Why 2020 Democrats Were Able to Consolidate the Moderates and 2016 Republicans Weren’t

The races are more alike---and yet more different---than we seem to remember.

In recent days, I’ve seen some incredibly intelligent and politically-sophisticated people advance versions of this argument:

I’ve addressed it at least twice on Twitter in recent days but think it’s worth a somewhat longer, less ephemeral response here.

In 2016, Donald Trump was the frontrunner within a week of entering the race and, despite the hopes and predictions of analysts like yours truly, never relinquished that status.

By contrast, in 2020, Joe Biden was the clear frontrunner from the outset, had a really bad couple of weeks in February, and then quickly rebounded:

Beyond the national popularity numbers, which are indicative but not the way we allocate delegates, the two contests started out very differently.

As with the 2020 Democrats, quite a few big-name candidates who qualified for the debates—George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry—dropped out before the first votes were cast.

Look at what happened before Super Tuesday on the GOP side in 2016:

So, for all intents and purposes, the race was over before Super Tuesday.

On February 1, Cruz “won” Iowa, receiving 8 delegates, with Trump and Rubio each getting 7.

Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, dropped out.

On February 9, Trump won New Hampshire and 11 delegates, with Kasich getting 4, Cruz and Bush 3, and Rubio 2.

Jim Gilmore, Chris Christie, Carlie Fiorina,

On February 20, Trump won South Carolina, with a virtual Cruz-Rubio tie for second, but it was winner-take-all and so he took home a whopping 50 delegates.

Bush dropped out.

On February 23, Trump won Nevada handily, winning 14 delegates, with Rubio earning 7, Cruz 6, Carson 2, and Bush 1.

None of the remaining candidates dropped out before Super Tuesday on March 1. Carson dropped out on March 3.

So, contra Goolsbee—and, again, I’m not picking on him—the moderate field had indeed substantially winnowed itself by Super Tuesday. Indeed, it arguably did so just as much as the 2020 Democrats, which still had Biden and Bloomberg.

Sure, it would have been great if Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich had managed to consolidate into one candidate. But which one? For the 2020 Democrats, Biden was the obvious choice: he was both far and away the most popular candidate nationally and had a substantial delegate lead over the non-Bloomberg moderates. And the non-Bloomberg moderates were flat broke.

Super Tuesday had the inevitable outcome of finishing off the race:

.After the fact, it’s rather obvious that Cruz was the candidate around whom the others should have rallied. He won by far the most non-Trump delegates. But, going into the day, there was just as good an argument for Rubio. (Although maybe not for Kasich, for whom I ultimately voted that day.)

And here I’ll pick on Goolsby just a bit: It’s noteworthy that he thinks Bush, who was forced to withdraw after South Carolina, could have been the one left standing and left Cruz, who ultimately got more votes than Bush, Rubio, and Kasich combined, out of the mix.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the 2016 Republicans had one issue in common with the 2020 Democrats: agreeing on “lanes.”

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the Republicans should have coalesced around a non-Trump option. But, at the time, Cruz was still fighting to carry on the conservative mantle while Rubio and Kasich were still fighting to carry on a moderate program. They’re only natural allies after the fact.

Add to that the fact that almost everyone hates Ted Cruz, whereas almost everyone loves Joe Biden.

While the Democrats more quickly—perhaps precisely because they’ve seen what happened to the Republicans in the previous cycle–consolidating into Sanders and “non-Sanders” coalitions, there’s still the matter of Elizabeth Warren. Is she supposed to throw her support to Sanders as a fellow progressive? Or to Biden as a fellow member of Team Sanity?

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2016, Campaign 2020, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kingdaddy says:

    As soon as Tulsi Gabbard tears off the prosthetic human face mask and wig that conceal what’s beneath, I’m sure that she’ll lock up the Reptoid vote. I’m grateful that she’s stayed in the race long enough to reach that landmark.

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  2. mattbernius says:

    Add to that the fact that almost everyone hates Ted Cruz, whereas almost everyone loves Joe Biden.

    To this point, it might have helped Sanders a lot if he didn’t spend the last five years essentially using the “Ted Cruz” approach to winning friends and influencing people in the Democratic party – especially among his fellow senators.

    Though I think the other thing that we have to acknowledge is that the Democratic base remains far more coalition-based than the Republican base. Again, we cannot discount the role of minority, and in particular Black voters, in shifting the dynamic of the race.

    Much of Trump’s success came from the fact that conservative media has created a strong block of voters. Despite claims of a Bernie coalition and his bringing new voters into the process, those folks just haven’t shown up en mass at polling sites (or at least not in large enough amounts to offset other groups).

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  3. drj says:

    Why 2020 Democrats Were Able to Consolidate the Moderates and 2016 Republicans Weren’t

    I’m not sure this comparison works.

    Programmatically, Trump was the moderate option among Republicans in 2016.

    * He promised to end the forever wars in the Middle East.
    * He promised to raise taxes on the rich.
    * He promised to protect Medicare.

    Looking at it from that perspective, it’s perhaps not that surprising that he beat Bush, Rubio, and Cruz.

    (Also, you can’t dogwhistle for two generations and then expect that your voters will go for the brown guy.)

    Conventional ≠ moderate.

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    It’s also hard to coalesce an alternate faction when there’s only one to begin with. Anyone who had any staying power in the 2016 GOP primary had that staying power because he or she tried to run as “Trump 2.0. The conservative movement got the candidate they’d been cultivating for 4o f’k’n years. Why take a substitute when you can have the original?

    1
  5. Grewgills says:

    If their candidate to coalesce around was Cruz, I’m not sure I’d prefer the alternative to what we got.
    Now we have “malevolence tempered by incompetence”, with Cruz we’d have had ”malevolence tempered by…”

    2
  6. Scott F. says:

    @drj:
    The Republican Party had three “lanes” in 2016 – the conservatives, the moderates, and the easily duped. Trump cornered the magic elixir market and the GOP base was buying.

    2
  7. @drj:

    Programmatically, Trump was the moderate option among Republicans in 2016.

    I recall a very mixed and disingenuous message on taxes (with a lot of talk about corporate taxes).

    On Medicare and Social Security, he pulled the Tea Partyesque “Keep the government out of my Medicare” routine without any understanding of how nuts that was.

    On forever wars, I agree with you.

    However, his populistic approach and his gross white nationalism (and economic isolationism) made him far more the reactionary candidate than the moderate one.

    Building walls isn’t moderate. A Muslim ban isn’t moderate. Breaking trade deals isn’t moderate. And so forth.

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  8. @Grewgills: I do not want a Cruz presidency, but Cruz would have been a far more standard-issue Republican and would have respected the basic institutions of the executive branch.

    He would not have a Rex Tillerson at State, for example, or a Ben Carson at HUD (or any number of other Secretaries who clearly had disdain for their department and/or was incompetent to hold the position).

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  9. Back to the OP specifically: GOP rules, which favored plurality winners, also made GOP coordination all the more difficult.

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  10. Moosebreath says:

    Missing from this analysis is:

    (1) the Real Clear Politics chart showing polling support over time suggests that coalescing earlier likely would not have worked under the existing rules. Trump seems to have received a significant bump each time candidates left the field, except after Iowa, which Trump lost.

    (2) the effect of winner-take-all primaries. Had there not been, there would still have been an opportunity after Super Tuesday to coalesce around a non-Trump candidate, as Trump’s lead would not have been so large.

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  11. Fortunato says:

    @drj:
    Of course Trump promised FAR more than that. Trump the Candidate was a died-in-the-wool moderate in nearly every policy prescription he put forth.

    “As soon as we take office, it’s America first again. That begins with immediately repealing and replacing ‘Obamacare’ … We’re gonna repeal it, we’re gonna replace it, and we’re gonna get you great, great health care at a fraction of the cost,”
    -Oct. 25, 2016, Tallahassee Florida rally

    “The miners are going back to work in Wyoming and in West Virginia and in Ohio. And, by the way, the steelworkers too,”
    Oct. 30, 2016 rally in Greeley, Colorado.
    (and of course coal remains a dying industry and manufacturing is in recession)

    “To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — creating millions of new jobs,”
    (not penny one for infrastructure – Trump has blocked every infrastructure bill brought forth)

    In a March 31, 2016, interview with the Washington Post, Trump promised to eliminate the United States’ $19 trillion in debt in eight years.
    (Ha!)

    There’s no need to discuss Mexico paying for a Wall; or Trump’s promise to lower Rx prices (“it’ll be sooo easy”) while blocking every effort toward that end; or Trump closing all those capitals gains tax loopholes through which the rich continue to navigate their yachts, or.. countless policy prescriptions that dug directly from the burial ground of past and current Democratic legislation initiatives.

    But the Trumpaloons don’t really give f…, now do they.
    Why, Donald Trump might just be the bestest president in ALL of history!
    Whether Trumps fulfills a single promise is irrelevant to these halfwits. As long as he continues to wave the banner of White Nationalism with one hand while pounding the bible with the other – that is of course when those hands aren’t grabbing pu##ies, punching looney libruls and DFH’s – the rube legions are a pickin’ and a grinin’. Shi**in’ in high cotton as their Defender Of All Things Cretin goes to war on their behalf.
    Country be damned.

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  12. Gustopher says:

    Don’t underestimate what they are coalescing against.

    Trump welcomes people into his coalition, and was a member of the Republican establishment in ways that Bernie just isn’t. Trump appeared at CPAC time and time again. Trump pushed the birther nonsense, and took up the baton of Sarah Palin as the Know-Nothing wing of the party.

    Bernie… has never really tried to be a Democrat.

    I should be supporting Bernie right now as the closest ideologically to Warren, but I just can’t. Had he switched parties in 2016, and made inroads with the establishment… sure, he would be a plausible candidate, but he didn’t.

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  13. Kingdaddy says:

    I think the one down-vote I got for my previous comment was from a Reptoid. They’re hiding among us, people!

    3
  14. @Fortunato:

    “As soon as we take office, it’s America first again. That begins with immediately repealing and replacing ‘Obamacare’ … We’re gonna repeal it, we’re gonna replace it, and we’re gonna get you great, great health care at a fraction of the cost,”
    -Oct. 25, 2016, Tallahassee Florida rally

    That was, to me, just standard GOP BS: a version of repeal and replace.

    His appeal to miner (coal and steel) and US manufacturing was pure reactionary rhetoric: he was going to bring us back to the glories of the 1950s.

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  15. @Kingdaddy: One must remain vigilant!

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  16. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Of course, Trump was obviously bullshitting.

    Still, his “program” was quite a bit more moderate (on the traditional left-right axis) than that of his conpetitors – who were hardly less reactionary than Trump.

    For instance, Cruz wanted a wall as early as January 2016. He also wanted the police to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” as early as March 2016.

    OK, maybe Kasich was the actual moderate option. But I seem to recall he was always a long shot at best.

  17. @drj: Trump was almost literally promising the 1950s. He was absolutely the most reactionary candidate in the field. (This is not a defense of the other candidates, but I think it is important to understand how to categorize him).

    4
  18. drj says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    He was absolutely the most reactionary candidate in the field.

    I completely agree. Seen as a total package, “reactionary” is a much more accurate label for Trump than “moderate.”

    However, that doesn’t mean (IMO) that his program wasn’t in a number of important respects (taxes, social security) more moderate than that of his competitors.

    His “moderateness” was relative. Not absolute.

    But we’re getting into semantics here, which is perhaps not the most fruitful discussion to be had. So I’ll leave it at this.

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  19. @drj:

    But we’re getting into semantics here, which is perhaps not the most fruitful discussion to be had. So I’ll leave it at this.

    That’s fair (and I am not trying to start a fight).

    I will note that from my POV, “reactionary” makes Trump more on the extreme right (and therefore by no means a moderate, even if some of what he espoused had the patina of moderateness covering it).

    2
  20. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Trump was almost literally promising the 1950s. He was absolutely the most reactionary candidate in the field.

    And his 2020 messaging is already clear: Promises kept! Plus, I’m the reasonable one compared to those wacky socialists DemocRats. It’s real Up is Down stuff.

    Yet, Trump has normalized lying to the country so profoundly, that he’ll be able to pitch Magic Elixir 2.0 for tomorrow premised on how well Magic Elixir 1.0 is already working for America today and there’s no mechanism in politics or media that can make him accountable to the truth. As a human being with the ability to read, see and hear, it is almost unfathomable to me how Trump is able to avoid confronting reality in any way.

    5
  21. Kathy says:

    @drj:

    For instance, Cruz wanted a wall as early as January 2016. He also wanted the police to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” as early as March 2016.

    As to the first, he didn’t say something moronic like Mexico will pay for it, and I doubt he’d have been obsessed with building it once he reached the White House. He’d have set up a commission to study the matter, than taken their recommendation for fixing existing fences and adding a few segments here and there.

    The second is a terrible position, but also clearly campaign rhetoric. Policing is a local matter the president has little say over. He could have threatened to withdraw federal funds from non-cooperating cities, though.

    The major difference, however, is that Cruz is not without shame, he’s not a pathological liar, he’s not a moron, and he probably does not see everything in transaccional terms.

    Still, back when Dennison claimed he could shoot someone in brad daylight and don’t lose any support, I suggested he tried shooting Cruz and see what happens.

    2
  22. DrDaveT says:

    @Grewgills:

    with Cruz we’d have had ”malevolence tempered by…”

    …needing to take time off every 2 weeks to molt.

    4
  23. An Interested Party says:

    As a human being with the ability to read, see and hear, it is almost unfathomable to me how Trump is able to avoid confronting reality in any way.

    He has that in common with his followers, who, for a variety of reasons, also eschew reality…I mean, if they actually did confront reality, there’s no way they could ever support him…

    Still, back when Dennison claimed he could shoot someone in brad daylight and don’t lose any support, I suggested he tried shooting Cruz and see what happens.

    Can I upvote this a million times…

    2
  24. the Q says:

    I hope Joe wins if he gets the nom but let’s not kid ourselves….no ban on fracking, marijuana still a class A drug…. no meaningful destruction of the HMO or big Pharma strangulation of the healthcare system…..no end to bloated military budgets…..no taking on the largess of Wall Street with tougher regulations (he was the Senator from friggin Delaware)….a continuation of the “I love Israel” policies of Trump….and one gaffe away in the 3 debates with Trump from blowing the whole thing.

    Which only goes to show, the biggest obstacle to democratic socialism is not Trump nor the GOP, its the current NEOLIB Dem establishment from the most worthless generation in the history of the country.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @the Q: I want my magic pony too but no matter who gets elected I’m not getting it.

    Which only goes to show, the biggest obstacle to democratic socialism is not Trump nor the GOP, its the current NEOLIB Dem establishment from the most worthless generation in the history of the country.

    Oh yes, it’s all the DEMs fault they can’t stop the GOP from stopping the nirvana that would surely exist if only all the baby boomers would die. Or something or other.

    2
  26. Gustopher says:

    @the Q:

    the biggest obstacle to democratic socialism is not Trump nor the GOP, its the current NEOLIB Dem establishment from the most worthless generation in the history of the country.

    The biggest obstacle to Democratic Socialism in this country is Bernie Sanders. First, he’s really a Social Democrat. Second, he doesn’t build the relationships that he needs to get anything done. Third, he wants revolutionary change and is unwilling to accept incremental change. Fourth, he creates a cult of personality.

    If you go around pissing in everyone’s cereal, and hiring staff that piss in everyone’s cereal, you can’t really expect everyone to embrace you, except for the people who enjoy pissing in cereal.

    But, hey, maybe things do need to get worse before the people (THE PEOPLE!!!) are ready to embrace change. Maybe a Clinton presidency with competent leadership of the CDC and treating health crises as health crises would have just set back the march towards m4a. Maybe we are better off that petulant BernieBros sat out the general election in 2016, and we will be even better off if they do the same in 2020.

    Or maybe Social Democrats need someone who is less of a spokesman (shoutsman?) and more of a leader. Someone who is smart enough to take half a loaf when it’s available and then keep pushing for the other half. Someone who puts as much effort into getting the possible done as trying to make the impossible possible.

    2
  27. An Interested Party says:

    The Q himself is the perfect example of why so much about Bernie Sanders/Bernie Bros is toxic and sadly misinformed…

    3
  28. Kathy says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Can I upvote this a million times…

    Well, you could if I were to post it a million times. But I have other things to do this decade (not necessarily better things, mind, but definitely other things).

    But I appreciate the sentiment.

  29. James Joyner says:

    @the Q:

    from the most worthless generation in the history of the country.

    I’ll just point out again that Biden, Sanders, Pelosi, etc. aren’t Boomers but Silents. We’ve had Boomer Presidents since 1997 but most of the Congressional leadership have been older Silents.

  30. Barry says:

    James, this was an extremely good post!

    Thank you very much for posting it.

  31. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner:

    Which, if I’m not mistaken, is the same generation is “The Q.” Perhaps he’s one of those self-hating Silents.

  32. Game says:

    Add to that the fact that almost everyone hates Ted Cruz, whereas almost everyone loves Joe Biden.

    I will even expand on this point. Democrats not only love Biden, they love Barack Obama. Republicans couldn’t consolidate in 2016 because their former standard bearer (George Bush) wasn’t popular with the base, Obama is beloved by Democrats which gave Joe an advantage.

    If W was still popular among the base of the party, Jeb! would have been the nominee in 2016.