Biden’s Electability Only Works if There Is an Election

Joe Biden leaning on a podium.
Barely lifting a finger. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

The Wisconsin primary had to be the end for Bernie Sanders. The logic of it was inexorable. Here was the definitive Trump 2016 state, where, as dozens of diner-safari retrospective stories told us, an alienated electorate had failed to rally to Hillary Clinton, tilting the national map ever so slightly but decisively into the red. The dream of the Sanders revolution was the dream of rousing those Wisconsin voters to his side, to energize a new coalition of the young and poor and hopeful in the name of a better democratic future.

When that didn’t happen, it was time for Sanders to go. It was essentially impossible, as Sanders said in his livestreamed concession speech, for him to overcome Joe Biden’s lead in the delegate count.

There was, however, a puzzling aspect to this mathematical consensus: The returns from Wisconsin won’t be released until the week after Sanders’ concession. Even when those numbers come out, they’ll be nothing but the debris from a voting process that imploded under the strain of the pandemic and the malice of the Republican-controlled state and federal supreme courts—tens of thousands of mail-in ballots thrown away or never delivered to voters in the first place; 97 percent of polling places in Milwaukee closed; the thousands of people who turned out anyway, risking their lives to stand in line. No one could plausibly describe what took place in Wisconsin as a democratic election.

As such, it was the perfect conclusion to Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic nominating contest. A decisive nonevent wrapped up a primary season in which nearly half the states never had any say before it was over, and the majority of people who did vote were focused on trying to guess which candidate someone else would be most likely to want to vote for. In the swirl of anxiety over the question of electability against Donald Trump, the basic act of electing someone got pulled under and drowned.

This could be written off as the complaint of someone who wanted someone else to win. Before Biden even entered the race, I said I would vote for him against Trump if I had to, but that his candidacy was a sad joke and a fantasy for people who couldn’t get past wishing 2016 never happened. Facing the real disasters of 2019 going into 2020, as the climate and the exploitative economy overheated with the help of a self-sabotaged federal administration, I believed—along with many, and without any convincing contradictory evidence to this day—that Elizabeth Warren was better prepared to do the job of being the nation’s chief executive than anyone else in the field, and probably than any other candidate in my lifetime. At the same time, I thought Sanders’ message of radical solidarity and moral faith in democracy might be powerful enough to transcend the hopelessness of the political status quo. It was thrilling to imagine casting a ballot for either one in November.

Instead, I won’t even get to cast a ballot for one in June. There have been plenty of sharply argued assessments explaining why the Warren campaign faltered after a strong autumn, and why the Sanders campaign fell behind Biden after surging ahead: that both suffered from strategic and tactical missteps, mistimed messages, fatal stubbornness by the candidates. Many of these savvy verdicts on why the more inspiring candidates deserved to have lost the race were delivered by people who had not, themselves, cast a vote that mattered, and would never get to.

Voters—or people who think of themselves as voters—have learned to live with this. Every primary plays out by nonelectoral means to a great or greater extent, even in ordinary times. An organizational, fundraising, and narrative-building contest winnows the field even before Iowa holds its caucuses or New Hampshire votes, and then the first handful of states set the terms of the narrative for the states that follow. If you don’t live in the fortunate early states, then more often than not, the shape of the contest is determined before you get a chance to weigh in. From Ed Muskie’s snowflake speech through the Dean Scream to Jeb Bush’s “Please clap,” the early stages tell a story about who the winners and losers were destined to be.

But the 2020 primary didn’t even make sense as a spectator event. By most meta-electoral standards, Joe Biden was on his way to a quick, crushing loss. His name recognition and generic support in national polling utterly failed to win anyone over in the face-to-face politicking of Iowa or New Hampshire. His institutional endorsements meant nothing in Nevada. His fundraising was feeble, especially next to the mass-scale small-donation machine Sanders had built. He was visibly weary, stumbling over his delivery of the simplest lines, devoid of any identifiable message or purpose beyond the personally and nationally impossible goal of turning back the calendar to how things were before.

And then, in a span of less than four full days, he was the nominee. Loyal Democratic voters came out heavily for him in South Carolina, and in a startling spectacle, the rest of the field, save Sanders and Warren, folded immediately and lined up to endorse him—specifically, explicitly, as the candidate whom people believed their neighbors would vote for to beat Trump. Nominating an avowed socialist or a woman with a reformist agenda, whatever promise either embodied, risked distracting voters from the single, binary question on the November ballot: whether or not to get rid of the man currently in the White House.

Sanders won California on Super Tuesday (a state where a lot of votes had been cast before people witnessed the weekend of mass concessions), but Biden won most everything else, and by larger margins than expected. None of his substantive weaknesses had gone away. But they didn’t matter anymore. He kept on winning, piling up margins in states where he hadn’t even campaigned. The headlines grew smaller. Warren—who’d been holding out in the hopes of getting one chance to pit her mental agility and command of detail against Biden in a small-stage debate March 15—gave up. It wasn’t the kind of contest where people were expected to change their minds anymore.

Soon after Warren was out, it stopped being any kind of a contest at all. The coronavirus outbreak shut down rallies and public appearances; the March debate arrived as a stilted two-person show in a closed studio, with the moderators sitting across the room. The distant, absentee campaign Biden had been running became the only campaign possible. Arizona, Florida, and Illinois voted, but Ohio postponed its primary, and then the rest of the schedule slipped from the rails, with hardly a complaint.*

None of this noticeably affected the way the story of the election kept playing out. Democrats had been suspending disbelief all along, one way or another—from the moment the Iowa caucus results failed to appear on time and defied all efforts to reconstruct them. Everyone knew the engine of democracy was missing key parts, if you chose to lift the hood. It was one of the things on the list to be dealt with after the bad president was cleared away in November.

And so the standard end-of-the-line leaks and rumors began surrounding Sanders: If he couldn’t win Wisconsin, this would be it. The approaching election was the subject of a raw partisan power struggle—with the Republican legislature and courts trying to force in-person balloting to go forward in the midst of a public health catastrophe, and the Democratic governor trying to prevent it—but the fact that Wisconsin would be a sham election in a disaster zone was somehow irrelevant to its status as the final word on the 2020 nomination.

From one angle, this certified Biden as the unity candidate the party had been seeking all along: a nomination by unanimous consent, with everyone agreeing to skip the hassle of counting votes. From another, though, it was a terrifying rebuke to the whole premise of Bidenism: Biden was always the candidate of those who wanted simply to hang on till November—the so-called institutionalists who were afraid of the institution of impeachment, who didn’t want to test the strength of the Constitution against an unfit and lawless president and his party. Why force a reckoning with the depth of the damage to the republic, when you could simply profess faith in the ability of democracy-as-usual to heal itself? Let the voters decide, they said.

But November is still seven months away, and the vote is already breaking. The candidate of normalcy is the presumptive nominee. But who can count on a normal election?

Correction, April 13, 2020: This post originally misstated that Georgia had voted with Arizona and Florida; Georgia’s primary was delayed, and Illinois voted with Arizona and Florida.