The presidential dreams of the left have died for another cycle—last night, just two weeks removed from a caucus victory in Nevada that seemed to make Bernie Sanders a heavy favorite in the Democratic primary, Joe Biden ran up big wins in Michigan, Missouri, and Mississippi, and though Sanders may have scored wins in North Dakota and Washington, the race is effectively over. New York and Florida remain as the states with the most delegates, and Biden is a massive favorite in both, meaning that the nomination fight is all over but the shouting.
Assuming Bernie Sanders doesn’t yield to the cries for unity, and stays in the race at least for the rest of the month, Biden’s only real obstacle will be himself—can he keep it together in his public appearances, especially at this Sunday’s debate, amid whispers that he’s cognitively less than what he once was?
Historically, Biden has been thought of as a poor campaigner, at least on the national level, with his previous presidential runs ending in failure and, in at least one case, ignominy due to accusations of plagiarism. After holding a huge lead for most of the past year, that pattern seemed to be repeating itself with bad results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Things changed quickly, though, with a win in South Carolina that practically forced his moderate opponents to drop out before Super Tuesday and endorse him (with a nudge from Barack Obama, in Pete Buttigieg’s case). Since then, despite not having Sanders’s resources or his ground game, he’s won comfortable or massive majorities in states where his campaign hasn’t had much of a physical presence. Whether that reverses the narrative on his campaigning ability, or whether it simply says that the electorate was terrified of Bernie Sanders taking on Trump, isn’t clear. What is clear is that after a lifetime of presidential runs that didn’t see him capture a single state, he’s now at the peak of his success.
Whether he’s at the peak of his abilities is another question, and at this point the only thing that could turn this nomination race around is a glaring mistake or embarrassment that Biden brings on himself. As early as last spring and summer, his campaign was scaling back events to limit his exposure, and that tactic—or at least talk of that tactic—has persisted throughout 2020. Comparing his appearances to 2016 reveals someone who seems less certain of his own speech and misspeaks frequently, which has led to questions of how well he can tolerate a general election campaign.
It’s difficult to tell whether questions about his mental fitness are valid, or represent a kind of wishful thinking from the left. But it’s clear that after Tuesday’s primaries, Bernie Sanders can no longer beat Biden, and in fact, Biden can only beat himself.