal. As one voter said in a focus group, voting for Mr. Romney was like eating his vegetables.
The final factor ensuring Mr. Romneyʼs nomination was the number of candidates dividing support from right-leaning voters, the largest voting bloc in the primaries. The race was closer than is often remembered; Mr. Santorum moved ahead of Mr. Romney in the February Gallup poll, and when he bowed out in April he had won 11 states to Mr. Romneyʼs 18. Mr. Romney eked out victories in states like Michigan and Ohio in large part due to Newt Gingrich ʼs grabbing just enough votes. Change those two primary results and Mr. Santorum easily could have won the nomination.
Mr. Biden, like Mr. Romney, is accepted by the Democratic base but certainly isnʼt loved. Voters are skeptical of his newfound progressivism, which he wears as awkwardly as Mr. Romney did conservatism. Mr. Biden has even boasted that he has “the most progressive record of anyone running,” despite his support for the Iraq war and the 1994 crime bill and his opposition to Medicare for All.
Mr. Biden has been unequivocally the front-runner, with national and state polls alike showing his strength—although a Monmouth poll out Monday has him a point behind both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren nationwide. His presumed viability against President Trump and the division of votes among a bevy of true left-wing candidates have been enough to sustain his support.
Yet this is where the plot thickens, because 2020 need not play out like 2012. It would be a massive mistake for the Democratic National Committee, the media or the Trump campaign to conclude that Mr. Bidenʼs nomination is inevitable. In fact, it appears increasingly unlikely, for three reasons.
First, Mr. Biden has diminished his appeal as a challenger to Mr. Trump with subpar live performances, including frequent stumbles on the campaign trail and low energy on the debate stage. Major donors have hedged their bets, and pundits are questioning how he will ever go toe to toe with Donald Trump if he canʼt handle Kamala Harris.
Second, there has been a significant shift in how the money game works. Attracting a massive number of small donors is now more important than megadonor-driven political-action committees. And Mr. Biden so far has been a terrible small-dollar candidate. After initial success when he announced, his online numbers have nose-dived. This trend will keep up as his claim that he is the best candidate to beat Mr. Trump continues to evaporate.
Finally, there is going to be a dramatic reset of the table after candidates begin dropping out. Most of the candidates departing will be to the left of Mr. Biden, and their supporters will likely gravitate toward more prominent left-wing candidates. Eventually they may coalesce around one viable populist-progressive candidate, giving Democrats an obvious option for a brash challenger to Mr. Trump.
When that happens, itʼll be your cue to call your bookie and put your money on the person not named Biden.
Mr. Brabender is a partner at BrabenderCox.