Joe-mentum — what happened with the Biden Surge and why politics is so hard to predict

Joe Biden in front of a US flag
Joe Biden in front of a US flag
Image: Gage Skidmore

A week really is a long time in politics. After the Nevada Caucuses Bernie Sanders seemed to be the clear front runner, with the Democratic nomination his for the taking. Then the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday happened. Joe Biden experienced a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, comeback and the reversal of his political fortunes. How did most people, almost everybody, including myself, get it so wrong?

Before we get into the specifics, it’s worth thinking about the misconceptions that exist about politics.

There are no experts in politics

There are experts in subjects, but even experts get things wrong. In politics, I am not sure there are even experts. Some people know things, some think they know things, but to paraphrase Chomsky, anyone with a high school education is more than capable of having an in-depth knowledge of politics.

It’s in the interests of politicians as well as journos and pundits to have people believe politics is some difficult subject that not everyone can understand. In reality, we’re all just guessing.

The Democratic Process

In a democracy, talking about politics, whether it be informally or as part of an organisation, is the same as commentating and reporting; an essential part of the democratic process. The line between people saying what they think should happen and what will happen doesn’t really exist. Newspapers and news channels have no special insight.

Everyone has an ideology

The mistake we make is thinking some viewpoints are impartial, independent and worthy of attention, and others aren’t. Everyone has an ideology, a way of looking and interpreting the world.

People who claim to have no ideology actually have the strongest ideology, they don’t think their outlook is influenced by their upbringing or personal experience, they can’t accept they have ideas about how things work, that other people don’t share. They think their way of looking at the world is correct and can’t be wrong, and that everyone else is biased. As in science, if something can’t be falsified, it can’t be proven.

If you accept that you have an ideology, it’s easier to think about how you are wrong.

Explaining

There’s a general human tendency to try and explain how we get things wrong by looking at what was missed but perhaps some things just can’t be predicted.

So what happened?

Even considering that we should still try and explain things, it’s the only way we can learn but it’s important to remember we won’t always be able to learn.

A field of two

Bernie Sanders was well-positioned, perhaps perfectly positioned, in a race of multiple candidates. He was on his way to the nomination with around 35% of the vote.

The dynamics of the race changed and went from greatly benefiting Sanders to damaging his chances. South Carolina took out Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. A bunch of moderates had come down to two: Biden and Bloomberg.

With a poor debate performance (including a forensic takedown from Warren) and a generally hostile reception from the Democratic Party, Bloomberg was no longer a threat.

Warren was the only candidate left of significance. While in another election she could have been in with a shout to win, in this one, she wasn’t. There’s an argument that Warren and Sanders were splitting the progressive vote against a now almost unified moderate vote.

The Super Tuesday Deadline

The real deadline wasn’t Iowa or New Hampshire, it was Super Tuesday. With 35% of the delegates being decided, candidates could stay in the race until then. But with Sanders in a position to win, Buttigieg and Klobochur had a decision to make.

It’s worth saying though, I don’t think they dropped out to help out Biden or the moderate cause. If Buttigieg and Klobochur had stayed until Super Tuesday, Biden would still have had a clear victory. Buttigieg and Klobochur jumped before the voters kicked them out.

All the things people thought would happen, such as the field narrowing and the ‘moderate lane’ and the ‘progressive lane’ agreeing on their prospective candidates, did happen, just much later on than most people thought it would.

The perfect storm — Everything went right for Joe Biden.

The scrutiny that Joe Biden had initially faced, had simply faded away. He was trailing in the polls and the other candidates seemed to have a different target. Buttigieg and Klobucher were competing against each other to replace Biden once he pulled out of the race.

South Carolina happened just three days before Super Tuesday — perhaps the perfect amount of time to benefit from a bounce. There was enough time for the story to get out, and there was no time for anyone to try and do anything.

There was no better state than South Carolina for Biden to compete in just before Super Tuesday. Beyond the demographics of the state, is there another place where one endorsement (that of Jim Clyburn) could have had such an impact?

The limits of polling and knowing

Did people know that they were going to vote for Biden until just a few days before? Perhaps not. How many people really think about these things until they have to. Polling can pick up things but not what people themselves are unaware of.

A sizable number of voters didn’t want Sanders and weren’t particularly impressed by Warren or the moderate alternatives to Biden. They had heard of Joe Biden though — the former Vice-President to a still-popular former President.

Iowa and New Hampshire voters are well used to thinking about how they are going to vote. The voters of South Carolina, and other places, once they thought about it, decided on Biden.

Psychology, politics, history, and moments of realisation and despair. There are attempts at humour.

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