As Hillary Clinton’s potentially criminal e-mail scandal slowly but surely consumes her candidacy, it looks like Vice President Joe Biden will jump into the Democratic presidential primary as the party establishment scrambles to develop a Plan B to defeat the wholly unexpected power of the Bernie Sanders insurgency. President Obama — whose Justice Department is busy untangling Clinton’s e-mails and servers — just tacitly endorsed a Biden run, so an announcement that he is jumping into the race may be a matter of time.
For the Sanders campaign, a three-way fight for the Democratic presidential nomination between himself, Biden, and Clinton creates both advantages and disadvantages.
- Sanders’ poll numbers of 20% and 30% in early primary states suddenly become very competitive; with 35% or 45%, he becomes the front-runner. The more the non/anti-Sanders vote is divided up between rival candidates, the better it is for Sanders. The more the perception that Sanders is or could be the front-runner, the more reluctant and realpolitik Clinton supporters will peel off and support him and the more money will pour into his campaign. Obama’s 2008 Iowa victory rocketed him to an early and ultimately insurmountable lead in pledged delegates and he emerged as the front-runner only because the contest at that point was a three-way fight between himself, John Edwards, and Clinton.
- The Democratic Party establishment splits as its superdelegates and its billionaire class-backers become divided. As leftist commentator and Sanders opponent Arun Gupta argued: “To get the nomination, Sanders campaign has to win or neutralize the following: the money primary, the party machine, corporate America, the mainstream media, organized labor, and the liberal apparatus that includes major feminist, African-American, and Latino organizations. Clinton may seem shaky five months before the first primary, but she has an iron grip on all of these forces (save the media).” A Biden candidacy solves this problem; Clinton’s “iron grip” on all of these social forces would be rocked by a Biden candidacy, thereby neutralizing them as sources of strictly anti-Sanders mobilization.
- Biden’s popular support will come mainly at Clinton’s expense, leaving Sanders’ existing base of support largely untouched. Biden’s differences with Clinton are superficial, not substantive; after all, both served in the same administration for years and both are creatures of the Washington establishment. People who support the Sanders insurgency are not about to switch their allegiance to a man who votes with and for the banksters and whose son was one of their lobbyists.
- Complicates the choice facing voters. A two-way fight between Sanders and Clinton would present Democratic primary voters with a straightforward choice between establishment politics as usual and an insurgent grassroots political revolution, allowing Sanders to capture all of the rising anti-Clinton sentiment for himself.
- Obama’s endorsement of Biden would make Sanders’ quest for the Black vote more difficult. Sanders’ main problem with Black voters is not #BlackLivesMatter but lack of name recognition. In July, CNN polls showed that among non-white voters, 48% had never heard of him; in August, that number fell to 37%. During the same time, his support among non-white voters rose from 20% to 26%. In other words, once non-white voters learned about Bernie Sanders, they tended to support him. Obama’s approval rating among Black voters has hovered near 90% throughout his presidency and his endorsement of Biden would make winning them over harder for Sanders.
- The possibility of a brokered Democratic national convention. A brokered convention occurs when no candidate has enough delegates — pledged delegates and superdelegates alike — to win the nomination so party powerbrokers make dirty deals in backrooms to end the impasse. Whomever the powerbrokers select becomes the nominee once they stiff-arm a majority of the convention delegates into raising their hands for that person when the vote on the convention floor is called.
Given that Sanders has zero superdelegates in his corner (not even Elizabeth Warren), the prospect of a brokered Democratic national convention in 2016 is by far the biggest disadvantage and the greatest danger facing the Sanders campaign if Biden enters the race. Winning the roughly 1,885 pledged delegates necessary to claim a mandate produced by the Democratic primary voting process would be extremely difficult if not impossible for Sanders in a strongly contested, three-way 50-state race. The end result of such a race would undoubtedly be a rotten compromise of some kind between the two losing Clinton and Biden campaigns at Sanders’ expense since he is the outsider in their house and without a shred of institutional support from the Democratic Party machine and its powerbrokers as leverage.
So if Biden enters the race, should Sanders supporters call it quits?
Of course not.
As Sanders stresses in every speech on the stump, this campaign isn’t about him. It’s about creating an ongoing, grassroots movement to take on the billionaire class and its oligarchic dominance of the American political system. It’s about turning the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out in stadiums and town halls all over the country during the campaign into lifelong activists and organizers, into political revolutionaries. It’s about finding, planting, cultivating, and harvesting the seeds of the next generation of Bernies who win local and state state elections, whether as independent or third-party candidates. It’s about forcefully changing the long-term direction of this country away from greater oligarchy and more brutality.
Whether Sanders wins or loses the 2016 primary isn’t the end of that struggle but the beginning.