Tuesday’s U.S. presidential primaries underlined the vast power of the unforeseen in American politics.
An unforeseen Democratic presidential nominee is all but certain to be the challenger to the most unforeseen president in American history amid the most unforeseen threat in the long chronicle of the country’s life.
Joe Biden’s clear victories over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in disinfected voting booths in Florida, Illinois and Arizona may have given clarity to the struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination. But those triumphs – achieved amid fear, danger and the sort of social distancing that is foreign to the raucous nature of American politics – only served to underline the massive changes and dislocations that have rocked the United States since the first caucus-goers gathered in Iowa church basements and community centres only six weeks ago.
These have been the six weeks that shook the political world.
In that extraordinarily brief period, vast waves of change have surged across the country.
Those waves swept into a commanding position the first democratic socialist to emerge as a strong contender for a major-party nomination (Mr. Sanders, now the lone, but significantly weakened, remaining major challenger to Mr. Biden); propelled to prominence a political figure from a tiny state (Delaware has a land mass of only 5,000 square kilometres, smaller than Prince Edward Island); raised vital, frightening questions of the health of the country with the world’s largest per capita spending on health (US$9,536, almost twice the Canadian figure, according to the OECD); and transformed a peripheral proposal by a peripheral candidate into a mainstream idea suddenly embraced this week by lawmakers and President Donald Trump (disbursement of cheques to Americans as part of an economic stimulus).
Those waves repelled Mr. Sanders from his front-runner perch and, after Tuesday’s primaries, left his campaign in tatters. They permitted the unlikely rise to prominence of Mr. Biden, who would be by far the oldest president to be inaugurated, eight years older than both Ronald Reagan (whose closest advisers referred to him, though affectionately, as ‘’the old man”) and Mr. Trump (who would be 74 on Inauguration Day). And they jolted the Trump campaign’s prospects by wiping away its most compelling asset, a roaring economy and a robust stock market, even as they presented a new opportunity for the President to project leadership and dominate the American conversation.
Two things are clear as Mr. Biden – who made an extraordinary “I-hear-you” outreach to Sanders voters, especially the young in his Tuesday victory speech – sweeps through the primary. The first is that, barring yet another unforeseen event, he will be the nominee. The second is that, given his age, his personal characteristics, his lack of verbal discipline, his son’s vulnerability to ethics scrutiny and the two failed presidential campaigns in his past, he is one of the most problematical presidential nominees of recent years.
Now an important caveat comes into play: up to and including the evening of the election itself, almost every political expert believed that Gov. Thomas A. Dewey of New York would be the sure winner of the 1948 presidential election. President Harry Truman was re-elected that year. Almost every political professional considered Vice-President George H.W. Bush one of the weakest presidential nominees of contemporary American history. He won the presidency easily in 1988. And nearly every reputable political model was in agreement that Hillary Clinton would be elected four years ago. Mr. Trump triumphed.
He triumphed in large measure because he won Florida, a state that Mr. Biden took handily in Tuesday’s balloting. Victory in a Democratic primary is no assurance of a victory in the general election; Mr. Biden’s streak toward the nomination began with his triumph in South Carolina, for example, but hardly anyone believes he can take the Palmetto State, where the Civil War began and where Republicans are entrenched in power, in the general election.
Even so, a victory of Mr. Biden’s magnitude suggests that Florida – the crucial state in the close, overtime election of 2000 and the early indicator that Mr. Trump could take the White House in 2016 – gives the Democrats plausible hope of being competitive in a state with a large number of Jewish voters, Hispanics and the elderly.
The path ahead for Mr. Sanders is both clear and muddied. Even his closest and most loyal acolytes concede that his prospects for winning the 1,991 delegates required to capture the nomination have dimmed to the point of darkness. But some of those close and loyal acolytes believe his presence in the race offers voters an important choice and, moreover, acts as a force field to prevent Mr. Biden from sliding into the soft liberalism that they deplore and that they believe explains the Democrats’ failure to capture winnable races in 1988 (Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts) and 2004 (Sen. John F. Kerry, also of Massachusetts).
And yet it is incontrovertible that while Mr. Sanders’ campaign is all but over, the campaign to define the Democratic Party has only just opened.
The battle beyond the primaries will be on the Democratic platform planks on health care (Mr. Sanders will not abandon his fight for a Canada-style scheme), taxation (the Vermonter advocates tax surcharges on the wealthy), the campaign-finance system and the presence of lobbyists in Washington (he wants to eliminate the power of the rich and large corporations), and the environment (he advocates a more far-reaching approach to global climate change).
And so in a year with so many unforeseen factors, there is no certainty, except uncertainty itself.
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