Democratic politicians are rallying behind former vice president and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden in the common goal of defeating President Donald Trump and reversing burgeoning health, environmental, and humanitarian crises.
Yet, commentators marveling at Democrats’ top-level unity overlook electoral results showing the post-Obama Democratic Party that emerged in 2016 harbors striking divisions. Within those divisions are opportunities, if the party can seize them.
Biden is now the face of a party that is substantially younger, more female, and more racially diverse than the Republican Party. He has work to do to win over many of those younger and non-White voters, especially because his own record is mixed on the issues most important to those demographics.
In 2020, 17.2 million Democrats voted in February and March’s primary elections (before the disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak) in the 14 states with exit-poll data for both 2016 and 2020. In these states, Democratic primary turnout leaped by 27% in four years, an exciting harbinger for the November election.
However, the party’s divisions are stark and misunderstood. Pundits’ claims that progressive Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders lost to Biden because Sanders failed to inspire young voters are wrong. In fact, voting by 18- to 44-year-olds for progressive candidates Sanders and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren leaped by 32% compared to Sanders’ total in 2016’s two-candidate race (see figure 1).
Rather, it was moderate candidates’ failure to attract younger ages that made their turnout appear stagnant. Voting by 18- to 44-year-olds in the 14 states for Biden and other moderates fell by 8% in 2020 compared to the under-45 vote for moderate Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In truth, Sanders lost because older voters flocked to moderate Democrats in even larger numbers. Here the pundits are right: Biden cleaned up. Over-45 voting surged by 40% for Biden and moderates in 2020 compared to 2016, compared to rising only 5% for Sanders and Warren.
Figure 2 details the chasms in the Democratic electorate. In the 14 states, Sanders swept under-45 and Latinx constituencies; Biden swept older, Black, and women voters; and the two candidates split male, White, and other-race votes. Democrats also split between voters who emphasized ideology (agreement with a candidate’s policies) versus practicality (a candidate’s electability).
The divisions defy stereotypes. Women, who now make up 56% of the Democratic electorate, heavily supported Biden and also voted in higher numbers than men for conservative Democrat Michael Bloomberg. This appears surprising. Biden has been accused by eight women of sexual misconduct. Bloomberg was excoriated by Warren for non-disclosure agreements regarding harassment allegations. Evidently, women despise Trump (accused by at least 24 women of sexual offenses) even more.
Latinx voters, who are now nearly as large a Democratic constituency as African Americans, went for Sanders over Biden 2 to 1. In between those groups and the Black voters who favored Biden by more than 3 to 1 are White Democrats, whose votes were split roughly 50-50 between the two candidates, given the margins of error in polling.
Democrats ignore yawning generational chasms at their peril. In 2008, millennials (then in their teens and early 20s) were a key constituency propelling the nomination and election of then-outsider Barack Obama to the White House. One would expect his former vice president to have inherited Obama’s millennial fandom.
Yet, in 2012, millennial voting for Obama fell by the largest share of any age. In 2020, millennials, by this time ages 24 to 39, and 18-23 year-old “Generation Z” voters flocked to progressives.
What lies behind the millennial defection from Obama’s legacy and refusal (so far) to turn more conservative with age?
The millennial/Gen Z revolution has borne witness to significant drops in crime, violence, gun deaths, imprisonment, early pregnancy, school dropout, etc., among the young since the 1990s, despite their being no better off economically than previous generations, and quite a bit worse than the baby boomers. The poverty rate afflicting younger ages remains high and unaddressed. Student debt has exploded. Young voters’ awareness of deleterious social conditions and climate-change crises may be fueling their zeal for the radical political change Sanders and Warren promised.
Meanwhile, the rally to moderate candidates by older Democrats (particularly older African Americans and women) may project a desire for stability or a return to normalcy after the chaos of the Trump years. Aging Americans, particularly White Americans, are suffering major crises, including rising incidences of drug abuse, suicide, gun killings, crime, and incarceration.
These splits will require Biden to innovate a new progressivism. Obama’s endorsement of his former vice president noted that the 2020 election demands a very different campaign than he ran in 2008.
Democrats’ divisions indicate that Biden should embrace Sanders’ key agenda items, which exit polls show Democratic voters strongly favor. These include a pathway to universal health insurance, a powerful climate-change plan, reversal of Trump’s and Obama’s anti-immigration policies, and ending student debt. Biden’s vice-presidential running mate should be someone who can inspire Sanders’ voters, of which Warren, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, and Texas’s Julian Castro appear the most dynamic.
In short, Biden should avoid repeating the mistakes of former Democratic nominees Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, who followed the tradition of choosing a White male running mate and running a centrist campaign to lure conservative White voters. Fewer White voters appear amenable to Democratic messages now; the proportion of Whites voting for the Democratic presidential candidate fell from 43% in 2008 to 39% in 2012 and 37% in 2016. Meanwhile, millions of skeptical young people and Latinx voters remain to be energized.
There is legitimate fear that Biden is a prisoner of pre-2000s prejudices and lacks the imagination to forge new politics to match 2020’s demands. Last spring, Biden made a pointless and hurtful remark, declaring “no empathy” with millennials.
Biden must jettison the old-school positioning, more recently exemplified by President Bill Clinton and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, that tolerates personal misogyny towards young women and regards young people as objects to demonize to impress the old.
A modernized Churchillian notion of a Democratic Party whose head (older, established, practical, seeking “normalcy”) is at war with its heart (younger, newer, idealistic, future-facing) no longer applies. Democrats’ heart and most practical, popular, thought-out plans (many courtesy of Warren) both lie to the left of party leaders’ moderate mindset. Biden’s initial call for a “strong progressive” agenda needs to accompany solid proposals and a new-Democrat vice president to overcome his mixed record. Democrats are no longer the party of Clintons, or even Obama, who governed more as a moderate than a progressive. Growing numbers of Democrats have evolved to meet new challenges in the era of right-wing extremism, myriad social justice and environmental threats, and, now, a deadly epidemic. Its leadership needs to evolve as well.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.