NEITHER CANDIDATE PLAYS the 1970s classic “Dust in the Wind” at rallies, but Biden’s campaign does favor easy listening.
On the night before South Carolina’s primary, Biden shook hands with supporters at a rally in Spartanburg, S.C., as Steve Winwood’s 1980s soft rock tune “Higher Love” played in the background.
It was music well suited for a crowd pushing 50 and older. For more than an hour, Biden gave long answers to short questions, and at one point told the sometimes-distracted crowd, “Look, I know this is boring, but it’s important.”
A few hours earlier, at a rally for Sanders, most of the crowd in Columbia, S.C., looked 40 and younger. Giant speakers blared the 2009 rock anthem “Uprising”: “Interchanging mind control / Come let the revolution take its toll.”
Before Sanders took the stage, a hip-hop duo from Austin, Texas, freestyled campaign lyrics while the crowd cheered: “We’re like Robin Hood, and we’re ready for war: We take from the rich and give to the poor.”
It was a blunt summary of the big promises Sanders repeated with gusto at the rally: He’d raise taxes on the wealthy and offer Americans free child care, free college tuition, student loan forgiveness, medical debt forgiveness, and Medicare for All. (In this first Southern state on the primary calendar, the campaign passed out signs reading, “Medicare for Y’all.”)
The young crowd hung on Sanders’ words and boomed with energy. But if the Democratic contest had come down to a choice between a candidate admitting that policy discussions could be boring and a candidate vowing to remake the federal government, most primary voters appeared to choose wonkiness over wokeness.
Indeed, the enthusiasm of a crowd isn’t always a measure of a candidate’s strength. Even as Sanders’ events pulsed with the kind of verve that President Donald Trump’s rallies still draw now, the vigor hasn’t always translated into votes as the bulk of the primaries unfold.
Back at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Charleston, the crowd of congregants from local black churches politely welcomed Biden and other Democratic candidates, but they held their warmest applause for when the host acknowledged the local pastors at the breakfast.
Still, black voters overwhelmingly picked Biden: In South Carolina, he won over 60 percent of African American votes. David Cakley, a member of Mt. Moriah, said he preferred Biden, and worried about Sanders. “I think he’s too far left,” he said. “His programs sound outlandish and unaffordable.”
“Outlandish and unaffordable” doesn’t make a great campaign slogan, and Biden will likely try to make such words stick to Sanders. But Biden faces questions about how affordable his plans are too.
He says he doesn’t favor Medicare for All, but he does propose an expansion of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) that his campaign estimates would cost $750 billion over a decade. Biden proposes a $1.7 trillion climate change plan, and a higher education plan that would cost $750 billion a year. (The plan would include offering two years of free community college tuition.)
A Vox editorial praising Biden declared that if elected, “Biden would be the most progressive Democratic nominee in history.” While Biden falls to the right of Sanders (who estimates his Medicare for All plan would cost at least $30 trillion over 10 years), he still lands to the left of President Barack Obama.
If the discussion of Sanders’ democratic socialism sucked the air out of the room for Democrats worried he’s too extreme to win a general election against Trump, Biden still must explain how we would fill the void in a palatable way, while facing a challenger with a formidable style.