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Buoyed by the momentum of an incredible Super Tuesday comeback, the case for Joe Biden leading the Democrats in the general election just got a much-needed boost of credibility. He is, according to the Democratic establishment, some polling and a handful of former candidates who have recently offered their endorsements, the candidate best positioned to defeat U.S. President Donald Trump.

Their reasoning is fairly straightforward: Mr. Biden is a familiar face nationally; a moderate who enjoys the crucial support of black voters and suburban centrists. He doesn’t frighten boomers the way the Vermont senator who flails his arms talking about free college and student-loan forgiveness does. Rather, Mr. Biden is the “safe” choice – a progressive who is not too progressive, whose version of change is more of a reversion to the pre-Trump status quo (when, for example, the market was not susceptible to presidential missives tweeted from the toilet) rather than a dramatic and unpredictable shift to the left.

Bernie Sanders would be a delight to Republican propagandists in a general election, which is why the President, who is unfamiliar with the concept of subtlety, has taken to his defence so fervently on Twitter. Republicans would be quick to attack Mr. Sanders in Pennsylvania for his promised fracking ban, in Florida for his praise of Fidel Castro’s literacy program and in other moderate Midwestern and Sun Belt swing states for his unabashed use of the “s”-word.

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That’s what the Democratic Party fears, anyway, which is why, as the primary field narrowed, Mr. Biden suddenly became the lucky recipient of a handful of endorsements, including from three former candidates, as well as former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. No doubt the coalescing of support Monday, following Mr. Biden’s victory in South Carolina Saturday, helped his phenomenal performance in states in which he didn’t even campaign on Tuesday.

The presumption is that Mr. Biden can turn purple states blue in a way Mr. Sanders cannot. The problem with that line of thinking, however, is that it failed spectacularly in the not-so-distant past, when the party backed Hillary Clinton over the same flailing Vermont senator. Her team overestimated Ms. Clinton’s base of support in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin and underappreciated the appeal of a disruptor such as Mr. Trump to an American electorate hungry for an outsider. The results of that election were not only a shock to pollsters but also a blow to the political dictum that the most broadly palatable candidate will necessarily be the successful one.

Rachel Bitecofer, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington and relatively new election forecaster on the scene, earned herself national attention after predicting the outcome of the 2018 midterms with near-perfect accuracy. She also thumbs her nose at the prevailing theories behind election forecasting, including the presumption that elections are decided by swing voters.

According to Ms. Bitecofer, swing voters represent such a small proportion of the result to be largely inconsequential. What matters, she posits, is turnout – how voters enter and exit the political arena. Activating turnout among potential supporters, either through engagement or negative partisanship (fear of the other guy, in other words), is more important than chasing independents.

By Ms. Bitecofer’s theory, Mr. Sanders might in fact be the better choice for Democrats. His radical if ill-defined promises – Medicare for all, closing the wealth gap, legalizing marijuana, abolishing tuition fees, universal child care – could engage and activate voters, particularly young voters, far more than Mr. Biden’s more moderate promises, lacklustre debate performances and confusing stories about his youthful jaunts at the public pool.

Polling has also shown that Mr. Sanders’s supporters are far less likely to support another Democratic nominee (53 per cent will vote for the Democratic nominee regardless) than are Mr. Biden’s (87 per cent), meaning that so-called “Bernie-or-bust” voters might simply stay home if he loses the primary race. Yet it’s also plausible that the Sanders effect in terms of negative partisanship – that is, activating the votes of those who don’t especially like Mr. Trump, but absolutely do not want a socialist in the White House – could very well cancel out his gain among young and/or Hispanic voters.

There are obviously far more factors still at play here, but what we think we know about how the American electorate behaves might not necessarily be correct. The 2016 presidential election, if nothing else, was proof of that.

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A moderate Democrat might seem to be the logical choice for 2020, but with one as gaffe-prone as Mr. Biden, and against a guy like Mr. Trump, it’s anything but a sure thing.

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