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If anti-Sanders Democrats were serious, they’d unite around Biden right now

How are Bernie Sanders’s elite Democratic opponents this incompetent?

Joe Biden campaigns in Georgetown, South Carolina on February 26, 2020.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Democrats opposed to Sen. Bernie Sanders want you to know they’re scared.

The New York Times’s Lisa Lerer and Reid Epstein reported last Thursday that 84 of the 93 Democratic superdelegates they spoke with opposed giving the party’s nomination to Sanders if he wins a plurality, but not majority, of delegates in the primaries.

“How you can spend four or five months hoping you don’t have to put a bumper sticker from that guy on your car,” former Sen. Chris Dodd told the paper. Anti-Sanders writers like New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait are expressing enthusiasm for a move by party elites to block Sanders. Exactly zero “frontline” Democratic members of the US House — those the party has designated as most vulnerable and in need of support in November — have endorsed Sanders, with many endorsing moderates.

But here’s the thing: The worriers aren’t taking the one step that would most plausibly imperil Sanders’s nomination — encouraging voters to back former Vice President Joe Biden.

Non-Sanders endorsements are all over the map

By my count of swing-district House members, eight of the 42 are backing Joe Biden and seven are backing former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Sanders-critical editorial pages are all over the place, often backing former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or Sen. Amy Klobuchar and not unifying in any way. Stridently anti-Sanders columnists like Chait and operatives like James Carville aren’t advising a vote for anyone in particular.

Back in the year 2000, incumbent President Bill Clinton and other party heavyweights intervened heavily to push Al Gore’s candidacy and block Bill Bradley. But today the highest-profile Democrats — Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi — are staying out of the race.

This is not how a party apparatus that is serious about blocking Sanders’s nomination would operate. Sanders’s greatest asset at the moment is the highly fragmented field. Warren’s continued presence might siphon off some left-leaning votes from him, but given how poor her performance has been to date, it can’t be that many. By contrast, Sanders currently has a huge lead in a wide field, but a ranked-choice poll shows him only very narrowly ahead of Biden in a two-person race. Raising concerns about Sanders is very unlikely to change the fundamental dynamics, but narrowing the field to two candidates really could.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigning in Richmond, Virginia, on February 27, 2020.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

To some extent, this probably reflects a genuine lack of anti-Sanders panic in some elite circles. Barack Obama’s former aides, in venues like the Pod Save America media brand, have been fairly sanguine about a Sanders nomination.

But the other possibility is that the dozens of superdelegates telling the New York Times they’re panicking are not just lying and genuinely do want to stop Sanders. In that case, what’s occurring is a basic coordination problem, where party elites with considerable power to affect the eventual outcome are just failing to communicate with each other effectively and so are too feckless to stop the outcome they dread.

A failure to coordinate

I’m not particularly afraid of a Sanders nomination myself. On the issues I care about most, I think the candidates are all roughly interchangeable in terms of what they and Congress can accomplish together. But if I were one of these panicking Democratic elites, I would stop complaining to media outlets and start actually coordinating to choose a single “Stop Bernie” candidate and push the others out of the race. And the natural Stop Bernie candidate is Joe Biden.

Biden’s abysmal performance in Iowa and New Hampshire served to disguise the strength he still has in South Carolina, where he won so big that the race was called the minute the polls closed, and in many Super Tuesday states. He’s second in national polling to Sanders (though Bloomberg’s nipping at his heels) and lacks many of Bloomberg’s deepest weaknesses. While they share ugly histories on criminal and racial justice issues, and are both arguably too old for the position, Biden is a lifelong Democrat with a deep connection to the popular Obama administration, whereas Bloomberg rounded up protesters at the 2004 Republican convention and described his own 2012 endorsement of Obama as “backhanded.”

Perhaps most important, one-on-one polling suggests that Biden actually stands a chance against Sanders, while Bloomberg doesn’t. YouGov found after the New Hampshire primary that Sanders would clobber Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar in one-on-one races, by 15, 17, and 21 points, respectively. By contrast, Biden is only 4 points behind Sanders in a one-on-one matchup. Only Warren is similarly competitive against Sanders, and the Democratic elites who are trying to coordinate a centrist nomination fear her too.

If swing-district House members and party elites really want to stop Sanders, their next steps are obvious. The Clintons, Pelosi, and Schumer, and all the Bloomberg backers among the frontline House Democrats, should formally endorse Biden as the best hope for defeating Sanders. They should hit the campaign trail and hold rallies convincing rank-and-file Democrats that the Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg campaigns aren’t viable options, and Biden is the only moderate capable of holding up against Sanders. They should have done this weeks ago, if their intention was really to stop Sanders, but at the very least they should do so before post-Super Tuesday high-delegate races in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania.

And if party leaders don’t want to do this, that should tell you something about how serious they are about defeating Sanders.

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