The primary difference

Juxtaposing the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries creates something like an experiment.

Two different candidates, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, faced the same opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in many of the same states, with the same potential electorate.

Yet the results were quite different. Biden did far better than Clinton.

Biden’s surge evidences itself in the 353 counties he won in 2020 that had gone to Sanders in 2016. By contrast, Sanders took only 73 counties Clinton had won.

All told, in the same states, Biden fared much better against Sanders than did Clinton, an outcome for which three explanations seem logically possible:

• Sanders could have been a worse candidate this year than in 2016.

• Biden could be a better candidate than Clinton was.

• Something about the political environment could be different.

The first hypothesis is hard to justify. Sanders has been saying the same things, the same way, for years, though he now inveighs against “billionaires” rather than the “millionaires” he attacked in 2016.

The very consistency of his message and proposals contributes importantly to his image of authenticity — one of his core appeals.

Sanders’s favorability ratings among Democrats were slightly higher in early 2020 than in early 2016, leaving us little reason to believe he was somehow less appealing this year.

Fundraising is another measure of strength, and Sanders pulled in 25 percent more in 2019 than in 2015.

Success in the early primaries and caucuses is also a useful indicator. Here, too, Sanders performed better in 2020, winning two of the first four, as compared to one of those states in 2016.

2020 Sanders was not a worse candidate than 2016 Sanders.

Was Clinton a worse candidate than Biden?

Clinton was stronger in the finance department, outraising Biden by nearly 50 percent in the year prior to the primaries.

Biden and Clinton enjoyed nearly identical favorability ratings going into the early caucus and primary states.

In electoral terms, Clinton won three of the four early contests, while Biden won just one of those four.

One might argue that Clinton was a stronger contender than Biden, or that they were evenly matched, but it’s hard to see Biden with an advantage over Clinton.

Yet he performed better against the same Bernie Sanders, suggesting an altered political environment may have been important. It was certainly different.

I suggest the fundamental differences lay in three areas: electability, political support and fear.

The disaster that is Donald Trump focused Democrats’ minds on nominating a candidate who can defeat the incumbent.

Between 2016 and 2020, the number who prioritized electability over issue agreement jumped by more than 20 points.

Even before Democrats started voting, they viewed Biden as more electable than Sanders by 20-35 points, depending on the question posed.

A second difference in the political environment was the dramatic endorsement of Biden by several of his opponents on the eve of Super Tuesday, with others following in subsequent days.

Political scientists debate whether “the party decides,” but there’s little doubt the party can have an impact, especially when it coalesces behind a candidate.

The sudden unity we witnessed just before and after Super Tuesday was unprecedented.

Finally, there was the coronavirus.

Research demonstrates that fear leads voters to be risk averse — less likely to embrace dramatic change — while also diminishing the importance of ideological commitments.

If I wanted President Trump to understand the argument, I’d put it in Wall Street terms—fear ignites a flight to safety.

Political scientists James Bisbee and Dan Honig already examined the data, finding that the appearance of local coronavirus cases peeled 4 to 7 points off Sanders’s 2016 total.

2020 was markedly worse for Sanders than 2016, less because of the candidates, and more because the electoral context proved dramatically different.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

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