After a crowded and lengthy contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, the party fell in line on Super Tuesday, effectively choosing Joe Biden as the best nominee for the 2020 election. But it would be a stretch to conclude that he was the best competitor in that contest.
His debate performances in 2019 and early 2020 were uneven and punctuated with awkward gaffes. He changed stances on some high-profile issues. And he’s never been a particularly distinguished public speaker or fundraiser. Also, unlike other candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, Biden lacked a passionate following.
So how did he end up defeating everyone else?
If we want to understand how Biden won the nomination, we first need to understand the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Biden won the 2020 nomination, arguably, because of the way Democrats interpreted Hillary Clinton’s loss four years ago.
As detailed in my upcoming book, “Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020,” one of the most consistent and consequential lessons from my conversations with Democratic activists, Democratic National Committee members, officeholders, and other party insiders, was a post-election narrative that blamed Clinton’s loss on her use of “identity politics.”
That’s obviously a loaded term, but I am using it to refer to Clinton’s outreach to women, people of color, the LGBTQIA community, and other marginalized groups during her 2016 campaign. According to many think pieces published shortly after the election, this is why Clinton lost. The argument went that by talking about race and identity bluntly, Clinton excluded working-class white people from a party they’d previously embraced. In turn, they responded by voting for a candidate who was very explicitly courting them: Donald Trump.
Of course, “identity politics” wasn’t the only explanation for the surprisingly close results of the 2016 election. A number of other theories propagated too, including that Clinton campaigned poorly or in the wrong places, that the party’s messaging was deficient, and that Russia and other outside actors tipped the scales for Trump. “She should’ve gone to Wisconsin,” “Bernie would’ve won,” etc., were all common post-election refrains. These sorts of narratives are common when a party loses, and, in many ways, are ultimately healthy in helping a party decide how to move forward from loss.
An important caveat to these explanations, however, is that they often aren’t based on very much hard data. That is, just because a candidate had a certain message and lost doesn’t mean that the candidate lost because of that message. In fact, we know that most campaign decisions have pretty modest effects, if any, on actual voting outcomes.
Politicians and parties still crave these narratives, though, especially when they lose. Winning, explains political scientist Marjorie Hershey, has a “fairly blunt, conservatizing effect on campaigners.” As long as they’re winning, they’re going to assume that whatever they’re doing is right, and they’ll continue to do it. Conversely, Hershey argues, those who lose an election will be very open to making changes the next time around, figuring that at least one of the actions they took last time was responsible for their loss.
To understand how these explanations of the 2016 election sat with Democratic Party insiders, I spoke with 65 Democratic activists — including party leaders and staff, campaign workers and donors — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. on a regular basis.1 And over the course of these conversations, a pattern emerged: Nearly a third of the party activists I spoke with cited “identity politics” as one reason for Clinton’s loss.2
Now, this doesn’t mean this was the only explanation they gave. In fact, more activists said that the campaign messaging and strategy were defective, or that Clinton herself was to blame. A separate study I conducted of newspaper coverage in the wake of the 2016 election found that about a third of news stories and op-eds argued that Clinton lost because of her focus on identity politics.
This is significant because post-election narratives are one way a losing party can reassess its strategy. If a party believes, for instance, that Clinton lost because she was a bad candidate or because her campaign was flawed, it can pick a different candidate or improve its campaign tactics without needing to dramatically rethink what the party stands for. But believing Clinton lost because of identity politics is a much harder pill to swallow. Namely, because accepting that means undermining something many Democrats believe in — the importance of promoting diversity and enhancing the power of underrepresented groups.
There’s a long history of this narrative being used to explain loss within the modern Democratic Party, too. Pretty much any time it has lost at the presidential level, a substantial segment of the party is quick to blame its focus on diversity, and, in turn, urges the party to refocus on working-class white voters, who have been part of the Democratic coalition since the New Deal. After Walter Mondale’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984, for example, Tennessee’s Democratic Party chair said, “The perception is that we are the party that can’t say no, that caters to special interests and that does not have the interests of the middle class at heart.” A national Democratic leader complained about the emphasis the party placed on Black voters, lamenting that “White Protestant male Democrats are an endangered species.” The post-2016 environment was no exception, with Democratic leaders warning the party not to abandon the white working class.
Even the Democratic activists and insiders I spoke with who strongly support the party’s historical role in advancing underrepresented groups emerged from the 2016 election frightened and confused by its results. As one New Hampshire activist — a lifelong feminist — told me in early 2017, “Based on what happened with Hillary, I think we now need to nominate a man.” She added, “[Former President] Barack Obama is an incredibly strong man. He can’t do what he did and not be a strong man. But he didn’t project raging masculinity, and I think you kind of have to do that [to go up against Trump]. I hate to say that … I’m gonna get kicked out of the women’s club.”
Biden, then, was in many ways a logical choice for a party in this condition.
Surveys among Democratic voters and activists repeatedly showed that, even when they didn’t see Biden as their top candidate, they saw him as the most electable, and overall, they prioritized electability to a far greater degree than they had in recent elections.
Biden was also, in some ways, a relatively easy choice for party insiders — he was broadly popular among the party’s voters, performed well in general election matchup polls, was closely tied to the Obama administration as its former VP, and was one of the only candidates who received widespread support from Black voters. But, at the end of the day, Biden also represented a safe choice for a party that had tried something new in 2016 and, in the eyes of many, had been punished for it.