Avoiding Bernie Sanders’ nomination does not mean Democrats have avoided November base erosion. Until Super Tuesday, Democrats’ mounting concern had been that Mr. Sanders would drive away moderates and independents from the ticket. Now with the establishment Biden on track to nomination, Democrats can begin worrying that he could depress liberal support, in the same way Donald Trump lost significant conservatives in 2016.
Mr. Biden’s apparently unstoppable progress to the nomination puts to rest Democratic concerns that Mr. Sanders could endanger the party outside deep blue areas. Those concerns were extensive: Tanking the ticket, endangering House control, hurting Senate races, and redefining the party as socialist. Avoiding that fourfold fallout has relieved Democrats, but it may be no more than a reprieve.
Democrats’ new worry is less obvious, but still quite dangerous: Mr. Biden could alienate enough liberals to keep them away in November. Those dismissing Biden-induced base erosion on the left, should examine how President Trump fared with conservatives in 2016.
Four years ago, conservatives questioned Mr. Trump’s conservative bona fides. He had no ideological record and held positions contrary to status quo conservatism — such as on trade. That Mr. Trump has more than proven himself to conservatives during his first term, does not change his poor 2016 performance. Against Hillary Clinton, exit polling showed he lost a staggering 19 percent of conservatives — an incredible 16 percent going to Hillary.
Democrats’ ideological base is liberal, and even more so than it was four years ago. Mr. Biden is hardly this race’s foremost liberal, making him the second choice of many. He has adopted many very liberal positions, but usually less so than his competitors — Medicare for more, but not Medicare for All and higher taxes, but not the highest taxes. This “less left” Biden has justified the establishment’s expectation but could give many liberals hesitation.
Liberals’ mistrust of Mr. Biden could be even greater than 2016 conservatives’ doubts about Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden’s nomination will mean liberals have been cheated for a second straight election; the establishment turned against Mr. Sanders, then turn to liberals and expect them to support an establishment nominee. Further, unlike Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Biden does have a record; it was generated in the far less strident Obama administration, and as a senator from the paler blue Delaware.
Also, unlike Mr. Trump in 2016, Mr. Biden is the quintessential establishment politician. Mr. Biden is a career politician; Mr. Trump is the anti-politician. Ideologues on the left and right distrust career politicians. While Mr. Trump had that going for him in 2016 — yet still lost significant conservatives — Mr. Biden has it going against him.
Mr. Trump’s 2016 attrition among his party’s ideological base was real; the same base erosion is a real threat to Mr. Biden in 2020. Democrats need liberals as energized in November as they were in 2018, in order to beat an incumbent Trump. Of course, liberals are eager to beat Mr. Trump at all costs. Yet conservatives were equally eager to beat Hillary when 2016 began, still by November, Mr. Trump lost one-fifth of them.
Another erosion concern is that Mr. Biden could re-create the problem with moderates and independents that his nomination was supposed to solve. By seeking to retain strong support on his left, Mr. Biden could overcompensate and go too far left. In Sunday’s two-person debate — despite commanding leads over Mr. Sanders in the polls — he made just such a leftward reach by switching his position and backing free college for students whose families earn less than $125,000 annually.
To understand how much Democrats need liberals, look at their 2018 success: Exit polling shows Democrats got 91 percent of liberals — 10 percentage points than Mr. Trump received from 2016 conservatives.
It is clear Mr. Biden will have to thread a very small needle in his ideological balance. Such a balance would be a challenge to any politician. Having seen Mr. Biden campaign for almost a year, it will be a tremendous one for Mr. Biden.
Certainly, by having Mr. Biden beat Mr. Sanders for the nomination, Democrats avoided their closest and clearest danger. However, Mr. Biden’s nomination hardly means they avoided them all. Mr. Biden presents his own across the Democratic base. To understand his most overlooked, Democrats only need look back to what happened to Mr. Trump four years ago with his party’s base.
• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.
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