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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Biden is in, but Bernie reigns

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News via AP/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Yvonne Fair’s “It Should’ve Been Me” is one of the great 1970s soul hits. I wonder if Joe Biden ever finds himself humming it when he looks back on the events of 2016. More than a year before the presidential election, I argued that Biden stood the best chance of beating Donald Trump when it came to winning the votes of “white, male, aging Americans.” It was not to be. Barack Obama, who had picked Biden as his running mate in 2008, took the fateful decision to back Hillary Clinton.

Last week Biden decided to launch what will be his third bid for the Democratic nomination. He has opted to position himself, from the outset, as the candidate who can beat Trump. The opening salvo of Biden 2020 was a three-minute video revolving around the events in Charlottesville in August 2017, when clashes between neo-Nazis and protesters culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer.


According to Biden, Trump’s statement at that time — that there were “some very fine people on both sides” — had “assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”

Now Biden was born in 1942, so we’re being asked to believe that Trump is a bigger threat to the United States than either the Axis powers in World War II or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But the implausibility of that claim is not the reason Biden will struggle to be the Democratic candidate next year.

Nor, for that matter, is he going to be thwarted by the efforts of his foes to “#MeToo” him with complaints of over-familiar physical contact by seven women. Biden is a touchy-feely politician, but he’s never struck me as a sexual predator. And anyone who knows Biden’s biography — the deaths of his wife and daughter in a traffic accident in 1972, the death from brain cancer of his son Beau in 2015 — must surely cut the man some slack.


Biden’s real problem is that he finds himself on the right wing of a party that has lurched leftwards in the past two and a half years. A new generation of radicals in the House of Representatives — exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — have created an atmosphere in which nominating a white male would seem like a betrayal.

There has also been a marked shift to the left on policy. The key issues in this contest will be health care, student debt, climate change, and taxing the rich. On this terrain, Biden looks conservative.

Is all this just a roundabout way of saying that Biden is too old and too male to be president? No, because the person most likely to beat him to the nomination is an even older guy. Step forward US senator and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont (born 1941). He may poll six to eight points behind Biden, but at this early stage that isn’t significant.

I can think of three reasons why Bernie is more likely than Biden to win. First, unlike Biden, Sanders ran a campaign in 2016 and his machine is still in pretty good shape. Take fund-raising. Not only did Sanders lead the field in total donations in the first quarter of this year; he also has the most donations from the most people (per thousand residents) in the most states (20), while others are still heavily reliant on their home states. Biden has some big donors, no doubt; Sanders has an army of smaller ones.


Second, there’s the new Democratic primary calendar schedule. As early as March 10 next year, around half of all the convention delegates will have been awarded, compared with just a third at the same stage in 2016, because six states have brought their primaries forward. As delegates aren’t allocated on a winner-takes-all basis, no candidate is likely to have a majority by the time of the Democrats’ Milwaukee convention. But Sanders could be so far ahead of everyone else that it would be hard to deny him.

Finally, the so-called “superdelegates,” who were a key reason Clinton beat Sanders in 2016, may be less powerful in 2020.

Yes, I know. It’s much too early to be speculating about who’ll be running against Donald Trump next year. Media favorite Beto O’Rourke, a former US representative from Texas, may yet turn out to be the white Obama. Pete Buttigieg, the multilingual mayor of South Bend, Ind., is also worth watching.

Yet one thing does seem pretty clear: Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be taking on a man who, for all his character flaws, is presiding over full employment and 3 percent growth; who took on China long before the policy elite realized that American primacy was under threat; whose inflammatory stances on immigration and political correctness play very well with older voters; and whose mastery of social media is unrivalled in global politics.


Joe Biden was not the only man singing “It Should’ve Been Me” on election night 2016. Even more than Biden, Sanders had been robbed of the Democratic nomination by the party establishment. He won’t be so easily robbed this time. If Bernie ends up singing the same old song on election night, it will simply be because Trump confounds his many critics by winning reelection.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.