The big issue for Democrats is Donald Trump

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The big issue that’s driving the Democratic primaries this year isn’t “Medicare for All” or a “wealth tax” or climate change. It’s Donald Trump. Democrats are desperate to bring down President Trump, so they’re closing ranks around the candidate they believe is most likely to do that.

It didn’t happen right away. In the early contests, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stole their hearts. Polls of Democratic voters showed that they supported Sanders’ positions on most issues, including Medicare for All, free tuition at public universities, climate change, minimum wage, taxing extreme wealth, student debt forgiveness and paid family leave. Sanders tied for first place in Iowa, won a narrow victory in New Hampshire and a solid victory in Nevada. Sanders had momentum, or what George H.W. Bush once called “the Big Mo.”

Sanders’ “Big Mo” lasted exactly a week. The South Carolina Democratic primary handed Sanders a devastating defeat in the first contest where African-American voters played a key role. With breathtaking speed, the “Big Mo” shifted to former Vice President Joe Biden, who had been left for dead after losing the first three contests.

What happened?

What happened is this: Democrats woke up and asked, “What are we about to do? Are we about to nominate a self-described socialist for president of the United States?” They had visions of Sanders losing to Trump and dragging down Democratic candidates from the top to the bottom of the ticket. That fear was confirmed when President Trump and congressional Republicans started attacking the “socialist Democrats.”

African-Americans are the constituency most threatened by Donald Trump and most committed to defeating him. By voting 61 to 17 percent for Biden over Sanders in South Carolina, they sent an urgent message to their fellow Democrats: “Stop! If you nominate Sanders, you’re going to doom us to four more years of Donald Trump. And probably a Republican Congress to do his bidding.”

The message took hold instantly.

Three days after the South Carolina primary, Biden won 10 out of 14 states on Super Tuesday. Sanders did take the big prize, California — but one reason for that is that California allows voters to cast mail-in ballots weeks before primary day. The exit poll revealed that California voters who said they decided how to vote “in the last few days” went for Biden two to one over Sanders. Those who decided earlier — when Sanders had the “Big Mo” — went two to one for Sanders over Biden. How you voted had a lot to do with when you voted.

Biden sustained his momentum in this week’s “Mini-Super Tuesday” primaries — specifically in Michigan, the primary where, four years ago, Sanders eked out a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton and kept himself in the running. In 2016, a lot of the Sanders vote in Michigan came from Democrats who didn’t like or trust Hillary Clinton. Brandon Dillon, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, told The New York Times, “I know people personally who voted for Bernie [in 2016] because they wanted to send a message to Hillary.” And this year? Dillon said, “People just want to win because we know who our opponent is and what he can do if he gets another four years.”

In Michigan this year, according to the exit poll, 38 percent of the voters wanted Democrats to nominate “someone who agrees with you on the issues.” Most of those people voted for Sanders. A considerably larger 57 percent wanted Democrats to nominate “someone who can beat Trump.” Those people voted 61 percent for Biden.

Asked directly, “Who has the best chance to defeat Trump?” Michigan primary voters said Biden (55 percent) rather than Sanders (32 percent).

The issue that dominates American politics right now is one that never got discussed in a Democratic debate because it’s only just become a crisis — the coronavirus epidemic. Tuesday’s Michigan exit poll got at it by asking, “Which candidate do you trust most to handle a major crisis?” Biden led Sanders, 49 to 35 percent. In a crisis like this, experience counts. And Biden has more experience than Sanders (or Trump).

Are Democrats now hopelessly polarized between Biden supporters and Sanders supporters? Not exactly.  When asked, “Would you be satisfied if Biden wins the Democratic nomination?” 71 percent of Michigan Democratic voters said “Yes.” When asked, “Would you be satisfied if Sanders wins the Democratic nomination?” 65 percent said “Yes.”

Opposition to President Trump is holding the Democratic Party together and driving Joe Biden’s momentum. For most Democrats, the ideological divide in the party is a secondary concern.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates African-American voters Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Michigan Mississippi Missouri South Carolina South Carolina primary Super Tuesday

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