I remember when I began to feel dread that Donald Trump would win in 2016. It was when I saw Hillary Clinton shimmy in the first Presidential debate. Trump was managing to attack her from both the left and right while scoring laugh lines, and Clinton met his comically outrageous behavior with so many looks of smug superiority. I shouted angrily at the TV: “Even Joe Biden would be able to beat this asshole!” Yet after the debate, all the media outlets agreed that Hillary Clinton had handily dispatched Trump. Everyone I knew agreed. We all continued believing that Trump could never actually attain power.
Discussions about electability can feel like a cacophonous echo-chamber where nobody actually knows what they’re talking about. The New York Times told us that Clinton’s election was 91 percent guaranteed. It was 99 percent according to Princeton statisticians. Then she lost. We should have known not to trust the nerds: In the primary, we had been told that she was the inevitable nominee, and then she nearly lost that. It’s tempting to throw the entire “electability” discussion out the window.
But you can’t actually escape the discussion of electability. The stakes are too high to back a loser, and nobody wants to get behind something that’s destined to fail anyway.
So how do we judge who is “electable?” Is Joe Biden, who persists as a weak but consistent national polling front-runner, the best bet to beat Trump? We can’t trust the predictions and prognostications of pundits—from ostensibly data-driven but politically disastrous to the simple regurgitation of liberal elite preferences, lots of hot air on the subject of electability has proven to be utterly useless.
What we can do instead is take a fresh look at political dynamics, trying to set aside our assumptions and look clearly at the available facts. That’s how this magazine was able to anticipate Hillary Clinton’s disastrous loss in 2016. And, so far, we have seen some very troubling signs that a Joe Biden candidacy will fail to defeat Trump, delivering an increasingly craven Republican Party back into power for another four years at this crucial juncture in human history.
These serious warning signs for Biden’s prospects include:
- Shockingly weak fundraising
- An uninspiring message that promises nothing to working families
- A low-energy campaign with no volunteer base
- A damaging corruption scandal which undermines his core message
- An inability to campaign vigorously
The most bottom-line of traditional political measures in America’s cutthroat money-dominated electoral politics, is just that—money. And Joe Biden has been shockingly lacking in fundraising. As of the third quarter fundraising period, he had raised just $37.6 million, barely more than Kamala Harris. He had only $9 million cash on hand, trailing Bernie Sanders by $33.7 million cash-on-hand. In year end totals, Biden came in third, behind Pete Buttigieg and far behind Bernie Sanders. His lack of fundraising success is nothing less than stunning for a former two-term Vice President and one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history. What’s going on when an establishment favorite, hogging the lion’s share of the media attention, with decades of personal connections to the wealthy and powerful, is out-raised by a previously unheard-of college-town mayor with no accomplishments and even fewer prospects of winning the presidency? When you take a look at the number of individual donors—perhaps an even more meaningful marker—the picture for Biden looks far worse. Biden runs fifth, leading in numbers of donors in no state in the nation except for his home of Delaware. Fundraising has been traditionally one of the best predictors of electoral success. So why is a candidate with all the advantages imaginable, including media and elite support, failing to attract donations?
Any successful national campaign has a clear and compelling message. Barack Obama’s was “Hope and Change,” not only promising improvements in the lives of everyday Americans, but also casting himself as a “transformational’ candidate who would bring out the best and highest values in the nation. (Obama’s promises were mostly abandoned, but no matter. They still got him the votes.) Richard Nixon promised to put Black people and Hippies in their place in the name of the “Silent Majority,” while Ronald Reagan promised a similar return to national greatness with “morning in America” after the so-called “national humiliation” of the defeat of the American Empire by a Vietnamese peasant army. Trump’s Make America Great Again was less of a departure from than a recapitulation of these successful Republican strategies (it was directly lifted from Reagan), promising white Americans and those who would like to be considered White Americans a boost in status and a share in national prestige. Each of these campaigns promised to change the nation, and deliver something to voters, either a material improvement or an improvement in their social status.
So what is Joe Biden’s message? Besides constantly reminding people that he was “Obama’s sidekick” once, it seems to be the idea that Biden will return us to “Normalcy and Respectability.” Biden’s recent ad made the seemingly ridiculous case that only Biden would return dignity and grandeur to the Oval Office. But this message is eerily similar to the one disastrously employed by the Clinton campaign in the closing months of the campaign in 2016. Endlessly focusing on Trump’s crass and crude demeanor, his “ineligibility for the office,” Clinton failed to offer much of a hopeful vision for how she was going to change the country for the better at all. Hillary Clinton essentially ran as the candidate of the status quo, and lost in the states where it counts. Joe Biden is doubling down on a similar strategy, one which fails to answer the basic questions of politics: What will you do for me? How will this make my life better? (If years of organizing have taught me anything, it’s that if people don’t believe you’ll do something about the issues they are most upset about, they’re not going to show up when you need them.) A return to the status quo is hardly going to excite millions.
The previous two red flags about Joe Biden’s candidacy—his anemic fundraising, and his failure to offer a compelling vision of how he’ll make your life better—presage the third giant glaring red-flag about his candidacy: the striking lack of enthusiasm for his campaign. By any measure of participation and excitement for his campaign, Joe Biden is flagging: in volunteers, in turnout for events, in individual donors. While other candidates hold rallies of thousands and tens of thousands, Biden holds rallies in the hundreds or dozens. And if you question the power of massive rallies, just ask yourself: What was the hallmark of the previous two Presidents? Obama captured the imagination of the nation (and even the world) with massive rallies where he deployed his soaring inspirational rhetoric. A signature of Donald Trump’s campaign was the large hate-rally, mocking immigrants, the disabled, women, and political opponents, all allowing Trump to bask in the adoration of crowds of thousands. President Obama defeated first a powerful entrenched front-runner (Hillary Clinton), and then a nationally adored war hero (John McCain), depending crucially on a well-organized ground operation harnessing the intense enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Is there an army of Biden activists going door-to-door, holding house meetings, begging their grandparents, friends, and neighbors to Vote Joe? No, there’s not.
A successful presidential campaign has energy and enthusiasm. As much as those of us who believe in human decency would like to think otherwise, Donald Trump has sparked enormous enthusiasm in much of the country, increasing turnout among new and unlikely voters. Trump’s ability to gin up enthusiasm and increase turnout became a potent force even in the Democratic-leaning year of 2018, where the 45th President’s campaigning mobilized huge numbers of non-traditional midterm voters in Florida to save sniveling frat-boy Ron DeSantis from impending defeat against Andrew Gillum, and helped topple popular incumbent Senators in Indiana and North Dakota. The fact that Joe Biden’s campaign has, after several months, failed to produce much enthusiasm whatsoever is deeply troubling for his prospects of unseating an incumbent President with a very passionate following.
Perhaps the biggest development in the course of the campaign so far, though, to really call into question whether Joe Biden is a good bet to take on Trump is Ukraine and the Hunter Biden scandal. Despite all the attempts by mainstream media outlets to discount it, the fact remains that Joe Biden’s son Hunter accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars ($50,000 a month!) from a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was personally conducting U.S. foreign policy with that nation as a sitting Vice President. It’s not clear what Hunter really did to earn that $50,000 a month. This fact, of course, has taken on central relevance after the House Democrats impeached the president for holding U.S. foreign aid hostage in exchange for dirt on … Joe Biden.
I can already hear the million excuses, justifications, qualifications, and counter-examples: “But Trump is using the Presidency to promote Ivanka’s clothing line and enrich himself and his children’s business interests” and “Jared Kushner is a corrupt smirking brat doing way worse!” and “But there’s no evidence that Joe Biden changed U.S. foreign policy because of the large sums his son was taking.”
None of these things matter. What matters is that the Democrats have risked making the entire election about Ukraine, and the Biden family has an obvious corruption scandal of its own—involving Ukraine. And the more Democrats try to explain the scandal away, the more they will reinforce the basic facts: The Biden family took money from a corrupt Ukrainian company at the same time Joe Biden has admitted to pressuring the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor investigating that company. Cue Donald Trump employing his best and favorite tactic—pointing out that his opponents are hypocrites who have done the very thing he is accused of —and not being wrong. MSNBC will continue 24/7 coverage of impeachment, the Biden campaign will promise a Return to Respectability and Normalcy, and Trump will make a joke of the whole thing by pointing out that it’s all about covering up Hunter Biden accepting dirty money from Ukraine. Does that sound like a winning campaign to unseat an incumbent President? Accusations of misconduct against Trump will be hopelessly muddled by counter-accusations against Biden, and voters will once again throw up their hands saying “they’re both the same.”
I hate to point out the last red flag, but we’ve got to face it: Joe Biden’s increasing inability to campaign vigorously. There have already been reports of Biden “sundowning”; campaign staffers are not scheduling events or interviews after dusk when Biden’s energy level and mental acuity are alleged to take a nosedive. Biden has overall held many fewer campaign events and interviews and press availability than other campaigns. This is troubling for obvious reasons. It’s another echo of the failed Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign, where Trump successfully targeted Clinton’s lack of stamina, and where Clinton spent much of August doing fundraisers in the Hamptons rather than campaigning in the midwest. Donald Trump has already lampooned Joe Biden as “Sleepy Joe.” A candidate unwilling or unable to travel all across the country to personally meet thousands of voters, unable to really mount an aggressive campaign, is not a candidate we should count on to defeat a serious far-right threat to our nation and the nations of the world.
Despite the glaring signs that a Biden nomination will mean a second term for President Donald Trump, it’s not really much of a surprise that many regular Democratic voters and casual followers of politics would associate a two-term Vice President to the highly popular Barack Obama with the comforting memories they have of the Obama presidency. That’s the basis of Joe Biden’s “Return to the Past” campaign message. But Joe Biden’s unremarkable vice presidential tenure and his over-eagerness to name-drop Barack at every moment—when he remembers Obama’s name, that is—opens him up to yet another effective line of attack from Donald Trump. Trump will mock Biden as a goofy sidekick, a Sancho to Obama’s Don Quixote. And this emasculating attack will work for a simple reason: Americans trust a leading man, not a sidekick.
There is one good reason left to think that Joe Biden would do well in November: the general election polls. Biden does well in these… for now. But there is one other Democratic candidate who also consistently beats Trump in head to head matchups—that’s Bernie Sanders.
And while Bernie Sanders has been erased from news coverage about the race for much of the campaign, his strong performance in polls against Trump isn’t the only argument in Bernie’s favor. In fact, for every weakness we’ve identified for Biden, Bernie has strength. He has received more donations from Americans than any presidential candidate in history at this point in the campaign. He has a very clear message for how working families’ lives would be better under a Sanders Presidency (I’m sure most of us can rattle off what Sanders stands for: Healthcare as a Human Right, Raising the Minimum Wage, Tuition Free College, Rebuilding our Crumbling Infrastructure). The campaign has the most volunteers and the largest rallies and campaign events of any candidate, he has no real scandals to speak of, and he’s shown a remarkable ability to campaign tirelessly, with more events than any of his competitors at an intense pace which would exhaust even a much younger person. For every single serious red flag about Biden’s campaign, Bernie’s 2020 campaign has shown real fortitude.
Despite being the only candidates who consistently defeat Donald Trump in the polls by wide margins, the top two candidates for the Democratic nomination are polar opposites in many ways: Joe Biden has a record which will haunt him, backing the Iraq war, supporting trade agreements that helped corporations move high paid unionized jobs to countries where workers toil for pennies an hour in sweatshop conditions, serving as a principal architect of mass incarceration, along with a bevy of other sexist and racist acts and betrayals of the working class in service of the wealthiest in society. In contrast, Bernie Sanders has a remarkably principled and consistent record over four decades in public office: He has distinguished himself as the United States’ only national political figure committed to fighting for the poor and the working class before all else.
And that gives Bernie Sanders a major advantage over Trump that Joe Biden will never have—the credibility and authenticity to stand up to the political elite’s marauding attacks on the American people—and to have poor and working Americans believe him. Only a candidate with this deep authenticity can withstand being painted a liar and a hypocrite by Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate for President who Americans believe says what he means.
If Joe Biden is indeed a much worse candidate than Sanders to face Trump in the general election, as I think is abundantly apparent, why does virtually the entire media and political elite act as if the opposite is true? The answer to that is clear too: Bernie Sanders is a consistent critic of both the mainstream press and the Democratic party establishment. But his antagonism with those dismally regarded sectors probably actually endears him to the voters we need to reach in Wisconsin and Michigan. And, as we mentioned at the beginning, the media’s predictions have already been revealed in the past to say more about their own prejudices than objective reality.
The question of who can win, and who is going to win, is incredibly important in the primaries. Not only are many primary voters just trying to pick the best fighter for November, but predictions of guaranteed victory lead to a powerful pile-on effect. Some of the Democratic Party’s most powerful institutional bases—the mega-unions NEA, AFT, AFSCME, and the SEIU—lined up behind Clinton early in 2015, helping to cement her appearance of “inevitability” just as Sanders surged in the polls. While Biden’s weakness so far has kept many of these players on the sidelines, there will be enormous pressure to back a candidate as the actual voting begins.
So what kind of candidate do we want to put up against Trump? A man, like Joe Biden, with serious appearances of corruption? A man who nobody wants to give money to? A man with tiny rallies that put people to sleep? A man who nobody wants to volunteer for? A man who can’t give interviews past 5:00 p.m.? A campaign which promises America that “nothing will fundamentally change”? Do we really want a candidate who has reversed themselves on every issue, who will be painted as weak, a hypocrite, a liar, and a fool?
For those of us who think it would be a disaster for Trump to be re-elected, we’ve got to face facts—a Joe Biden nomination will mean a second Trump term. But we’re in luck—we’ve got not only a more electable candidate, but a better candidate, and his name is Bernie Sanders.