On December 11, 1999, about eight weeks before the New Hampshire primary, then-President Bill Clinton endorsed Vice President Al Gore as his preferred successor.
At the time, Gore was running for the nomination against Sen. Bill Bradley, the former New York Knick turned senator from New Jersey.
Clinton didn’t bash Bradley. But he also made a clear choice. After all, he had selected Gore for a role that presupposes he could be president in the middle of a giant national crisis. The move probably wasn’t as obvious as it seems now — the personal relationship between the two was somewhat strained at the time because Gore had distanced himself from Clinton in the wake of his impeachment — but Clinton was effusive in his praise of Gore, calling him “the most effective and influential vice president who has ever served.”
Bradley wasn’t a profound ideological challenge to the party establishment as Sanders is today, but nonetheless, there was a distinct closing of the ranks around Gore. By the time Clinton endorsed him, the Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate had already backed him. Major donors marshaled their resources behind him.
Nothing like it is happening in the 2020 cycle. Instead, mainstream Democrats openly hand-wring about the prospect of a Bernie Sanders nomination. Though Sanders supporters are borderline paranoid about anti-Sanders sentiment, there’s virtually no actual anti-Sanders organizing.
Meanwhile, the rival campaigns still number in the double digits. Several of them have many passionate followers, and one of them might beat Sanders. But their sheer multiplicity — and key leaders’ refusal to decide among them — is a sign that anti-Sanders zeal, though real, is also quite limited.
Definitively stopping Sanders would require a clear choice, yet party leaders have clearly decided they can’t be bothered.
Joe Biden’s endorsement roster is weak
To see how Biden is faring compared with Gore, just look at his list of endorsements.
He is, of course, the unquestioned endorsement leader if you follow the FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker. They include Cindy Axne, the first-year House member from Iowa; Leroy Garcia, the president of the Colorado state Senate; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont; and Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. My colleague Laura McGann points out he’s the favorite choice of frontline House Democrats who need to win in tough races. But critically, Biden’s endorsers are mostly people nobody’s heard of.
We live in a nationalized media environment where politically engaged citizens have emotional and intellectual relationships with nationally known political figures. Gore had figures like that behind his campaign — Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt — but today, Biden doesn’t have Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Pelosi.
Obama hasn’t endorsed his own VP pick even though “Obama likes me” is central to Biden’s pitch. Clinton, who clearly has a problem with Sanders, hasn’t endorsed his biggest rival either, even though she could help shore up support with college-educated women currently backing Elizabeth Warren. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi haven’t endorsed. Nor has former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid or Gore himself. John Kerry is backing Biden but then was overheard seemingly musing his own run, undermining his support.
Solid backing for Biden from high-profile Democrats wouldn’t make Sanders’s factional support dry up. But it would deliver a clear and unambiguous signal to normal Democrats to rally behind Biden instead of fracturing across three or four candidates.
And, of course, it would help with money.
The “donor class” is desperately fragmented
Sanders has created a fundraising juggernaut grounded in a huge national base of small donors.
But as great as small donors are, rich large donors have a lot more money and should be able to ensure a solid cash advantage. Instead of helping the former vice president match Sanders in fundraising, though, Democrats’ traditional bundlers and large donors have largely rallied to the banner of the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana — making Pete Buttigieg the No. 2 fundraiser in the race.
Buttigieg seems like a nice guy, a smart guy, and a good politician who I think would do a fine job as president. But as a coordination point for a party elite that’s supposedly trying to close ranks and stop a socialist insurgent, he’s a frankly bizarre choice, starting with his thin résumé and his issue gaining support from black voters. It’s much easier to imagine Biden, whom many black voters like, beating Sanders in a head-to-head matchup than it is to imagine Buttigieg doing so. And if Buttigieg’s money had gone to Biden, Biden could use that money to help beat Sanders. But instead, donor money is going to help Buttigieg poach white moderate votes from Biden, creating a fragmented field that could let Sanders win purely by consolidating progressives.
To make matters worse, Democrats have two separate ego-fueled billionaire vanity campaigns in the field.
Plutocrats are objectively helping Sanders win
Because Mike Bloomberg is ridiculously rich, he keeps putting ads on TV in random places.
They’re good ads, well-targeted at the views of normie Democrats who think that Donald Trump is extremely bad. Bloomberg’s actual record both in business and in politics — from sexual harassment to stop-and-frisk to endorsing George W. Bush — is complicated, and there’s plenty for normie Democrats to dislike. But the ads are good. They’d also be great ads for Joe Biden if Bloomberg wanted to generously finance a pro-Biden Super PAC.
Right now in the polling averages, Sanders is just below 25 percent while Biden is just below 30 percent. To beat him handily, all Biden needs to do is consolidate the bulk of the non-Bernie vote. Bloomberg’s ads and money could be very helpful in doing that. But instead, Bloomberg is spending the money on himself, rising to 8.3 percent in the polls — not nearly enough to win but enough to cut Biden’s lead over Sanders.
Then, absurdly, Tom Steyer, who is both less rich than Bloomberg and much less qualified for the presidency, is also dumping tens of millions of dollars into a pointless quest to further divide the field.
Many Sanders fans I know seem to experience this cavalcade of wild ideas — Maybe we’ll promote an underqualified mayor! Maybe we’ll run two billionaires simultaneously! — as a sign of how desperate the donor class is to defeat Sanders. But in its practical impact, it’s precisely the opposite. The financial fragmentation that’s left Biden outspent by both Sanders and three moderate rivals is massively overcomplicating any effort to stop the red tide.
If Biden’s not up for it, someone should have said so
One possible interpretation of all this is that top Democrats have profound doubts about Biden that they didn’t have about Al Gore.
But if that’s the issue, then the failure to coordinate and convey that opinion to the public in a clear way is an even bigger bungle. Most Americans like to think of themselves as independent-minded people, which is one reason endorsements often don’t seem to matter that much. But if Obama had said that he thought Biden was too old and Democrats should go in another direction — or if he’d said that Buttigieg is too young and inexperienced — then rank-and-file Democrats surely would have listened.
Instead, party leaders allowed the well-known and well-liked Biden to get left out in the cold and for enormous sums of money to be spent on fragmenting the anti-Sanders vote.
What’s more, all efforts to take down Sanders are counterproductive. Clinton, for starters, can’t seem to restrain herself from venting bitterly about Sanders. And Obama’s heavy-handed intervention into the Democratic National Committee chair race several years ago, similarly, did an enormous amount to poison the well. But while these kinds of moves do annoy Sanders’s biggest boosters, they don’t actually hurt Sanders’s campaign.
What would hurt Sanders’s campaign would be elite coordination toward a single candidate. That hasn’t happened.