The 2020 Election Is Not a Repeat of 2016

Comparing Clinton to Biden overlooks the major changes that have taken place over the last four years.

The results from Tuesday’s primaries indicate that Joe Biden will likely be the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2020. Blowouts in Mississippi and Missouri were combined with a clear win in Michigan and a virtual tie in Washington. The candidates split wins in Utah and North Dakota.

Resting primarily on Biden’s wins in Michigan and Missouri, pundits are now recognizing the coalition that Joe built, which includes not only African Americans and suburbanites, but also white working-class and rural voters. With that awareness, questions have begun to arise about what happened to Sanders’ support—especially among the latter—from 2016 to 2020. The most common answer is that in 2016, he benefited from an anti-Clinton sentiment.

My colleague Martin Longman has made a similar case very eloquently—focused primarily on suburban voters. While I suspect there is some truth to those arguments, I think that things are more complex than they indicate.

Martin made it clear that his conclusions are based on a negative reaction to a possible Clinton dynasty, which is not something that Jonathan Chait acknowledged in suggesting that voters “simply detested her.” Mixed in with that is the misogyny that keeps people from supporting a female candidate. But if that is all there was to it, we’d be talking about Sanders benefiting in 2016 from an “anti-woman” sentiment. Most everyone making this argument is talking about something more personal than that.

I want to be clear that the problem I have with placing so much emphasis on Clinton is, in part, influenced by a gut reaction to once again hearing that it was the woman’s fault. I have an immediate reaction to the idea that what led to Sanders’ rise in 2016 is all about Hillary’s baggage. That tends to elicit a defensive reaction, but it also leads me to ask some questions that might have otherwise been overlooked.

The primary problem with these arguments is that they are based on an assumption that the 2020 primary is merely a replica of 2016, with the one difference being that Biden has replaced Clinton. I would posit two major differences between then and now.

The big change is that, during the 2016 primary, no one seriously contemplated the possibility that Donald Trump would win the presidency. That is a mistake that I made, along with almost everyone else. Four years later, we’ve all lived through the chaos and nightmare that has been wrought by the narcissist who occupies the Oval Office.

The candidacy of Bernie Sanders has always been about fomenting a revolution that would basically burn the house down—including the so-called “Democratic establishment.” That might have sounded plausible to some voters in 2016. But the chaos of a Trump presidency, especially in the midst of a pandemic, is likely to have made a revolution much less attractive. Watching how Trump destroyed the Republican establishment isn’t something many Democrats want to replicate with their own party right now.

The second thing that has changed since the 2016 primary is that Democratic voters have become wiser. From the moment Clinton announced her candidacy, she was treated to a massive disinformation campaign to paint her as corrupt. That didn’t just come from Donald Trump and the Republicans, it was amplified by Russian interference, major media outlets, and the Sanders campaign. To the extent that she was “detested,” that was one of the main reasons.

We’ve already seen the same thing attempted with Biden. It all started with Burisma and his son Hunter, but that doesn’t seem to have gained much traction with Democratic voters. We’ve seen a similar attempt to paint Biden as an elder who is in “cognitive decline.” And while that one was clearly picked up by Sanders supporters and is likely to continue with Trump’s campaign, there was some serious push-back to the claim.

Overall, a lot of Democrats and some in the media are doing a better job of recognizing the reality of disinformation campaigns in 2020 than they did in 2016. It is important to recognize that going forward and remain vigilant. In order to do that, we need to acknowledge how it impacted Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

As is almost always the case, understanding why Biden is doing better against Sanders that Clinton did in 2016 means recognizing the complex set of factors that are at work in any political campaign. There is obviously some truth to the argument that there was an anti-Clinton factor at work four years ago. But it is important to dig a little deeper and understand how that happened and what has changed since then.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.