Despite all the topsy turvy course corrections we have seen this summer and fall – courtesy of a Democratic Presidential field which does not want to shrink – the race is still two old white guys to lose. I am speaking, of course, of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (also chronologically the oldest guys in the race, race or no).
You could be forgiven if it does not feel that way right now. Polls show a centrist, up and coming Mayor of a town of 100K, Pete Buttigieg, leading in Iowa and tied in New Hampshire. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are locked in a close second through fourth spots for the states. But they also have something neither Buttigieg, nor the former leader, Eizabeth Warren (should have come up with your own Medicare For All plan), don’t have. Baked in levels of support among key party constituencies.
Since he announced, Joe Biden has shown a remarkable resiliency in national polling fueled by his massive leads among black voters. Black voters, more moderate in nature, make up almost half of the entire Democratic primary electorate and are particularly dominant in Super Tuesday states in the South. In the second in the nation primary state of South Carolina, they make up more than half of the primary electorate.
Despite the volatility in early polls, mostly because college educated whites are shifting allegiances (Biden, Warren, now Buttigieg), black support has largely stayed in favor of Biden. It’s why even if Biden is running out of dough, or gets beat badly in Iowa and New Hampshire, will have somewhat of a fallback in South Carolina.
Sanders fallback is a combination of appeal to blue-collar whites who are simply disillusioned in the system and younger voters (almost of all races), fired up about student debt, Medicare For All, etc. Basically, the entitlement generation (okay, boomer).
These rock-solid bases of support for both Biden and Sanders have largely kept their support stable in national polling. But, unlike Biden, Sanders has largely been able to grow his support and numerous polls have shown he is the second choice of few voters (meaning climbing out of the low teens will be difficult). Biden may not be the second choice of many other voters, but his favorable ratings are higher than Sanders giving him a leg up as the race starts to consolidate (buh-bye Kamala).
In many ways, the trajectory of Democratic race parallels the GOP contest in 2012, particularly with Biden. Romney had strong levels of support among the establishment (same as Biden), he led in early polling and national polling (same as Biden), had plenty of campaign blunders (same as Biden) and he saw his lead shrink and grow as Republicans toyed with other candidates (same as Biden). Similarly, a number of challengers rose up and challenged Romney in the polls but they all fell down to earth (so far, in the Democratic field that has been Harris and Warren).
Romney’s path to victory was his massive support among the few (even less now) moderate and liberal Republicans in the party but also his solid lead among “somewhat” conservative” voters. Despite the shifting polls, Romney never did lose this group. Likewise, Biden, has so far not lost the support of his moderate and blue-collar base.
Historically, the path to the Democratic nomination has either run through the “wine track” or “beer track.” Past Democratic nominees had to choose between trying to win the heavily Democratic and wealthy suburbs on the coasts vs. the more blue-collar and rural elements of the party. For example, Jimmy Carter was the beer track nominee, Walter Mondale and Dukakis were wine track nominees. Bill Clinton split the difference.
Even so, blacks were largely kingmakers in this process. The only modern Democrat to win the nomination without majority black support was Michael Dukakis when he ran against Jesse Jackson and Dukakis, well, just watch this, to see how he ultimately fared. That was, until Obama came around (and the great recession reforged generational allegiances).
Obama managed to morph his campaign during the fall of 2007 and 2008 into a coalition which united blacks, young voters, college educated whites and even blue-collar voters. Towards the end, the only demographics the President was not winning were non-college educated whites and Hispanics. In his two general election victories, the President won all major demographic groups except blue-collar whites.
Needless to say, no Democrat has been able to do the same since and has exhibited weakness at some point somewhere. But, Biden has found remarkably resilient support among black voters while Bernie has been able to maintain his standing in the polls due to his strength with young voters and surprising strength with Hispanics. For all the talk about how the Democratic field was so diverse and it might yield a minority or female nominee the demographics and political coalitions of the party simply don’t seem ready for it. Corey Booker is all but treading water, Kamala dropped out, and Warren is now sinking. If anything, another white guy in Buttigieg is starting to take command of the contest. But until Buttigieg takes charge of the race and establishes firm support among key demographic coalitions in the party, the race is still Bernie and Biden’s to lose.