Fake wood panelling, a few balloons, about 40 people scattered across a half dozen tables, a big screen booming MSNBC, the bright white of kleig lights, half a dozen TV camera setups, and down the hallway, the clucluburrburugguggh of bowling balls hitting pins. Yes, the Joe Biden for Minnesota team went all out on Super Tuesday night, renting the ‘conference room’ of a Northeast Minneapolis bowling alley named Elsie’s for their gathering.
It was a very Minnesota night, half-American, half-Swedish, a rack of thick coats and scarves in one corner, a table of steaming trays of ‘hot dish’ (casserole) in the other, metal signs saying ‘Minnesota Firefighters for BIDEN’, the word BIDEN printed on paper and stuck on. And there’s the incomprehensible idioms of Minnesotans: ‘You are how many?’ said the greeter.
‘Sorry? Well I’m me.’ Was this an identity politics thing? No, it’s just the strangeness of this state, settled by Scandinavians, the only state with a Democrat-Farmer-Labor party, a social liberal beacon for decades, and belted in fields of deep snow for months on end, very much itself. ‘So the uh bowling alley thing, is that a bit of Americana, a tip to Joe’s industrial roots?’ I asked one of the organisers. ‘Uh no, we just needed a small venue’ he said with disarming honesty, looking around.
He was right there. Joe Biden for Minnesota couldn’t fill a room in a city of three million. The night before, Bernie Sanders had had a rally at the vast River Centre, filling the 18,000-seat venue to bursting, people crammed into the bleachers, gasping shoulder to shoulder on the ground floor, and had been leading by up to 10 points in the polls. The crowd was all ages, all classes, hipsters and suburban schlubs, contingents from the nurses’, comms workers unions, white, latino and black—though, Minnesota being two per cent black, not so many, and one family was lined up by three news photographers in a row beside the big Warholesque poster for the rally: ‘just trying to get a spread of folks for the news’ sure, sure.
The mood was exultant, the way it is always is at Bernie things, a product of the release of energy at these rallies, where you can be sure that you won’t have to suck anything up. Bernie isn’t going to veer from health care for all no exceptions to, (Brooklyn voice) ‘and by the way we have to defend Israel at all costs, those people are hurting’. That’s never going to happen, and for American progressives, that’s the first time that’s happened at a presidential level since, well, since. Not even the news that day that Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar had dropped out of the race, thus reducing the split in the centrist vote, could dampen the spirits. Minnesota was no longer little Sweden, the state that got public health care and anti-discrimination in the 1940s, but it was still a leftish place. It wasn’t going to go for Smilin’ Joe.
‘With the polls closed, it looks like Minnesota is going for Biden,’ Brian Williams announced, on the big screen, as the off-hallway bar of a bowling alley erupted in cheers. At the front were a half-dozen Minnesota good ol’ boys (Minneapolis is on the Mississippi; in that respect, it’s the very north of the South). Bow-tied, good-suited, drinking single-malt Scotch, they couldn’t believe their luck. ‘You’re gone BERNIE’ one yelled as they flashed Bernie’s evening speech on. The more modest types at the back—two fake hairpieces, dirndl skirts, cheap puffer jackets, though it would turn out they all worked in medical services—were less gloating. Still, they were pumped.
‘We didn’t really have a campaign here’ one told me. ‘No ads, no real roadwork. We just thought Bernie and Amy would duke it out’ said one. Bow-tie came over, his tiny Scotch glass pinched between thumb and forefinger. ‘Bloomberg spent seventeen million! We spent seventeen thousand!. Lookit the sign!’ he said pointing to the BIDEN kludge up. ‘What’s it originally for?’ ‘Firefighters for Wallace, the governor’s race’. They hadn’t even gone to FEDEX Print. ‘What do you do?’ I asked Bow-tie. ‘I do some work for the Firefighters.’ ‘He’s a lobbyist’ said one of his friends, amused. ‘Mostly military.’ That’s the Biden base. Lobbyists for government contracts, from offtrack states.
Out in the bowling alley…and what better enactment of mainstream American (or Western politics) could you get? All the decisions being made in a room off to the side, while out in the main area, sports. The 20 lanes are full of teams, ninety per cent men, huge screens playing ESPN above the pins. Somewhere in here are the Trump’s people, those who crossed over from Obama in 2016, or simply didn’t come out for Hillary. But it’s a big ask, in the US, to interrupt anyone to talk about politics during sports. Two groups won’t talk, are gruff about it; a third bunch of six guys are amenable.
‘Most of us are Democrats’ one said, the chunkiest guy there saying nothing, smiling. Are they for Bernie, or someone else?
‘Well I like Bernie, but we’re all in financial services, so his plan to abolish student loan debt would pretty much fuck us….so….’ they’re ironical about it, in that whimsical way that Americans use to deal with contradiction between self and collective good. ‘But I mean, isn’t the whole student loan setup insane? Doesn’t it suck huge amounts of money?’
‘Bernie? You’d vote for that communist?’ chunky guy said to his friend.
Well, Super Tuesday’s was Joe’s night alright. Fresh from a better than expected win in South Carolina where he took 54 per cent of the vote after a late and passionate endorsement by South Car congressman and civil rights hero James Clyburn. Biden’s team then presumably started on a mixture of bribery and threat directed at team Buttigieg and Klobuchar to get them to drop out. Mayor Pete went pretty immediately after getting 8.2 per cent in SC, and a whopping two per cent of the African-American vote there (African-Americans are 60 per cent of the Dem primary vote in that state). Minnesota senator Klobuchar went on Monday, which caused me to howl with rage on the Amtrak heading through the frozen wastes to Minneapolis-St Paul, for I had counted on ‘Amy’s Super Tuesday Watch Party’ to be a treat after the meat of the Bernie rally, because there was every chance that Klobuchar would have completely lost it live on stage and gone into a sitcom sidekick rant about being locked out, excluded etc etc. On Sunday night, Black Lives Matter had stormed the stage of Klobuchar’s boutique Minneapolis rally, to protest her record on racism and justice, when she was the Minneapolis attorney (ie prosecutor). The rally had to be abandoned, and there was every chance the watch party would have been too, after Klobuchar lost her own state, and one suspects team Biden wouldn’t have to have offered too much to get her out of the way.
With the last two minor moderates gone, Biden stormed back. On Tuesday night, he took the deep Southern states he was always going to, and then Tennessee and Virginia, Maine, Minnesota, and god help us, Massachusetts, where a close contest between Biden and Bernie pushed Elizabeth Warren to third in her home state. Warren, to the anger of team Bernie, had stayed in the race as the moderates came out, thus hobbling Sanders’ vote in non-deep South states. This was due to her determination not to be sidelined on behalf of all women who have been asked to step aside, and was also coincident with a huge drop of cash into her Persist SuperPAC (hands-off campaign funds) by an anonymous donor, so y’know. Warren got 50 delegates out of the 1,357 on offer on Super Tuesday, which keeps her in the game. The official line from her campaign is that she wants to stay in to be a potential compromise candidate for a split Convention; more likely, she is angling for Veep or a major cabinet position in a Biden administration. Despite the fact that Warren has (largely) refrained from attacking Sanders throughout the campaign, she is known to see him as an impractical, grandstanding leftie incapable of getting things done. Bernie’s supporters see Warren as a jenny-come-lately ex-Reaganite Republican (which she is).
But the real winner, ie loser, of the night was Mike Bloomberg whose vast ghost organisation and hundreds of millions in spending garnered him a win in ….American Samoa, which is worse than getting nothing at all. That was money well spent. Actually it was, because this was the first genuine billionaire campaign to buy a nomination. Trump? He relied on free media and a chaotic deadhead volunteer organisation to buttress his pseudo-billionaire status. Bloomberg was the real deal. He plastered screen and audio ads over every state, wall to wall, bought a three-minute ad slot to give an address on Coronavirus in a fake West Wing, hired thousands of political operatives, paying twice the going rate, and set up half a dozen offices in each primary state, and a dozen in California. For all that, he got a straight 9 or 10% in each state, and a slice of that would have been the managerial-professional ex-Buttigieg vote. Without Bloomberg, a section of that would have flowed to Biden, and it would have been a rout for Bernie, so thanks for that Mike.
Still ‘n all, it wasn’t a great night. Team Bernie had been hoping for eight to 10 states, including Texas, and to sweep California, keeping everyone else below 15 per cent, and thus getting the vast majority of the 500 delegates from there. In the end he got California, but not the grand slam, Utah, which has nine Democrats, home-state Vermont, and Colorado, which votes by mail, and thus records where the race was a week ago. That leaves him with 501 delegates to Biden’s 566, with 31 states to go.
So Joe’s back, and it’s a pretty incredible turnaround. One could say that it was something the mainstream Democrats could do—act collectively—and the 2016 Republicans couldn’t. But it’s a little less rosy than that; they had no-one with a machine like Joe’s, capable of dealing out largesse and career-ending threats in equal measure.
For team Sanders, the melancholy truth is that the months of grassroots organisation wasn’t enough to beat back a collective switch to a mainstream candidate. Biden had no money and no campaign offices in several states that he won, Minnesota being one of them. He had one office in California; Bernie had more than a dozen. Biden’s defeat of both Bernie and Bloomberg suggests that media has outpaced both money and the masses as a source of power in the shadow of the silent majorities.
But at the team Bernie party in, sigh, a warehouse converted into the Blackstack brewery pub in the old St Paul railyards, if they were discouraged, they weren’t showing it. That might be because they were all Democratic Socialists of America party people; this is a true insurgency. ‘So how’s it looking, how are you all feeling’ I said when I arrived, to the first kid who greeted me, about half-hipster.
‘It’s a thing; do you want to come to a meeting on Saturday,’ he said, putting a flyer into my hand which was headed ‘Beyond Bernie’. Oy. There wasn’t much evidence of the diverse—genuinely diverse, ie class-diverse—crowd that had been at the rally. This was the kids, the vanguard crowd, styled in the post-hipster fashion, instantly identifiable as other than the mass. And, one has to say, with a strut you won’t find elsewhere. The Biden party may have had the good ol’ boys there, but there was also some ‘burban people there. At the Blackstack, Mike, a neat-white-moustached restaurant worker, who’d been in the party for ‘decades…’I joined during the anti-nuclear movements in the 80s”, and what did he think: ‘Hey look, I was a Trotskyist too, in my wild youth; this is a good campaign’. But: ‘I did a lot of organising up in Duluth, which was a deep blue [Democrat] union town. This time it went for Trump. They want,’ he sighed, ‘they want their old jobs back. They say to me, directly “we want it like it was”. Man, I dunno, the party here came out against mining, but it’s copper and iron mining up there. I don’t see how you can get those people by being anti-mining’. Other non-young, non-hip people turned out to be attorneys and management consultants, dressed down and Midwest lumpy. Mike was the only worker at the shindig. ‘I hear there’s another Bernie party up at Mac’s Sports Bar’ he said. ‘Yeah i’ve been there, it’s just the same as this.’ ‘Oh’.
Back at the bowling alley to pick up my bags, the lanes had cleared somewhat, but the guys I’d spoken to were still there. ‘Look Joe Biden…’ one was saying to another, a little tetchily. Oh God what had I done? These guys had probably been bowling together for years. No politics in sports. Ah, sports, the carbs of American media life, satisfying becalming, and inexhaustible.
This morning, Mike Bloomberg ‘suspended’ his campaign, telling his team ‘you made history you really did’, but not in the circumstances of their choosing, or in the original German, as a farcical disaster which achieved the exact opposite of everything they set out to do. The Warren campaign announced that it was ‘considering its options’, which sounds like make me an offer. And on it goes to two multi-state mini-Tuesdays on the 10th and 17th: Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, Washington and North Dakota next, as US coronavirus deaths head towards double figures. With Bloomberg out, Team Biden has nothing to worry about save that they have a candidate who can quote Seamus Heaney at one moment in his victory speech…
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.’
… and then mistake his sister for his wife, the next. Whether the Heaney is him, or the gun speechwriters he’s now got attached to him, it was a real barnstormer, the old Joe back. The only fun question the Democratic party has to answer is whether their now presumptive machine candidate has the first onset of dementia, ready to be carved up by Trump like a Minnesota hot dish. Onward!