March 4, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
White Working Class Voters Chose Biden
And other lessons from Super Tuesday.
The campaign press corps is again using the word “comeback” to describe Joe Biden’s super performance on Super Tuesday. This, as you know, is wrong. Biden was always the favorite of the Democratic Party’s base. The Democratic Party’s base is black. That black Democrats in southern states voted for Biden was entirely predictable. That it was entirely predictable means no self-respecting journalist should be surprised.
But acting surprised in the absence of good reason for being surprised has injurious outcomes. It gives citizens the false impression that early nominating states have more clout than they do. It shrouds the role of delegates in the party’s nomination process—meaning the number of delegates won, not states won, is the only thing that matters. Worse, it overlooks the intense anti-Donald Trump feeling among Democrats of color. Voting for Biden wasn’t an expression of their policy views. It’s an act of survival.
For the first time in my life, affluent white suburban voters are practicing black politics.
Politico’s Jack Shafer tweeted last night, as the results were coming in, that “African Americans seem to be spurning democratic socialism.” That’s not quite right. The question isn’t whether black Americans embrace universal health care, higher wages, affordable housing, quality education and so on. Black history is a history of fighting, bleeding and dying for these and similar things. The question isn’t about policy. It’s about politics. Black politics in this country has always stood against tyranny. For the first time in my life, affluent white suburban voters are practicing black politics.
Indeed, the best way to misunderstand Super Tuesday’s results is analyzing them from Shafer’s white-centered perspective. From that viewpoint, which is also practiced by the Bernie Sanders campaign, it’s plausible the Democratic establishment coordinated with Wall Street potentates to rig the primary process in favor of the former vice president. Plausible yes, but clearly wrong—unless you’re willing to say the 62 percent of southern black voters who went for Biden are representative of the party’s elite.
But even a class perspective, as Sanders’ would prefer, conceals what’s really going on. Super Tuesday confirmed a timeless truth obscured quadrennially by journalists acting surprised when there’s no good reason for being surprised. The white working class—households earning less annually than $50,000—doesn’t want a socialist revolution in America any more than it wants a fascist takeover. Like their black counterparts, most white working class voters chose Biden. They bet on a “winner” as an act of survival.
This isn’t to say some white working class voters didn’t choose Sanders. Some did. Nor is this to say no black voters chose Sanders. Some did. Those who did, however, were probably young—and there’s your problem. Young people just don’t vote at anywhere close to the same rates as older people do. Of all voters in 14 states on Super Tuesday, only 13 percent were under 30. That number rises 10 points for ages 30 to 44. It’s more than double for 65 and over. Thirty-five percent were between the ages of 45 and 64.
Sanders has always been a factional candidate. A gambler, too. He bet on changing the electorate in order to bend the Democratic Party to his will. (Remember, he’s an independent senator.) If he could do that, he figured, he could defeat the incumbent.
But doing that required driving out more young voters than any candidate has ever driven out in the modern history of presidential campaigns. (No one—no one—ever won relying on the youth vote.) He needed to drive out that many, because he needed to replace regular Democratic voters he’d chase away during the primary season and “moderate” white voters he’d chase away during the general election in the fall.
Super Tuesday confirmed those voters aren’t there. At the very least, he can’t depend on them. Not being a member of the Democratic Party was always a major liability for Sanders. So was running for president in a year in which Hillary Clinton was not.
We’re hearing a lot about “Bernie or Bust” post-Super Tuesday. This is natural. Feelings are raw. Paranoia is high. Most Sanders voters will settle down over time. Those who don’t are small in number (though very loud). They are joined by Republican or Russian operatives sowing division and distrust among Democrats. Don’t concern yourself too much with them. Focus instead on the job ahead.
There’s still a ways to go. In theory, Sanders could gain on Biden. But it’s hard to see that happening. The party is consolidating around its elder statesman, pushing Sanders to where he began, on the fringes of the party. Democratic superdelegates will go to Biden, not Sanders. Biden will get most, or all, of the delegates released by candidates who have stopped running. (Mike Bloomberg dropped out this morning.)
Joe Biden didn’t make a comeback.
He never went anywhere from which to return.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.