Jordan: There’s a famous quote attributed to Prime Minister Trudeau. No, not that one. The original Prime Minister Trudeau. “Living next to America,” Pierre Trudeau said, “is like sleeping next to an elephant. No matter how friendly and even tempered the beast one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” And it’s worth keeping that in mind when trying to make sense of what America’s 2020 election means to us. It might be hard to pinpoint exactly how it matters, but it matters a great deal. On one hand, plenty of Canadians would simply be happy with someone who wasn’t Donald Trump in the oval office, but not all Canadians. And who would that someone be? What would or what could that person actually do to change our relationship with our neighbours to the South? A week ago, remember there were six people vying for the right to run against Trump, even though in some people’s minds there were really only two. And now, after Super Tuesday, is there really only one?
News Clip: Super Tuesday really delivered on the super, a real shocker in a political earthquake. These are the results nobody saw comedy. Let’s go straight to the map this morning, Joe Biden surging to victories in nine States, including a surprise win in Texas. Bernie Sanders won three States, including his home state of Vermont.
Jordan: Is Joe Biden now along to win the democratic nomination? How did that happen so fast? Is there still time for Bernie Sanders to come back and change the narrative? And how different would a Trump versus Sanders campaign be from a Trump versus Biden race anyway? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Ryan Hurl is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He’s here to help us unpack what just happened. Thanks for joining us, Ryan.
Ryan: No problem.
Jordan: Why don’t we start, cause things have changed so quickly, take me back like a week and a half, two weeks ago. What was the landscape in the democratic primary then?
Ryan: Well, the landscape was basically Sanders versus the rest of the world with Warren, you know, kind of an anomalous position. And the basic problem was that you seem to have a situation that was more or less analogous to what was happening with Republicans in 2016. You had an outsider candidate, the Democrats were able to anticipate that this outsider candidate Sanders was coming, but they were not consolidating behind a single candidate. That’s more or less the same situation that Republicans faced in 2016 and what seemed to be the key problem for the Democrats is that no single candidate had a decisive advantage. Again, very similar to the problems Republicans faced. So up to about a week and a half ago, uh, the story was that. Biden’s campaign is flailing. He’s not able to generate enthusiasm. He’s weakened by the divided field, with so many other moderate candidates. And every moderate candidate, whether you’re talking about Buttigieg, Klobuchar, doesn’t yet have an incentive to drop out. Because everyone thinks that at some point, uh, maybe Biden support will completely evaporate and consolidate around another candidate. I think probably Buttigieg had the best hope for this. So that was the situation. And it appeared as if in the absence of a consolidation of the field, Sanders was going to be able, at least potentially, to pull off something like Trump’s upset in 2016.
Jordan: What happened?
Ryan: Uh, well…
Jordan: A lot changed really fast, but was there one big event that coalesced all this? Or was it a gradual–
Ryan: Uh, that’s a difficult question to answer. I would say it was a combination of decisions by the party decision, decisions by individual candidates, and decisions by voters. I think what it comes down to is that in some ways it just has to do with the personalities of the individuals involved. The major Democratic candidates decided that it was not worth it for them to stick it out. And probably on the basis of their own assessments of the electoral playing fields, they either thought that clearly Biden has a better chance against Trump. Uh, perhaps they also did not want to undermine Biden’s chances, and thereby either hurting their own political future, probably certainly front and centre for someone like Buttigieg, or ultimately allowing Sanders, uh, to enter into, you know, to become the nominee when he has such a potentially huge downside for the party, or risky in other words. But I think in terms of the big picture, what we’re really just seeing here, the entire primary process is just essentially asking two questions about the state of the Democratic mind. Is this an election about Donald Trump? Or is this an election about America? Or maybe an election about capitalism? I don’t think we have the final answer yet, but certainly over the past two weeks, what we’ve seen is that this is an election about Donald Trump. This is an election about, we want to return to normalcy. Uh, this is an election about the fact that in some ways, 2016 was a fluke. And we ended up with someone who is not qualified to be president. Right? Uh, had things gone the other way, had a greater deal of support consolidated behind Sanders, if the other moderate had not dropped out, we might be telling a different story. But with each passing day, or at least certainly with the last few passing days, it seems that we’re getting the answer. This is mostly about Trump. It’s not about the fundamental character of American politics.
Jordan: Most of the other democratic candidates made their decision to drop out after Joe Biden won in South Carolina. And what, I guess as a casual observer was strange to me, is wasn’t Joe Biden always supposed to win South Carolina? Like why would that be such a big change?
Ryan: Uh, that’s a good question. I mean, in some ways, you know, Biden was supposed to have won the entire thing. If you asked me a year ago what, what evidence suggests, what does evidence suggest about who’s going to be the winner? I mean, it was clearly Biden. That was even the case up until September. I think that what a lot of the moderate candidates were hoping for was just a sign that finally people would come to a negative assessment of Biden’s chances. There were some reasons to suspect that. Uh, one thing that hasn’t been talked a lot about is the effect of the whole Ukrainian scandal upon Biden, which I initially thought was going to hurt him. That regardless of what you think about Trump’s shenanigans, it does– it was not a good look for Biden, and it might’ve made him difficult to approach or to criticize Trump on some of the personal scandal-type issues. And I had some sort of anecdotal evidence that this was on the minds of some Democratic voters. So there’s that. Uh, there’s also the signs that Biden is not particularly effective, either as a campaigner or as a debater. And so the hope was that finally you would get a flub or a mistake or a kind of breakdown.
Jordan: There being a lot of those!
Ryan: There’s been a disturbing number of them, but just as in the case of Trump in 2016, the sort of individual level scandals slash flubs aren’t– just prove to not be sufficient to bring Biden down. And so South Carolina was the last stage for that. The question was ultimately, uh, are more moderate and more African American voters, uh, are they going to, uh, shift away from Biden? Are they going to take the argument or accept the argument that he simply is not going to be able to be successful in the general election? And after South Carolina, it seemed that no his support that seemed to have it in a year ago has been sustained amongst a lot of his key constituents. And, uh, you know, Iowa, New Hampshire, maybe those were just a little bit outliers.
Jordan: And so he wins South Carolina by a healthy margin and declared himself the comeback kid. And then, uh, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg drop out. What happens on super Tuesday?
Ryan: What happens on Tuesday is that Super Tuesday performs the function that was meant to perform.
Jordan: How? Explain that.
Ryan: Well, Super Tuesday, I mean, it’s the first of all, Super Tuesday in general is just a, something like a primary election date where you have a lot of States, often focused in a certain region. The actual number of States will change from year to year, but the basic idea behind Super Tuesday amongst the more moderate or even conservative Democrats who promoted it back in the 1980s is that we want to have a day that will allow support to consolidate behind our more moderate or conservative democratic candidates. Right? It doesn’t always necessarily work. The vote was really split in 1988 but the idea here basically came to fruition in 1992 where basically you’re able to get kind of a political outsider from the perspective of the Washington based or more liberal democratic party. You have a governor from Arkansas, governor from more conservative leaning state, who was able to take advantage of the fact that you have so many more Southern, more moderate States voting at the same time. So that’s what super Tuesday was meant to achieve, and that’s what it did. So the, it’s something that you could’ve predicted, uh, if you would just look at the general state of support for Biden about a year ago. And the reason people like me was telling my students that, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen to Biden, is that I was focused so much on the individual level factors such as the gaffs and things that we were talking about. But what this shows is that for a lot of people, they understand their political interests. Uh, it’s maybe not quite as volatile as we think. Uh, perhaps campaigning and ground game and money– monetary support, all things were Sanders has a huge advantage in some ways. Perhaps they’re not as, as significant as we sometimes think.
Jordan: In the results that we saw on Super Tuesday, which I mean at least, uh, the morning after as we’re talking, seemed to be fairly decisive. Is this a matter of people coming out to vote for Biden or people not coming out to vote for Sanders?
Ryan: It’s a little too early to say, but I think that yes, the theory of the Sanders candidacy is that this is not just about Trump, but it’s about the fact that public policy is not helping large swaths of Americans, particularly younger Americans, and maybe Americans who previously had been disengaged or alienated from the political process. So the theory of the Sanders campaign is that you are going to energize an entire new generation of voters. And this will give the democratic party an advantage. That’s not what we’re seeing. What we’re seeing in terms of Super Tuesday is the fact that, uh, older voters come out to vote. Uh, they’re a dependable constituency. There is not sort of a sort of mystery source of support for Sanders. That a new set of voters who are going to be mobilized by this different appeal. And that’s not too surprising. Because if someone had asked me a year ago what you thought about Sanders possibilities, I probably would’ve underestimated it, but I still would’ve said, look, I can imagine, imagine Sanders is being very successful in the aftermath of a major foreign policy crisis or a major economic downturn, but I don’t think, when the main issue is just deal with Trump’s sort of palace intrigue and his personal habits…
Jordan: His Donald Trumpy-ness.
Ryan: Exactly. If those are the issues, I don’t see how a more radical candidate like Sanders can be successful. Now, I was wrong because I completely underestimated the way in which the support he developed in 2016 continued over in 2020 and certainly the future of the Democratic party. Even looking at the results from Super Tuesdays suggest that the future is going to be in a Sanders-like direction. Probably not Bernie Sanders, unfortunately, I guess. On a personal level. I mean, he might not be on the scene by the time the next electoral cycle comes around, but in terms of the issues that are motivating young voters, uh, whether it’s housing, education costs, healthcare, I think the Sanders wing of the party, has a lot to be optimistic about.
Jordan: They’re just too early, maybe?
Ryan: It’s just, it’s coming in the future. Right? I still think, I mean, if there’s good news for the, the sort of the left more progressive wing of the democratic party, it’s that younger voters are with them. It’s just that there’s still a lot of older voters around.
Jordan: As we watch these results from here in Canada, what should we be looking for? What matters to Canadians about the results of this election? Is it just for Canada about not having Trump to the South anymore? Or is there a material difference between whether or not Biden or Bernie is the nominee for Canadians?
Ryan: This is a very difficult question for me to answer. Um, I guess the first place I would start. It’s difficult to talk about Canada’s national interest, insofar as Canada has a national interest vis-a-vis its relationships with the United States, it will depend upon whether you think, say the issue of economic growth is relatively more significant than the issue of environmental protection, whether in the near or short term. Let’s say you’re fore-focused on the question of short term economic growth. Well, if that’s the case, a Sanders presidency, even signs that Sanders might win the presidency is going to cause a lot of, of short term uncertainty. And it’s hard to know exactly how that’s going to play out. But it seems to me that it, certainly in the very short term, you’re likely to see, um, kind of economic disruptions coming from even the prospect of a Sanders candidacy. So from that perspective, if you’re interested in Canada’s economic relationships with the United States. Either Trump or Biden is going to be better. But if you’re more focused on the question of the longterm, if you’re more focused on the environmental question, it seems to me that, uh, Sanders’ desire to move towards something like the Green New Deal will create a potential for a kind of, uh, coordinated environmental policies, uh, between Canada, the United States. I mean, it’s easier for Canada to move in a green direction if the States is doing the same sort of thing. So beyond that, I think, I mean, just to be frank, I think most Canadians view these elections, not in terms of how is this going to affect Canada’s interest? Because the interest of Canadians might depend on whether you work in the oil industry or if you’re a professor at UofT or something like that. Most people just think, which kind of president, which I like would I like to live under, and they, and they view it in those terms. Frankly, there is obviously a lot of continuity. Regardless of whether you’re talking about George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Trump, there’s a lot of continuity in terms of Canadian-American relations. So it’s at least, and one final thing to think of, even if you have, let’s say the choice is between Biden or Sanders in terms of the outcome. What they’re actually able to do in terms of policy change might not differ that much. You know, I can’t look into Sanders’ heart. Maybe he is entirely opposed to free trade. Well, the democratic party is not going to be transformed just because Sanders is in power and you know, completely rearranging American trade relations, that’s not something Sanders is going to be able to do. So in some ways, the choice, I think particularly at the international level, Canadian-American relations, the differences might not be that great.
Jordan: Did you see the sort of, I guess half tongue and cheek discussion, but maybe not really tongue in cheek discussion about how if Bernie Sanders were to win and implement Medicare for All, that Canada would lose a good part of our national identity, which is lording our healthcare over the United States.
Ryan: I don’t know how, how important that is to Canadian national identity. It’s a, it’s, it’s a policy we like, and I don’t think that we use will somehow, uh, I don’t think it depends upon pointing the finger at the United States and saying we’re so much superior.
Jordan: We do like doing that.
Ryan: We like that a little bit, but it’s not the nicest side of the Canadian personality. Uh, so I think that Canadian identity in some ways is maybe even more regional than, uh, the American national identity. So I, I don’t think just the, the change in one American national policy is going to affect that. One thing I will say, and this is kind of just reiterating the earlier points, uh, regardless if its President Sanders or President Biden, I don’t think Medicare for all is going to be on the agenda in the near term. Uh, it was incredibly difficult even to achieve the Obamacare reforms. And I would be very much surprised if presidents, uh, if a Sanders victory was accompanied by a kind of landslide election where they also take back control of the Senate or strengthen themselves in the House. What Sanders will be able to do in healthcare is probably just very similar to what president Biden would be able to do, which is make some kinds of incremental reform based upon compromise. So we might still be able to differentiate between the two systems, even with a President Sanders, and even with some significant healthcare reforms.
Jordan: One of the things that has really struck me about, um, this primary is that it all seems to have happened so fast. You know, uh, we had South Carolina, we had two people drop out. We had a big win on Super Tuesday. Mike Bloomberg dropped out of the race. Is it usual for that coalescing to take place over the span of like 72 hours like that?
Ryan: You can see a lot of movement in earlier primaries where… Let’s compare this to the 2012 Republican primary, where again, you have a kind of a similar situation. If you’d asked me close to a year out, I would have said, well, it looks like Mitt Romney is the establishment choice. But then you go through a kind of exploratory process because everyone realized that there were some potential problems with Romney. No candidate idea is ideal, but maybe Romney was particularly not ideal. Merely okay. So they, essentially the Republican electorate is experimenting with different choices. How is Herman Cain going to do in the public eye? Is he going to have this incredible charisma? What about Rick Santorum? And so you see us, you saw a similar kind of process, uh, in the 2019- 2020 cycle. There’s kind of an exploration here. People, uh, see that there are flaws in terms of Biden’s personal habits, personal characteristics, his age. A lot of it comes down to that. So you essentially see the democratic coalition exploring with these, uh, exploring these different possibilities. And I think it’s just the case that none of the other competitors showed themselves to have a decisive advantage, I think particularly in terms of individual charisma, there was no, there’s no new Barack Obama. There’s not, there’s no new Bill Clinton. And so because of that, I think as things were becoming a little bit more into focus and the main alternative was Sanders, yeah, at some point there is a kind of rush to the exits for a lot of the candidates. And so it’s a, I mean, on the one hand, uh, at some points, what was, uh, you would have expected a lot of these candidates to be moving on. I think that they probably did it at the point where Biden was likely to get the greatest benefit.
Jordan: The one person we haven’t talked at all about right now is Elizabeth Warren who is, as of recording, this is still running. First of all, what happened to her candidacy that looked pretty strong and second of all, what kind of power does she have now or is it too late for her to impact the race?
Ryan: I think that the idea behind Warren’s candidacy was that there was a space to unite the two wings of the party. Whether you’re talking about the wing of the party that’s mostly concerned with defeating Trump or the wing of the party that wanted to have, uh, a more innovative and more progressive approach to policy. A sort of next step in progressive politics, and I think that her fundamental assumption was that support for Sanders could be transferred to someone who was offering a similar array of policy options, and perhaps even more detailed policy options. And I think what it comes down to is that proved to be totally incorrect. That the level of support for Sanders is not simply about a kind of policy vision or policy specifics. It really is about the rapport that Sanders had established, um, not just over the course of his career. But particularly over the past four years. I think that there is a kind of, how can I put this? Well, a kind of puritanism on the part of Sanders supporters. And I think that for a lot of them, because Elizabeth Warren has been guilty of crime-think in the past, the fact that she has, you know, advocated ideas that from a certain perspective might seem not entirely fully on the left wing of the political spectrum, even if she’s changed your positions, it doesn’t matter. Uh, so I just think that, uh, it was a test case. There was no way to know in advance how the Sanders supporters are going to respond to this. But she found out, and it’s that they are loyal and they do not want, they did not want someone who’s more of a policy wonk. They simply want to stick to their guy.
Jordan: Is she big enough to make a material difference? If, say, unlike everybody else, she backed out and endorsed Sanders? Not that she would or wouldn’t, but you know.
Ryan: That is an interesting question. Um, I don’t have the numbers at the tip of my, at my fingertips, but there are some signs that a lot of more middle-income female voters have– are attracted to Elizabeth Warren because of her experience, because of her policy acumen and that they’re not necessarily going to go into the Sanders camp if she, if she drops out. So I do think that depending upon her choice, uh, she could direct more of her support towards Sanders. It’s just, it’s not entirely clear to me, uh, how her level, how her supporters break after she withdraws from the campaign. I think that what we’ll learn is, is she in the camp of those who thinks this is entirely about Donald Trump, or is she someone who thinks this is about transforming the democratic party, moving beyond the politics of the last 20 years, in some ways, akin to the way in which the Republican party has changed over the last few years.
Jordan: If you’re a Donald Trump or his campaign advisors watching the results last night, what are you thinking? Is– would you rather run against Biden or Sanders? What’s, what’s good news for you?
Ryan: I think either candidate creates, uh, problems or possibilities for the Trump campaign. Uh, I think in the end you’d have to say that Sanders is a weaker candidate against Trump. Uh, not least, because something that people often forget, African-Americans within the Democratic coalition are the most conservative, the most moderate block within that coalition. And it seems to me that a Sanders candidacy could open up the possibility for the Republican party to move from, say, 10% African-American support to something more like 15% African American support. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but in terms of the outcome of the election, that’s a sea change. I think that it is definitely the case that Trump and the Republicans realize that you cannot survive in American politics being the party of white identity. In someways that’s a good thing because it means that they have to try to reach out to different kinds of voters. But it does create a certain vulnerability for Democrats. I mean, I think that Sanders would have opened up this question of whether, um, how solid is African-American support within the Democratic party. I think Biden will be, it’ll be easier for him to maintain African-American support. It’ll be a much tougher road for the Republicans. So I think for a lot of reasons then, uh, the Trump campaign was probably hoping to face against, a face off against Sanders. On the other hand, Biden does not have a history of being a great campaigner, and people, uh, are starting to throw around the word, I mean, obviously many of them are Sanders supporters, but people are starting to throw around words like cognitive decline. And so on that level, I think as debating opponents, as a campaigner, I think that in some ways, you’d want to face off against Biden.
Jordan: So what is the next big date then that could let us know, uh, whether or not this race is finished? Is it finished now?
Ryan: I would definitely not say that it’s finished now. It seems to me a lot, a lot can still happen. But things are definitely leaning and Biden’s direction. Frankly, I was expecting a much stronger support for Sanders, but by next week, on the 10th, Tuesday the 10th we are going to have a series of primaries and caucuses in states like Michigan, Missouri, Washington. These are states where Sanders is going to have to do very well, and if there was one state I think that matters the most, it is Michigan. If Sanders is able to pull off a very convincing victory there, I think there might be hope for his campaign. But if he, if it’s narrow, even a narrow victory or a loss, I think it will be over for him. And we might see, essentially, I don’t think Sanders will withdraw, but if he loses Michigan, certainly, uh, if he does badly next week as well, the campaign will be all but over.
Jordan: Thanks so much, Ryan.
Ryan: No problem.
Jordan: Ryan Hurl is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. That was The Big Story. If you want more big stories, well, we don’t usually cover American politics, you might find some. At thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also tell us to stick to Canada on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN and you can find us in your podcast feeds wherever those feeds are, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify. I say it all the time, but I say it because we want them. So leave us a rating. Leave us a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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