Is Joe Biden the Democrats' Mitt Romney of 2020?

Is Joe Biden the Democrats' Mitt Romney of 2020?
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Journalists are comparing Joe BidenJoe BidenButtigieg campaign claims 'irregularities' in Nevada caucuses Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE’s 2020 primary campaign to Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyPaul Ryan says he disagrees with Romney's impeachment vote Progressives hope Nevada offers roadmap for pro-union 2020 victory Texas woman sentenced for illegal voting faces deportation after parole MORE’s 2012 race.

Marc Thiessen of the "Washington Post" recently wrote that Republicans who were determined to defeat Obama united behind “a genial, milquetoast moderate who they thought was more ‘electable’ than some crazy right-winger.”

Thiessen sees Democrats in 2020 following a similar path. Kyle Kondik at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote that Biden resembles Romney in that he fits a significant voting bloc within the party — although not a majority — and his opponents have fractured the remaining vote to the extent that none of them will be able to stop him even if the former veep fails to expand his appeal.

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There is truth to both of these perspectives. However, what strikes me as a much more critical comparison to make is that this is the first comprehensive open Democratic primary since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision, in the same way, 2012 was the Republicans’ first primary under the new rules.

Biden may be a weak candidate in the same way Romney was, namely because his party has lost the ability to corral all the outside money into the presidential primary.

If you are one of the individuals who believe Romney lost the 2012 election because he was weakened in the primary, I encourage you to pay attention to Biden’s primary foes and look at the spending choices of wealthy Democrats who are still on the sidelines.

Mitt Romney had steady support from 20 to 30 percent of Republican voters through 2011 and into 2012. Four other Republicans — Rick PerryRick PerryTop National Security Council aide moved to Energy Department role Overnight Energy: Green groups to sue over Trump rollback of Obama water rules | GOP climate plan faces pushback from right | Bezos launches B climate initiative Rick Perry to rejoin dental insurance company as chief strategy officer MORE, Herman CainHerman CainOn The Money: Trump adviser presses House to make Bezos testify | Kudlow says tax-cut proposal coming this fall | NY Fed says Boeing woes could hurt GDP | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Republicans expect Trump to withdraw controversial Fed nominee MORE, Rick Santorum, and Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE — briefly overtook Romney in national polls, but none of them could sustain their support.

Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucus, and Newt Gingrich won some southern primaries, but there was never any doubt that Romney would eventually be the nominee.

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Santorum and Gingrich, however, remained in the race long after it became clear they had no path to the nomination and no money; both benefitted from the super PAC support of idiosyncratic billionaires eager to exploit the new campaign finance rules.

Following the 2012 campaign, some concluded that Romney suffered from Santorum and Gingrich’s persistence (and to a lesser degree, the continuation of Ron Paul’s campaign). Romney was forced to run to the right, and this made him vulnerable to criticism in Republican debates even though he practically had the nomination locked down.

The party held seven debates during January and February that year, and Romney was the target of a $5 million ad buy sponsored by the pro-Gingrich super PAC for a TV spot criticizing his role at Bain Capital. None of this helped him secure the nomination, and Obama was able to use the Bain Capital connection to significant effect in his advertising.

Super PACs haven’t played much of a role (yet) in the current Democratic primary; so far, Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNew Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announces tumor on kidney, will undergo treatment The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime MORE is the only candidate who’s received super PAC support; Warren and Sanders have made a point of rejecting them. However, the money —or the possibility of a massive influx of cash — is there, and it could very well fuel unrest within the party well into 2020.  

The two biggest spenders of the primary so far, Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergPoll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll Sanders has wide leads in two of three battleground states: survey MORE and Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerCampaign announces Steyer qualifies for South Carolina debate Trailing Democrats tout strength with black voters ahead of South Carolina Sunday shows - 2020 spotlight shifts to South Carolina MORE, are betting on themselves. Neither has posed a severe challenge thus far to the top tier candidates despite having spent tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns, although at the very least Steyer has been able to inject the things he wants to talk about into the race.

Bloomberg and Steyer could have done this before Citizens United. Still, they have been empowered by the decision — both have had experience running super PACs for a few years now, and both know how to use their fortunes to develop political campaigns as well as, or better than, the Republican super PAC spenders of 2012 and 2016.

Meanwhile, even the candidates with less support stand ready to benefit from a wealthy benefactor swooping in on their behalf.

The hit job on Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll Sanders has wide leads in two of three battleground states: survey MORE (D-Mass.) conducted a few weeks ago by a variety of wealthy folk, and the unlikelihood of corporate America warming to Bernie SandersBernie SandersSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Buttigieg campaign claims 'irregularities' in Nevada caucuses Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden MORE (I-Vt.), suggests that somebody else could become the anti-Biden candidate of choice for Democratic elites; Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg campaign claims 'irregularities' in Nevada caucuses Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden 9-year-old asks Buttigieg how to be strong and tell people he is gay too MORE is one possibility.

Another possibility is Former Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickNevada caucuses open with a few hiccups Hill TV's Saagar Enjeti slams the media's coverage of Deval Patrick's 2020 campaign The Hill's Campaign Report: Bloomberg to face off with rivals at Nevada debate MORE (D), whose nascent campaign would require super PAC support to become competitive (and who has already said he’s willing to accept it).

There’s little evidence that Romney lost the 2012 election because of Gingrich and Santorum. It is also debatable whether prolonged primary campaigns harm presidential candidates. The polls don’t show that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll MORE’s chance of reelection has much to do with who the Democratic nominee is.

And, of course, there is no reason to believe that the 2020 election will resemble any previous election, given Trump’s impending impeachment. That said, I think there’s ample reason to believe the unregulated spending that complicated Mitt Romney’s chances in 2012 could upend the Biden campaign in 2020.

Should Biden go on to win the nomination and lose the general election, people will have some reason to blame the primary process.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.