March 10, 2020

Did Democratic Voters Choose Evolution Over Revolution?

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Joe Biden has been framing the contest between himself and Bernie Sanders as one between evolution vs. revolution. Is this an accurate description? Sanders has described his campaign in revolutionary terms, so maybe this is a rare case where both opponents would agree on this part of the narrative. Or perhaps Sanders would prefer to paint Biden as something other than evolutionary (e.g., stagnant, stuck in the past). In any case, one of Biden's favorite talking points has been that Democratic voters prefer his evolution to Sanders' revolution.

Is Biden correct? Do Democratic voters prefer his evolutionary approach to Sanders' revolutionary approach? Based on the election results so far, an argument could be made that they do. After all, Biden is winning. But while the evolution vs. revolution claim makes for an effective sound bite, I'm not sure it is the most accurate description of why many Democratic voters have been choosing Biden.

Undoubtedly, some people are voting for Biden because they perceive Sanders as too radical and are not interested in his promised revolution. They'd rather go back to the way things were under President Obama than risk more upheaval. I know a few people like this who explicitly state that Sanders is too far to the left for their taste and that this is why they are supporting Biden.

Other Democratic voters are voting for Biden because they think he has a better chance of defeating Donald Trump in a general election than Sanders does even if they prefer some of Sanders' policies. They tend to be more liberal than the first group but are also more pragmatic in their approach. Above all, they don't want to risk losing the general election. They worry that Sanders' supporters are making a mistake by voting with their hearts instead of their heads.

I've also heard from a few Democratic voters who are drawn to Biden not so much because they think Sanders is too radical because they think Biden has a better chance of winning but because they think he'd be a better leader, if elected. Some contrast his foreign policy experience with that of Sanders, and others simply point to his experience as Vice President.

And yes, to be comprehensive, we need to note that there appear to be a group of people voting for Biden primarily because they are upset at how some Sanders' supporters have been behaving online. My guess is that their numbers are small, but I have run into quite a few of them on Twitter. They seem to be supporting Biden mostly because he isn't Sanders, and some struggle to name anything they like about Biden.

The point is that I think things are probably more complicated than Biden's sound bite makes it sound. I would not want to look at the primary results to date and conclude that Democratic voters had rejected Sanders' revolution. Some certainly have, but I'd be reluctant to generalize much beyond that. The Democratic Party has moved to the left. Some of Sanders' policies do not sound nearly as radical today as they might have the first time we heard them. Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, it seems clear that the future of the Democratic Party will have more in common with Sanders than it does with Biden.