The Democrats’ Durable Dichotomy

It was a big day for Joe Biden, and a disappointment for Bernie Sanders. Mike Bloomberg got a sweeping win in American Samoa as a return on his massive spending. He’s cut his losses and endorsed Joe. Elizabeth Warren is on her way out, the only question is whether she will endorse Bernie. And then there were two (Tulsi Gabbard doesn’t count).

Much of the analysis the morning after naturally focused on Biden’s stunning turnaround, first in South Carolina, then on Super Tuesday. But, looking at the state-by-state results, it is striking that neither candidate achieved an actual majority in most states. Biden did it in Alabama and Virginia; Bernie must have been disappointed to get only 50.7 percent in his home state. The other winning percentages ranged from 33 to 43. At this writing, Bernie leads in California with 33.9 percent, to Biden’s 25.1.

Given the proportional allocation of delegates, neither candidate will be able to sweep all before him in the remaining primaries. We are headed for a brokered (that is, negotiated) convention, because neither will have a first ballot majority. On the second ballot the “superdelegates” (elected officials for the most part) will vote and could tip the balance to Biden. That’s because among the party establishment (as Hillary famously blurted), “Nobody likes him (Bernie).” That may be overstated, but there truly is no love lost between Bernie and the Clinton/Obama/Biden establishment. Bernie’s chance at the nomination thus depends on a first ballot victory, and he’s not going to get there.

So the impasse really tilts to Joe. But this is where statesmanship should come into play. Obviously, to beat Trump and retake the Senate, the Democrats will need all hands on deck. They can’t afford to have any substantial constituency so angry that they stay home or defect to a third party. The centrists have controlled the party since the McGovern debacle of 1972, but the leftists are still there, and party needs them.

This imperative gets even stronger as we take a longer view. The two key pillars of Bernie’s campaign are youth and Hispanics. These demographic sectors will grow, while the older voters who are Biden’s first pillar will, well, die. And Biden’s other pillar, African Americans, are not growing as fast as Hispanics. Bernie’s coalition—and his program—are the future of the party.

If the establishment backing Biden is as smart as I hope they are, they will already be thinking along these lines. Bernie and his supporters must be acknowledged and honored. The platform is the place to start. Many Biden supporters are already to the left of the Obama/Biden record. The party needs to stake out progressive positions on climate change and health care. It must commit to a substantial reduction in economic inequality. It must articulate a humane immigration policy. It must commit to confronting racism in its many forms. It must seriously and thoughtfully confront the many dysfunctions of American industry and agriculture, of our infrastructure and education. These are all points where the differences between Biden and Sanders are tactical, not strategic. And, astutely defended, these platform planks will prove popular in November.

Another way of building unity would obviously be the vice presidential nomination. The nominee should ideally be younger, progressive, female and Hispanic. AOC comes to mind, but is probably too polarizing. Maybe the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Polling consistently shows that either Sanders or Biden can beat Trump, both nationally and in swing states like Pennsylvania. The chances are good to retake the Senate and hold the House. But all of this will require a unified and mobilized party.


John Peeler is the former chairman (now retired) of the Political Science department at Bucknell University.