We can still debate whether or not Bernie Sanders would have won the 2016 presidential race had he, and not Hillary Clinton, been the Democratic nominee. But there should be no debate about 2020.
No, Sanders wouldn’t have won. Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t have won either. And while it is less clear how moderates like Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg would have ended up, there are strong reasons to believe they wouldn’t have won either.
Give Democrats, generally, some credit here. In every single poll they said the number one criteria of their 2020 presidential candidate was someone who could beat Trump. Eventually they decided this candidate was Biden. Turns out they chose correctly. And given the tight nature of the election, it is possible that of the 27 Democrats who ran for the presidency, Biden may have been the only one who could have won it.
This post-election conversation may have been different had Biden won in a landslide. If that happened, there where would be some progressives who would have wondered, logically enough, if a more liberal candidate could have won and brought more bold policies, like supporting the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, both issues popular among the party base but which Biden doesn’t support. And they may have wondered if they should have, as the signs said, “settled for Biden.”
With full hindsight there, they were correct to do so. Here are three reasons why Biden, and only Biden, could have won on Nov. 3.
1. Biden is a known quantity and well liked
Yes, Biden is old. He has been in politics for 47 years. He is the definition of a career politician. He doesn’t inspire anyone with youthful vigor, or exciting new ideas.
However, one of the most important, but least discussed aspects of the 2020 election is that Biden somehow closed the presidential race with a positive favorability rating. In fact, as Trump and his allies made a last-ditch effort to bring up allegations about his son Hunter Biden and possibly some link to his father, Joe Biden’s favorability rating actually ticked up.
The reason is obvious: Biden is a known quantity. He has been around for a long time. His story has been known for a long time. All the other candidates running for president except Sanders could have had their story twisted by Trump and Republicans. Republicans tried with Biden, but it didn’t work because he has been around forever, including eight years as vice president.
A majority of voters just never bought the idea that he was a crazy radical, or even the on-again, off-again Trump proposition that Biden would be the vehicle for crazy, radical policies.
2. Biden is not a socialist
As just mentioned above, Republicans may not have twisted the story with Sanders, but that is largely because they were totally fine with amplifying who Sanders says he is. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist who called for a progressive revolution repeatedly during this campaign.
So let’s ponder for a second how that would have played in 2020. Republicans were semi-successful in painting Biden, who was accused in the primary as been too close to Wall Street, as a socialist to Cuban-Americans in Florida. Can you imagine the field day Republicans would have had with Sanders? (Yes, Sanders would have explained how he is a democratic socialist and that is different than an actual socialist, but good luck with that one.)
Remember, this was an election that was won in the suburbs, not a hotbed of revolutionary tendencies. If Sanders allies want to argue he would have done better in the cities, then they have to argue they would have done better than Biden’s historic turnout operation and done so on a scale that would have overcome losses in the suburbs. The math doesn’t work.
3. Biden turned out to be able to handle every tactical challenge. Others failed.
While the nation was in the mood for a return to a normal president, it doesn’t mean the other moderates who ran would have done as well as Biden.
Republicans could have rebranded Klobuchar and Buttigieg into anything they wanted since neither had a large national brand, and both also had political troubles related to race.
Klobuchar’s background as a prosecutor and her handling of some high-profile cases, including a Black teenager who was convicted of murder on questionable evidence while she was a prosecutor, seemed to knock her out of vice presidential contention.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, did horribly among Black voters in the primary. His inability to turn things around suggests he could have been clobbered last week, given the high rates that Black voters showed up for Biden.
Meanwhile, Biden handled basically every single challenge and potential setback perfectly, including when Republicans wanted to turn the national movement for racial justice around on Biden over the summer. The GOP tried and failed.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.