The 2020 Democratic Primary, Part 2: Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

The state of Illinois makes it very easy to vote. Rather than stand in line on election day, you can vote absentee, via mail, or early with no excuse, with early voting allowed for two weeks prior. ID is not required, either.

All of this is to say I voted for Hillary Clinton well ahead of Election Day 2016, both because I really wanted to see her win – more so than I did John Kerry in 2004 or Barack Obama in 2008 – and because I was terrified of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. I early voted a straight Democratic ticket despite having, only 8 months prior, cast my primary ballot for Bernie Sanders.

(Clinton had won the Illinois primary that March by a narrow margin. Although she had carried Chicago, she was badly outrun elsewhere in the state, to the point that even her landslide margins among the Prairie State’s significant black vote were barely enough for victory. She then carried it easily in the general election, albeit by a lesser margin than Obama had in either of his runs.)

After I early voted, I stopped by at a Popeye’s Chicken on the NW side of Chicago to get lunch and went back home to eat and continue working. When I opened my laptop up, I saw a notification that James Comey had reopened his investigation into Clinton’s email server. It was Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, and Election Day was only 96 hours away. Despite the confidence and civic pride I felt at my early vote, I now dreaded the backlash and the possibility of a loss.

While many elaborate explanations have been offered for what the 2016 election was Really About (trade, immigration, industrial policy, etc.) it was ultimately just about Hillary Clinton.

“Likable Enough”

My contradictory feelings toward Clinton – all-in for her against Trump, very against her in the primary – sort of captured the uniquely polarizing nature of her candidacy – even among Democrats! While the right-wing was never going to cross-over to her in significant numbers, the intraparty tensions in the Democratic Party of 2016 meant that she struggled mightily both to win the nomination and to rally the party’s base in November.

Bernie Sanders, a gadfly who never formally became a Democrat, won almost half the pledged delegates in the 2016 primary despite starting off with no name recognition or money and going up against the most famous woman in the world. That’s crazy! But it wasn’t necessarily an endorsement of his agenda. Most of all, it was an endorsement of him as Not-Clinton.

Sanders won easy victories in the Western states that had bucked Clinton in 2008, while also adding the Rust Belt states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the Left Coast other than California (where he nevertheless came within 7%), portions of Appalachia, and most of his home turf in New England. These areas all shared large populations of white working class voters, many of whom are likely no longer even Democrats. They went hard for Sanders in 2016, but mostly in protest, it seems.

For example, Sanders won easily in West Virginia, and leftist publications like Jacobin interpreted this as the white working class getting on board with socialism. The notion of an ancestrally Democratic state like WV swinging back over to the party after years of GOP dominance – but only in response to an avowedly socialist campaign – is as nostalgic and romantic to the modern American left as the attachment to outmoded 20th century tactics like canvassing , which I discussed in the first part of this series.

But mostly, it was just conservative and moderate Democrats giving a big thumbs down to Hillary Clinton, whether because of sexism or reservations about her record.

How do we know this, other than the fact that many of the states Sanders carried in 2016 ended up voting GOP against Clinton? Well, without getting to into the weeds, his 2020 campaign has fallen off mightily from its 2016 heights, losing or barely winning many of the states where he ran strongest in 2016:

  • He upset Clinton in Michigan by crushing it in rural areas of the state; this year, he might not even win a single county in the Wolverine State.
  • He won New Hampshire with a bare 26%, the lowest ever in the history of that primary, after getting over 60% in 2016.
  • He will probably have dropped out by the time Wisconsin, one of his most substantial victories in 2016, even votes.

Basically, Bernie 2016 was two things: 1) a strong core of young and very liberal supporters and 2) a massive sink for anti-Clinton votes. He outlasted the other also-rans in the D primary that year because of #1, but it was #2 that took him to the brink of the nomination. The anti-Clinton bloc was so strong that I feel confident saying even Lincoln Chafee, the soft-spoken Republican turned Independent turned Democrat turned Libertarian, whom I once ran into at a Starbucks in Providence, could have racked up a bunch of primary and caucus victories had the race come down to him and Clinton. Barack Obama was on to something when he sarcastically said Clinton was “likable enough” in one of the 2008 debates.

The absence of Hillary Clinton from the 2020 election meant that the Sanders 2020 campaign needed a new blueprint – but it never got one.

What Went Wrong?

An early article about Sanders 2020 by Edward-Isaac Dovere outlined the weird strategy of the campaign, which boiled down to somehow maintaining that strong core of support in a highly fractured field and coming away with a victory despite only getting 30% of the vote. Basically, a plurality victory.

At the same time, the campaign talked about how it needed unprecedented turnout from unlikely voters to win. Taken with the above point about pluralities, these strategies seemed to indicate that Bernie 2020 was scared of the Democratic primary electorate and needed to basically win through a trick – i.e., some combination of there being too many candidates in the race (all of them splitting votes), and a surprising turnout that would lead to Sanders vastly outperforming his polling.

In terms of the fractured field, it sort of worked through the first three contests. Sanders basically got a draw with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa, won a narrow victory over him in New Hampshire, and then won by bigger margin in Nevada despite only getting 33% of the vote overall. But then Joe Biden’s massive South Carolina win led to rapid consolidation. Most of the former Buttigieg and Klobuchar voters went to him, as did those who had flirted with voting for Mike Bloomberg. Once the race became Sanders vs Biden, Bernie was doomed, if only because Biden doesn’t have the unique liabilities that Clinton did.

Turnout was never enough to lead Bernie to the types of sweeping victories his campaign likely imagined. The alarms should have gone off right after Iowa, in this regard. Despite raising $100 million dollars and knocking half the doors in the entire Hawkeye State, the Sanders campaign still lost to Pete Buttigieg, who mostly got earned media coverage and ran just a few TV ads. In New Hampshire, Bernie volunteers knocked a majority of all the doors there but likely would have lost outright had Amy Klobuchar not destroyed Pete Buttigieg at the final debate, lowering his numbers. Combined, those two got over half the vote.

Nevada seemingly went to plan, but Biden actually outran his poll numbers and won black voters by double digits – that, too, should have sounded the alarm that the Sanders campaign was in trouble. Black, moderate and suburban voters were waiting to consolidate behind a not-Bernie candidate, and they did so in South Carolina. In a way, the 2020 primary ended up being a reverse of the 2016 one, with an anti-Sanders bloc being a huge but not decisive force shaping it.

Why the GOP 2016 Primary Was Different

Perhaps the Sanders campaign imagined winning the primary in a similar way to Trump 2016. Trump won a lot of early states with only 30-35% of the vote, while Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich split what amounted to a majority of the vote. Had two of those latter three dropped out before Super Tuesday, a la Buttigieg and Klobuchar in 2020, Trump might have been stopped, but it still would have been close due to his broad appeal across the GOP primary electorate.

Sanders 2020 was a very different beast from Trump 2016, and not just on policy grounds (obviously). First, he never really got to the 35% level Trump did, instead winning with 26% and 33%. His support was never as broad either, instead being concentrated in white and Hispanic voters under 50. And most of all, he wasn’t the choice of the party’s dominant faction – whereas Trump was the favorite of elderly conservatives (the GOP base), Bernie was not the choice of suburban moderates or older black voters, who between them now form the D base in many populous states.

Essentially, the GOP establishment could not have easily stopped Trump in 2016 due to his popularity with voters and the inability of his rivals to take collective action. In 2020, the Democratic establishment had the voters on its side, and the non-Bernie candidates were more than happy to defer to Biden, in a way that GOP candidates had not done for Ted Cruz in 2016.

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