This was supposed to be the presidential primary race in which the progressive wing of the Democratic Party put it all together. The left was coming for power, not only moral victories. One popular podcast promised that the party’s moderates would soon “bend the knee,” as working Americans flocked to a left-wing presidential agenda.
But after a disastrous month of electoral drubbings that continued with Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, it has become clear that the presidential promises of political revolution and big structural change will once again have to wait.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is not just beating liberal rivals, all but vanquishing Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and outlasting Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. His candidacy has poked significant holes in the strategy of their wing of political thought.
Their big investments in organizing could not overcome his name recognition. They could not reshape the primary electorate, while Mr. Biden has surged among more moderate voters in Democratic suburbs. They could not cut into his advantage with black voters. And they could not overcome his electability argument — that he is the best candidate to defeat President Trump — as evidenced by the fact that Mr. Biden bested Mr. Sanders with many liberal voters in Florida on Tuesday.
Mr. Biden is also succeeding even as progressive policies such as single-payer health care, robust action on climate change and student debt cancellation continue to poll high among Democratic voters, drawing majority support in some states.
This disconnect, in which policies are popular but the candidates who advocate them are losing, has frustrated progressive groups. They privately split blame among themselves, the candidates they backed and a Democratic electorate that has prioritized fear of losing to President Trump above all other concerns.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a leading progressive and a top surrogate for Mr. Sanders, said in an interview that her wing of the party needed to learn “political lessons” from this race.
Asked for examples, she said that reaching suburban women and older black voters, groups progressive presidential candidates have struggled to win over, may require different political tactics.
“There’s so much emphasis on making outreach as conflict-based as possible,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “And sometimes I even feel miscast and understood. Because it’s about what tools you use, and conflict is one tool but not the only tool.”
She said candidates did not have to choose between class-first politics and addressing racial inequities, but that they must articulate the interplay between them.
“Intersectionality isn’t about virtue-signaling or wokeness, it’s about how we build a majority in progressive Democratic politics,” she added. “If folks have bad racial justice frames, or gender justice frames, or identity frames, you won’t go anywhere in expanding the party.”
Mr. Biden has succeeded even in states where voters have voiced support for progressive proposals. As Mr. Biden triumphed in Florida on Tuesday night, more than 70 percent of the state’s voters interviewed by AP VoteCast, a survey of the American electorate, said they favored replacing private health insurance with a “Medicare for all”-type system, the single-payer health care plan that has been the signature issue of Mr. Sanders’s campaign.
Exit polls in Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Washington, all of which had primaries last Tuesday, showed that the majority of Democrats in each state backed Medicare for all. Common Dreams, the progressive website, tallied 20 states in a row where voters said they supported Medicare for all over private insurance in exit polls. Still, Mr. Biden has cruised to victory in many of them.
Matt Morrison, executive director of the labor organization Working America, said left-wing Democrats told themselves a faulty story — that winning the policy argument was the foremost way to build a political coalition. But doing so also requires building trust with voters, he said, because most Americans “look and ask, ‘Are they going to win over voters that aren’t like me or don’t care about politics?’”
“The self-branded progressive wing has to go beyond just the policy that fits the needs of the community,” he added. “Voters see that clearly. They’re making judgments about the whole person.”
There is cause for optimism among some on the left, given that issues that were once considered fringe are now popular.
In Illinois on Tuesday, Marie Newman, a progressive challenger supported by insurgent groups like the Justice Democrats, defeated an eight-term Democratic incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives who opposed abortion.
And Mr. Biden has embraced some ideas in the past week that were championed by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, including Ms. Warren’s bankruptcy plan and a proposal to make public college free for some students.
But others will forever rue a missed, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, presidential opportunity to define a Democratic Party going forward, and question if Mr. Biden’s current outreach efforts will continue.
After months of mocking Mr. Biden as a feckless front-runner, they acknowledge he managed to make the most important argument to Democrats: that his perceived ability to beat Mr. Trump should be valued over any policy in particular.
When Mr. Biden won her home state, Washington, in a belated race call this week, Representative Pramila Jayapal, who has endorsed Mr. Sanders and is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said, “It’s clear that Washingtonians are ready and eager to turn the page on Donald Trump’s presidency.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez argued that Mr. Biden’s “electability” framework had dominated voters’ thoughts and press coverage, creating difficulties for both the female candidates in the primary race and the insurgent progressives.
“It wasn’t just ‘Can a woman win?’ but ‘Can a woman win against Trump in Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania,’” she said. “There was also the electability of the progressive movement. ‘Can single-payer health care win? I want it! But can it win?’”
And it is not just that Mr. Biden is winning, but how Mr. Sanders is losing: The Vermont senator has not won a single county in Florida, Michigan, Mississippi or Missouri.
The results are humbling for his allies, who entered the race oozing confidence. When Mr. Sanders led the field in fund-raising, they boasted of a national movement. When Ms. Warren was leading in polls and her policy ideas were dominating the conversation, they gloated that progressives did not have one presidential front-runner, but two.
But early victories by Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire and Nevada would soon run into a moderate buzz saw. Black voters in South Carolina embraced Mr. Biden, making clear to moderate Democrats across the country that the former vice president was their best hope at the nomination.
What happened next was the stuff of movies, as several of Mr. Biden’s former rivals dropped out and endorsed him, consolidating their ideological support, sending a powerful signal to voters across the country and propelling him to victories on Super Tuesday. In a mere 72 hours, he went from wounded candidate seeking a lifeline to front-runner with a delegate lead he is unlikely to surrender.
It is that window of time that has left progressives licking their political wounds.
“Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders, I hear you” Mr. Biden said. “I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.”
Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said the left’s vulnerability was in some ways self-inflicted; since Mr. Sanders’s first presidential campaign in 2016, he said, progressives have not focused enough on persuading mainstream Democrats to support their cause.
“By refusing to acknowledge persuasion, we leave ourselves out of part of the equation,” he said. “For progressives to have a seat at the table, we have to start speaking in the language that people are actually thinking in.”
Mr. Sanders has yet to comment on Tuesday’s results, and his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said on Wednesday morning that the senator would be “having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign.”
It is a stark contrast to what progressive leaders were saying in May, when their message to those who warned of Mr. Biden’s durability was to wait and see.
“This is what we’re going to test,” Mr. Shakir said at the time. “Where are people at?”
Not, evidently, with Mr. Sanders.