Who should the Democrats have nominated for President?
After the election, some commentators were quick to point out that Joe Biden is likely the only Democrat who could have defeated Trump. After all, the results were far closer in key states than the recent polls had led us to believe.
Defeating Trump, after all, was a national emergency. All hands had to be on deck. Thank God he was defeated. Could we have risked any other result with any other candidate?
To be sure, after running a mediocre primary campaign, Biden ran a nearly flawless general election campaign. The task Biden had, however, was easier than Trump’s. Trump was behind the entire campaign. Biden had to simply not make any mistakes and he would be elected. Mission accomplished.
Indeed, back in February, Quinnipiac University, a B+ rated pollster according to 538, found that Biden was beating Trump 50–43. Trump’s net approval rating was -10. This is certainly not the position an incumbent president wants to be in as he starts his re-election campaign. And according to the polling averages of both 538 and Real Clear Politics, Biden held onto that lead throughout the campaign. Indeed, the numbers only got worse for him as the campaign wore on.
In fact, the only time when Trump actually seemed to make any progress was in April and May, right as the coronavirus was leading to the first lockdowns. At that time, the country was likely willing to give Trump the chance to show leadership. His failure to do so resulted in another collapse of his numbers shortly thereafter.
That same poll back in February, however, showed another interesting result. It showed that every Democratic candidate — Bloomberg, Sanders, Klobuchar, Warren, and Buttitieg — every one of them was beating Trump, most by about the same margin or better as Biden.
Could Warren and Sanders have been attacked as socialists? Could Buttitieg have been attacked as too friendly to LGBTQ people? Could Klobuchar have been attacked as being too supportive of Black Lives Matter? Of course, but Biden was subjected to these attacks as well. They only worked among the people who had already decided to vote for Trump.
Did Biden raise an impressive amount of money in his campaign? Yes. But Biden’s average contribution was just $44, coming from 5.5 million contributors. Would most of these contributors have also contributed to Sanders, Warren, or any other candidate challenging Trump? Probably.
Indeed, a Morning Consult panel revealed that people voting for Biden were voting against the other candidate. In fact, Biden supporters were twice as likely to be voting against the other candidate than Trump voters, who mostly voted for their candidate.
In other words, the Democratic vote was largely anti-Trump rather than pro-Biden. Likely, so was the financial support Biden received. As a result, any Democratic candidate would have likely been the beneficiary of this support.
So why is the narrative developing that Biden was the only candidate who could win the general election? Because the advocates of that view, including William Kristol and Jennifer Rubin are never Trump Republicans who wanted a more moderate candidate to vote for. As a result, this election has become another opportunity for the center-right and moderate Democrats to complain about the progressives. It’s become another opportunity to argue that Democrats need to nominate moderates rather than progressives.
Are they correct? Maybe. But the data from this election really don’t support that argument. After all, Biden’s victory, despite Democratic claims about his mandate, was far from smashing. He barely won the key swing states he needed, and his coattails were nonexistent. And as we have shown, he was the beneficiary of a massive anti-Trump vote, not an enthusiastic pro-Biden vote.
In fact, before the election, enthusiasm for Trump was so high and for Biden so low that some commentators fretted that the “enthusiasm gap” could lead to another surprise Trump victory. In truth, it almost did. It is true that Biden received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, but Trump was number 2 on that list. And Biden would have lost the election had he received just 81,139 fewer votes in Nevada, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. That’s a smaller change on a percentage basis than Trump’s margin of victory in 2016.
Yes, it’s true that Biden won a huge number of votes. But in our system, the total number won really doesn’t matter. Just ask Hillary Clinton or Al Gore.
Contrast Biden’s victory with his boss’s in 2008. The enthusiasm Obama generated led to a veto-proof majority in the Senate for the Democrats. Even though Obama was a moderate, his race made voters on both the left and the right believe that a vote for him was a progressive vote. None of that enthusiasm was evident in this last election.
Indeed, the 2020 race was known more for its stability than anything else. Little changed from before the time Biden was nominated until election day. It turns out that the coronavirus crisis had little impact upon the race. All that mattered was the fury people felt against Trump.
So am I glad that Biden was the nominee and that he defeated Trump? For sure. Do I buy that he was the only Democrat who could have defeated Trump? The evidence really doesn’t support that argument. As a result, the debate as to whether Democrats are better served with progressive candidates or moderates remains unsettled.