Graphic by Lucas Romualdo
Weekly Politics Update
March 6, 2020
A week and a half ago, FiveThirtyEight gave former Vice President Joe Biden a 10% chance of winning the Democratic nomination for president. Biden was trailing Senator Bernie Sanders in polls, had been trounced in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and handily beaten by Sanders in Nevada, and was deemed unlikely to win many Super Tuesday states.
This changed dramatically in less than a week. After defeating Sanders by 28% in the South Carolina primary, a wave of endorsements boosted Biden’s campaign days before a third of the country voted in Super Tuesday. After poor performances in South Carolina, Senator Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg withdrew from the race and endorsed Biden at a massive rally in Dallas, throwing their support behind the new leading moderate candidate for president.
Still, Biden faced long odds in Super Tuesday: at best, he was expected to win the southern states and Texas, while losing a slew of states in the northeast and west, especially California.
Yet, with much of the vote reporting, Biden has significantly overperformed expectations and has swept nearly all of the Super Tuesday states. In a shock for Sanders, Biden won both Massachusetts and Minnesota, states that Sanders expected to win and Biden expected to come in third place or lower.
Meanwhile, Biden wiped Sanders off the map in the southern states with commanding victories in Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. His margins in Virginia and Alabama were greater than Sanders’ performance in his home state of Vermont, which is shocking given that Sanders beat his 2016 opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by 72% in Vermont (Sanders beat Biden in Vermont this year by 28%).
Notably, voter turnout in Virginia was unexpectedly high, boosting Biden to one of his widest victories in the night. This does not bode well for Sanders, who has consistently claimed that higher turnout would deliver wins for his campaign. It is a poor sign for his candidacy that higher turnout appears to hurt him, not help.
There are bright spots, however, for Sanders. He is expected to take a strong win in California, although early voting in the state means that final results will take days to be counted, which will give him a large share of delegates and help him cement his place in the race. Sanders also demonstrated his strength with Latino voters in Texas, though he lost the state, indicating his concrete base of support that will bolster him in the upcoming primaries.
The situation for Sanders, however, is undeniably worse than it was a week ago when he was by far and away the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Then, it appeared as though he might win the nomination after running the table on Super Tuesday. Now, he has as good a chance as Biden to win the nomination, and may actually be aiming for second place instead.
The Super Tuesday results were very much losses for two candidates: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Though both of them gained about 100 delegates, neither of them won any of the contests and placed mostly third and forth instead. Bloomberg in particular, who spent $500 million to try to win several Super Tuesday states and supplant Biden as the main moderate candidate, performed poorly compared to expectations. Both Warren and Bloomberg exited the race shortly after, with Bloomberg endorsing Biden and Warren withholding an endorsement at the time of writing.
Endorsements have been a key component of Biden’s surge. In addition to the support of Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Bloomberg, Biden has received support from over 70 members of congress and five state governors. The consolidation of Democratic Party politicians behind Biden’s campaign is yet another indicator of his momentum leading into the next several primaries.
In terms of possible outcomes, Biden is most likely to win a plurality of delegates given his strong Super Tuesday result. Next week, Michigan, Washington and Missouri will hold their primaries, followed by Florida, Illinois and Ohio. Of these six states, Washington is expected to go to Sanders, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio are tossups, while Missouri and Florida are expected to go to Biden. Given his momentum from Super Tuesday, Biden may well carry five of these six states. Combined with further strong performances in the remaining southern states, Biden has a good chance at winning the nomination by June.
Specifically, if Biden were to win Michigan, which Sanders won in 2016, it would almost certainly spell victory for his campaign. Biden is currently running even with Sanders in the state, though he has won the endorsement of Michigan’s popular governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
On the flip side, Sanders could easily win Michigan and Washington next week, as well as Illinois and Ohio the week after. He is still the narrow frontrunner in national polling and has a strong core base of supporters. If he is able to consolidate support in the next couple of weeks, Sanders may blunt Biden’s momentum and regain his place as the top candidate for the nomination.
However, it is still too early to determine which of the two scenarios is the more likely, and a drawn-out battle for delegates between Sanders and Biden is more than possible. What is clear is that Biden is in a far better position today than he was a week ago, and now has a renewed shot at the nomination and the presidency.