One candidate inspired a stampede of voters on Tuesday. He also managed, for the time being, to take big money out of politics.
But it wasn’t Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Bellwether of Burlington promised to do these things, but in the end, he wasn’t the one who got the big turnout without the big bucks. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, a hoary has-been who reps what Sanders likes to call the “corporate wing of the Democratic Party.”
Once upon a time, Biden may have embraced that role. Decades ago, the first time he ran for president, he was an ace fundraiser — a sweetheart of the DNC, till that campaign fizzled and he was proclaimed the “once hot” Democrat in a news headline. This time he started with an exceedingly modest war chest and low expectations, only to build something more than momentum out of thin air.
It should be said that the Biden of 2020 didn’t try to run without big money. He probably wouldn’t have been averse to a lot of sweet corporate windfalls. And don’t expect him to turn them down now. They just didn’t come his way early on. Before his victories on Tuesday, he’d raised about $76 million to Sanders’s $134 million in grassroots donations.
No wonder Biden’s touching but rattletrap campaign has had all the hallmarks of involuntary thrift. He didn’t just fail to appear in several primary states; in many, his campaign barely set up card tables. And the Biden comms efforts are still so threadbare that even his fundraising emails look like they come from cardboard boxes stamped “1987.” (We must have those bumper stickers blasting Reaganomics around here somewhere.)
Biden hasn’t even paid an agency to develop a snappy hashtag. #IAmTiredAndDontHaveAnyMoney, in fact, might have been the campaign’s default theme till about a week ago. At least it’s relatable.
But, money or no, and razzle-dazzle or no, Biden voters have showed up. Biden added four of the six Tuesday night states to his win column, including the big prize, Michigan, and as of Wednesday, he had pulled ahead in Washington, which is still counting votes. All those victories followed his Super Tuesday blowout: Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Texas and Maine.
There is a theoretical “path forward” for Sanders, but Biden seems to be the presumptive nominee now. It says something that President Trump, when he’s not producing COVID-19 covfefe on Twitter and from the Oval Office, is back to attacking him. Even Sanders, who announcedhe would stay in at least through Sunday’s debate, admits that Biden may be winning the “electability” contest.
Which brings us to turnout. The Sanders campaign regularly prophesied that new voters — voters who grew up with student debt, bank failures, rapacious capitalism and endless wars — would be impelled to the polls by the promises of a revolution that would lift up the working class.
That prediction missed the mark, but Tuesday’s polling places were hardly empty. Indeed, there was record-breaking turnout, especially in Michigan. It’s just that the votes were cast for Biden, from a formidable group now considered Biden’s coalition: African Americans, suburban women and non-college-educated whites.
It’s admittedly hard to imagine Biden spiking anyone’s adrenaline. He’s low-key in the extreme on the stump. He’s regularly praised for “humility” now — an odd quality for a presidential candidate, from whom voters usually want dreams, ambitions, plans, pep rallies.
But for a country suffering from tinnitus after four years of a headbanger president, Biden’s quietude is welcome.
Election forecaster and political scientist Rachel Bitecofer calls the powerful force that keeps prospective voters away from the polls “comfort.” When choosing a candidate, you ask yourself for whom (and for what) you’re going to forfeit your comfort — get a babysitter, change clothes, jump on a bus and stand in line at a polling place, or even make sure a mail-in ballot gets to the registrar on time. For decades, Democrats have given one answer: a dreamy candidate who makes their hearts race.
Not this time. If Democrats have long been accused of wanting “savior” presidents — and staking everything on presidential elections while ignoring the rest — this election may mark a turning point.
If the Biden wave is any indication, Democrats are no longer looking for that kind of perfection. They’ll settle for a break from the jackhammer noise — from Trump, from Michael Bloomberg, from Sanders, from cable news, from their bloviating relatives, from Twitter.
The lesson going into next week’s primaries seems to be that voters will give up “comfort” because their situation now is not all that comfortable. Discomfort is ever-present even when we’re at home on the sofa self-quarantined with our hand sanitizer. A virus is stalking the planet. Kids are shut out of schools. Our savings are plummeting. The president is disturbed, senseless and tyrannical.
What’s driving turnout now, and what will drive it in November, isn’t infatuation with a savior. We aren’t head over heels. We aren’t buying Big Ideas. We’ll move heaven and earth to get to the polls, to turn in our ballots, because we want to stop tossing and turning and get some sleep again.
And sleepy Joe is just the guy for bedtime stories and lullabies.