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Jacobs: “What would have occurred if Biden and Bernie had never decided to campaign for president?”

Adam Jacobs

At the end of the Trump rally in New Hampshire, on the eve of its primary, I apologized to the cadre of journalists in the back for the volleys of fake news. One journalist chortled, smiled, and plunged into the permutations of covering the Trump campaign. When I asked him who he thought would win in November, he got a pensive look, and said, an election can change in one week.

And what a week it has been! The downward trajectory of Former Vice President Joseph Biden, after racking second-tier finishes in the first three states, completely redounded and spurted as he claimed first place in South Carolina by nearly 30 percentage points. Within a 72 hour time period, three moderate rivals dropped, several high-profile endorsements arrived, the campaign raised $5 million dollars, and Biden dunked 10 states. CNN called it the “biggest, fastest, and most unexpected comeback in modern political history.”

From the largest and most diverse field in presidential history, we are literally, as the New York Times noted, down to Biden and Bernie: the “last [straight white millionaire] man standing.” Many news outlets have commented on the structural advantages which masculinity, whiteness, and money can earn in an electoral process. I want to figure out, though, what would have occurred if Biden and Bernie had never decided to campaign for president? Both took their slow considerations to enter the race, and upon entering as frontrunners, drastically shifted the vectors of gravity. As cheerleaders on the sidelines, who instead may have risen to gain the saddlebags of this bucking donkey?

Kamala Harris

Oh, Kamala. She had such a stunningly symbolic and singular candidacy: the second African American woman in the Senate helming the fourth Democratic campaign to be the first female president. Her campaign was announced on MLK, Jr. Day, paid homage to these aforementioned campaigns, and her rally crowd at Oakland, her hometown, drew upwards of 20,000 attendees. Her debate performances were pickled with some of the more robust rhetorical suggestions, including when she confronted Biden on his former anti-busing positions. Pundits as well as her own staff assumed she would be a natural contender in the South, but since the fall of last year, she never rose about fourth place in South Carolina polling. Michael Harriot of The Root, wrote about the axiomatic “conundrum” of her candidacy, aptly pointing out the tension between her historic candidacy, her past as a criminal prosecutor, and the standards we apply to black women.


If Biden had not boomed into the race, might Kamala have surfaced and steadied? According to the data website FiveThirtyEight, polling before Biden entered the race, repositioned Harris, along with Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker, with several higher percentage points. With Biden gone, might she have been a legitimate contender for establishment endorsements as well as a higher percentage of the older Black vote? Many commentators analyze primaries in terms of lanes: a bridge connecting certain candidates with similar demographic or ideological resonance who therefore share transitional voters. Harris shared several demographic lanes, but tried to cut a whole swath of sea between ideas, tacking between moderate and liberal tendencies, while trying to reconcile her prosecutorial past with a progressive future. As Vox implies, she was exposed to more “scrutiny and skepticism” as a black woman, than Biden was, who has also tried to parlay his tough-on-crime past into a progressive precedent. Without the swath of Obama nostalgia, or his precipice of moderation, might Kamala have been able to take up this mantle? Instead of waning, she may have been able to more properly position herself as the moderate of choice in the campaign, tough in the past, and tough on Trump.

Pete Buttigieg

Oh, Pete. I loved his ceaseless smiles, his coy behavior, and his smooth rhetorical dissections. He rose from polling at zero percent, a mayor of the fourth largest city in Pence’s Indiana, to hit single digits after a CNN Town Hall interview in March. He got a second headwind later in the year due to strong debate performances and one of the best organizational ground games in Iowa and New Hampshire. His Midwest affectations, rural emphasis, and proclivities with white voters particularly enabled his upset first and second place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he stumbled heavily in Nevada and South Carolina, more diverse states in terms of Hispanic and African-American representation.

His campaign thought his low polling with communities of color came from low name recognition; Elie Mystal writing for The Nation proffered that it was instead because “we know [him]…all too well.” Mystal focused attention on Buttigieg’s “unexamined white privilege, buoyed by…[his] unearned status,” as well as his numerous, well-intentioned, racial gaffes. As I noted in my last article as well, Buttigieg had trouble rising in the LGBTQ community, mostly due to a) his aforementioned race problem and b) his moderation and modesty.

If Biden weren’t in the race, would Buttigieg have fared any better? His stumbling’s within communities of color, as well as his plunk landing in the LGBTQ community, don’t bode too well. Though most of his college-educated, establishment-minded voters overlapped in the lanes of Warren and Harris, he could have siphoned off some Biden voters who wanted another moderate white man (we all remember the video of the Iowa voter who forgot he was gay). In the end, I am not sure he would have been able to surmise out of Nevada and South Carolina. 

Elizabeth Warren

Oh, Elizabeth. As I am writing this, she has yet to endorse any candidate, much to the commiseration of Biden voters, and the chagrin of Bernie voters (“Maybe I’ll just pull a New York Times,” she said on SNL, “and endorse them both.”). She did fairly well among left-leaning and millennial voters, and especially dominated among white suburban woman.   

She rose throughout the course of 2019, surpassing Sanders in the fall, as well as Biden at one point, according to some polls. She met with considerable resistance and anxiety among the corporate donors and Democratic leaders; FiveThirtyEight notes the bids of Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick were almost “‘Stop Warren’ candidacies…a preview of the more aggressive anti-Sanders campaign.” Whether it was because she was a woman or because she was a woman with a plan, she was pressured to release parts of her Medicare-for-All proposal in October. Her plan incurred panning from both the right and left; immediately, she moderated her position and was labeled leaky and leaning. 

If Sanders were not in the race, where would Warren be? Receiving his endorsement, I am sure of it. While the largest percentage of Sanders voters would choose Biden as their second choice (and vice versa), Warren nets a sizeable portion as third choice. Moreover, though Warren tried to forge her singular path in this election, without Sanders she could have subsumed the progressive lane. Would that have pulled Harris and Beto O’Rourke more into contention with her? Possibly. She may not have made the same stumbles around Medicare-for-all, and her poll numbers may have kept rising. She routinely came in third place in national polls of Black voters, as well as winning accolades for her racial justice plans among activist organizations and media outlets, and may have been able to substantially rise and win South Carolina. Without Biden in the race as well, I think she easily could have been the party’s nomination.


Well, much ado about nothing. Maybe one of the women can be Biden’s running-mate.


Photo Courtesy Associated Press, Scott Olson, and Gage Skidmore

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