DETROIT — Bernie Sanders offered a revolution. But most Democrats just wanted a safe bet.
The recent campaign surge by Joe Biden, seen in sweeping election victories and in dozens of interviews with voters over the last week in Michigan and Virginia, show that most Democrats have put a premium on simply defeating President Donald Trump. To do it, they were willing to set aside excitement, novelty, and big policy goals.
At a Biden rally in Detroit on Monday, many voters in line said they had initially supported other candidates, or acknowledged that Biden’s ideas aren’t the most thrilling. Often they said they’d prefer a younger option, a woman, or someone with more energy.
But when it came down to Sanders and Biden, they picked the former vice president. Many thought Sanders’ brand of liberalism would be too risky in a general election, and felt comfortable with Biden from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president. They know him.
“I think he has the best chance to win,” said Jerry Young, 56, of Monroe, Mich., as he waited to enter Biden’s Monday rally. He initially preferred Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, hoping to see a woman in the White House, but settled on Biden.
“We’ve got to restore the country, and to do that we’ve got to get Trump out of the White House,” Brenda Gross Andrews, of Detroit, said at the same event. “Our country is in chaos and we need someone in the White House now that has experience.”
Dean Lent, 30, of Orion, Mich., initially supported Sen. Kamala Harris and Klobuchar, and acknowledged that Biden might not have the most forward-thinking agenda. “But I think Democrats ultimately unite against Donald Trump.”
To others, stability and boredom seem welcome amid the tumult of Trump’s tenure.
“I don’t want to go from extreme right to extreme left,” said Hirak Chanda, 52, of Troy, Mich.
Interviews on Super Tuesday last week in the moderate Virginia suburbs hit many of the same themes.
Voters who dislike Trump but were ideologically centrist — or knew neighbors who felt that way — repeatedly raised concerns that Sanders and his agenda would flop in swing districts. Even those who liked the ideas often said it wasn’t worth the risk of a second Trump term.
“The main thing I want is someone who can get Trump out of the White House, and I think we can worry about the other stuff later,” said Anita, a black woman who declined to give her last name after she voted in Ashburn, Va., last week.
So while Biden’s Monday rally at a Detroit high school couldn’t match the energy of the 10,000 people Sanders turned out at the University of Michigan a day earlier, Biden trounced Sanders in the actual voting.
“He’s reaching for a greater swath of people, and that’s what it’s all about," Jonathan Adams, 59, said when he voted for Biden on Tuesday in Detroit. “Bernie Sanders on paper is good, in theory, but I think in practice, in practicality, I don’t know if he would translate to reach everyone."
In the six states that voted Tuesday, 62% of voters who prioritized beating Trump chose Biden, according to exit polls by the Washington Post. But Sanders won 53% of those who wanted a candidate they agreed with on the issues.
Those numbers reflected the recent interviews. If voters said their top priority was beating Trump, they almost always chose Biden. If they listed a specific issue as their main concern — health care, climate change, college costs — they usually picked Sanders.
For some, Biden was more than just a pragmatic choice: They genuinely agreed with a more moderate, tempered approach to policy. Kristen Smolen, 49, of Grosse Pointe Farms, said she didn’t want to lose private health insurance, as would happen under Sanders’ Medicare for All plan.
“I’m a moderate person,” said Smolen, who previously lived in Mount Laurel, N.J. Biden “has more of a chance of winning” back Michigan. “Bernie is more polarizing.”
Still, young voters often had a very different view, which suggests Biden still has work to do to unify the party.
Those in Michigan and Virginia often told stories of facing crushing student loans, huge medical bills, or concern about how climate change would affect their futures, and argued that such big problems demand big solutions. They worried that affluent, moderate voters have validated a status quo that has served some well, but failed the next generation.
“It’s a totally uninspired platform by Biden. It’s the same thing as always,” Ben Simko a Michigan graduate student, said Sunday. Simko, 25, recounted seeing friends’ families struggling with job losses and seeking aid from food banks.
Biden tried to start wooing them Tuesday night, stressing his respect for their passion and energy.
Sanders, speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, signaled that he intends to keep pushing Biden to adopt more liberal positions. He argued that polls show most voters agree with his progressive agenda and emphasized the importance of the voters under 40 who have strongly favored him.
“We are winning the generational debate,” Sanders said in Burlington, Vt. “In order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country and you must speak to the issues of concern to them. You cannot simply be satisfied by winning the votes of people who are older.”
And while many Democrats see him as the safe choice, Biden has a long history of political stumbles, including in this primary. He only consolidated party support once it became clear that he was the sole viable alternative to Sanders.
In recent days, Biden’s team has limited his public exposure, perhaps calculating that the best strategy is to just ensure he doesn’t slip up — but he is now scheduled to face Sanders on the debate stage Sunday.