Will Biden get 'Berned' in general election by leftward drift?

Positions on guns, drilling, Green New Deal could hinder efforts to win back industrial swing states

Sanders exits, BIden remains
Joe Biden stands alone, as Bernie Sanders exits the stage at Democratic debate, March 15, 2020
(Mandel Ngan/Getty)
Last Updated:
March 18, 2020 - 10:31pm

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s dominating Democratic presidential primary finish Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona puts pressure on rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to drop out, but in some ways the self-described democratic socialist has already won by pulling Biden and other Democrats leftward. 

Now the question is whether Biden’s left turn on issues like sanctuary cities, public funding for abortion, Sen. Elizabeth Warren's plan to ease bankruptcy, full public-funded college tuition and other policies could hurt him in the general election. 

Sunday, during their only one-on-one debate, Sanders hit Biden on policies like Medicare-for-all, abortion, campaign finance, and energy policy, also slamming Biden as being inconsistently progressive for his past votes for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Defense of Marriage Act against gay marriage. Just a few hours prior to their debate, Biden’s camp announced he was “adopting Senator Sanders’ proposal” to use public money to fully fund college tuition for families who earn under $125,000 a year. 

Capri Silvestri Cafaro, Democratic strategist and former member of the Ohio Senate, told Just the News that Biden’s leftward shift was politics as usual and that Biden will tack to the center now that he has likely sewn up the nomination.

“Biden’s shift to the left is less about the influence of AOC or Sanders and more about the usual shifts that happen in any primary race,” Cafaro said. “It is customary for contenders to move further left or right in a primary depending on their party affiliation because primary voters are more ideological stalwarts than the general electorate. Nominees usually move back to the center in the general election race. This is nothing new.”

GOP pollster Christopher S. Wilson, who served as pollster for Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, said Biden was moving left because the Democratic Party was moving left.

“There’s no question that Biden has been forced to evolve his positions in order to win the primary and in an attempt to unite Democrats and attract Bernie Bros,” Wilson told Just the News. “This is further evidence the party has been taken over by socialists like Sanders, AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], [Rep. Ilhan] Omar, [Rep. Rashida] Talib and others. While Biden will be forced to moderate for the general election, he’s made statements that will make that very difficult.”

Wilson said Biden’s shift to the left on energy policy in particular could harm him with industrial swing states. 

“His positioning on guns, banning all drilling, and the Green New Deal will make it difficult to hold suburban voters, particularly Republicans that might have considered voting Democrat, and win back states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin,” Wilson said. “In fact, Biden’s debate positioning that he wants to ban all drilling will put Colorado much more winnable for President Trump.”

Wilson also said he didn’t think that Biden’s shift left is evidence for the country moving further left. 

“I have no evidence of that,” Wilson said. “Certainly, voters have moved left on some issues (e.g., gay marriage) but they have equally moved right on others (e.g., abortion).”

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, an influential civil rights organization that often works with Democratic officials, told Just the News that Biden at his core is someone who simply wants to get things done rather than hew to strict ideological lines.

“Joe Biden has always struck me, above all else, as a pragmatist,” Morial said. “His decades of experience in the Senate and in the White House have given him a keen sense of what is possible. If Joe Biden’s agenda has moved to the left on certain issues, it’s largely because a philosophical shift among the American people has put certain policies within the realm of possibility. The electorate is growing younger and more diverse, and likely as a result of that, more progressive. The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be as much a result of that shift as a cause of it. That Biden is seen primarily as a moderate in this race, when his platform is significantly more progressive than Barack Obama’s first-term agenda, is really reflective of that shift.”

Darrell West, vice president of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and author of “Divided Politics, Divided Nation,” told Just the News that “Biden has shifted to the left because the party rank and file has moved left.” West’s assertion has been documented by academic researchers, including University of California at San Diego’s Lane Kenworthy.

“Grassroots activists have been radicalized by Trump and won a nominee who supports progressive positions on income inequality, climate change, and the social safety net,” West said. “Those pressures will become even more intense if the economy slides into recession and unemployment rises. There will be pressure to bail out various businesses and help people survive the hard times.”

Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for the Department of Justice in the Clinton administration, told Just the News that questions remain whether Biden will generate the fiery enthusiasm within the Democratic base that was seen among devoted Sanders supporters.

“Biden has a strong coalition going into the general election,” Gordon said. “The big question is to what extent Bernie supporters will show up for him. By reaching out on some more progressive issues like Warren’s bankruptcy plan, Biden is making some more room in his tent. At the end of the day, Sanders’ supporters dislike of Trump is stronger than any discomfort of Biden, but anything Biden can do to inspire them to get to the polls will only be additive.”




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