Major U.S. Elections Are Won By Voters Who Care the Least About Policy

Politics Features Democratic Primary
Major U.S. Elections Are Won By Voters Who Care the Least About Policy

On Tuesday, Politico ran a story about the so-called “energy crisis” in Joe Biden’s campaign. The idea is that even though he’s leading in every poll, sometimes by huge margins and to the extent that I wonder if his lead is already insurmountable, he doesn’t attract crowds like Bernie Sanders…or Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harirs, or even Pete Buttigieg. Witness the hand-wringing:

So where are the big energetic crowds, the lines around the block to get into Joe Biden’s events?

The question is no small matter in a party still recovering from a bitter 2016 defeat — a loss marked by a lack of enthusiasm for an establishment nominee in several critical states.

If the point is that Biden could lose to Trump, then Politico is right to be afraid, albeit for the wrong reasons. But in terms of the primary, this is the best news Joe Biden could have gotten on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, and if his team had any sense, they’d be reading every paragraph with giant, beaming smiles, just before breaking out into cartwheels.

Here’s the point: Joe Biden is supported by older people and wealthier people, and lots of them. Those were the same people supporting Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, and even though the crowds at Sanders’ rallies dwarfed anything she could muster, it didn’t matter—there are certain demographic realities that are too big to overcome. She won more than two-thirds of voters over age 45, and Sanders won 70% of those under 30. Clinton supporters back then loved to talk about how she captured the black vote against Sanders, and how criticizing her primary supporters was erasing an entire race of people, but the truth is, it was still about age: Young black voters broke for Sanders, while older ones broke overwhelmingly for Clinton. The numbers were higher, but the fundamental fact was still the same—age is the great divider.

These are the three key points we need to understand before we move on:

1. Older voters support establishment candidates. Older voters are more likely to be wealthy or well-off, so there’s also an income divide as we saw in 2016.

2. Older, wealthier voters are less likely to care about policy, especially progressive policy, because they are more comfortable and less likely to be affected by something like the Green New Deal or the concept of student debt forgiveness. For these reasons and others, they’re also far less likely to attend a political rally.

3. They vote in far greater numbers, which makes me want to slam my head into a wall on behalf of my generation and the one below me, but which is ultimately inarguable.

So when you see 20,000 or 30,000 people at a Bernie Sanders rally, it’s true that it’s a reflection of enthusiasm and passion, and that he’s speaking to a group of very motivated, very interested people. But it’s also true that these crowds are deceptive, because they tend to be composed of a demographic that doesn’t vote in large enough numbers to be effective. You can win 90% of the under-30 crowd, but it doesn’t matter if that slice of primary voters is so small that winning 65% of the over-45 demo completely erases the margins. In a paradoxical way, it’s even possible to interpret huge, young crowds like these as a sign of weakness.

If you spend a lot of time on political Twitter, you might get the impression that Joe Biden is weak. We’ve run our share of pieces criticizing him, and on a personal level I would consider it a small tragedy if the general election comes down to him and Trump—you either get four more years of an ongoing nightmare, or a tepid centrist that will take no major steps to resolving the crises of our times, believes some old and very stupid myths about American politics, and who may pave the way for Fascist 2.0 in 2024. Between the egregious political errors of his career, his uncomfortable behavior around women, and the uninspiring nature of his platform, you may be tempted to believe that he’s a doomed candidate. But again, we return to the critical point: The people supporting him are not the same people who spend hours on Twitter, or reading political analysis online, or venturing much beyond the universe of cable news networks. Their numbers are vast; ours are limited. The things we have read and the things we believe are not penetrating that broader culture; they know he was Obama’s vice president, they think he can beat Trump, and he looks the part. If you ask them about Bernie Sanders, they’ll likely bring up the fact that he’s a millionaire now and therefore a hypocrite. That’s that.

Now, let’s move on to Trump. You may have spotted a seeming flaw in my logic, which is that unlike Hillary Clinton, and unlike Joe Biden, Trump has always attracted enormous crowds at his rallies and will almost certainly continue to do so throughout the 2020 campaign. Doesn’t that mean his supporters “care”?

No. The difference between the crowds at a Trump rally and a Sanders rally is that Sanders has attracted young people by virtue of his policies, and his willingness to verbalize political beliefs that have been off-limits in mainstream American politics for decades. Trump’s crowds are also attracted by “off-limits” beliefs, but these beliefs are emotional and racial and id-based, and when he touches on policy, it’s always in broad, mostly unrealistic, “build the wall” type strokes. You might disagree, but when “policy” comes up in a Trump rally, I believe it’s always intentionally vague—partly because Trump is not a wonk and has no interest in understanding the small details, and partly because his administration was always going to be a continuation of every Republican administration for the last 40 years, with the addition of a few heinous human rights atrocities here and there, most of which he was forced to back down from. Sanders’ policy-first approach was limiting once you left the rally—it required a lot of intellectual engagement—while Trump’s emotional appeal was not.

Let me put it plainly: Trump beat Clinton, in part, because his voters cared even less about policy than hers. And, you shouldn’t be surprised to know, the demographic info was a reverse of the Sanders-Clinton primary—the margins were slimmer, but he won older people, he won wealthy people, she won the young and the poor.

I’m not saying it’s a guarantee that we’re in for a repeat of history if it’s Biden vs. Trump. The 2016 election was so close that it could tip in any direction, and it’s possible Biden will win more votes among men, or white people, or whomever. But the patterns are there, from the primaries on down, and the next time you read about the size of a crowd at a rally, remember that for every soul shouting in approval as Sanders or Warren or Harris or Buttigieg commands the bully pulpit, there are ten more at home who don’t give a fig for progressive policy, who will not change their minds, and who will turn out in droves on election day to deliver a cold dose of reality. For now, at least, there are more of them than there are of us.

But let me end on a note of optimism: This is true of our current demographics, and it’s true on a national scale. It’s not true on a local scale, where enthusiasm often carries the day and sometimes in dramatic fashion, and it’s not inevitably true forever. Young people today are growing up with rising costs, lower incomes, and limited opportunity compared to their elders, and these conditions will inevitably give rise to a change in the way the over-45 crowd votes by the time we reach that age bracket. The facts of this year’s primary aren’t a cry to give up—just to acknowledge the limitations of the system we’ve built as it stands today. If anything, this should spur activists even harder…as we see in the Fight for 15, to use just one example, real change always starts at the grassroots.

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