This piece was originally published in The Guardian on March 4, 2020.
With Virginia called for Biden right when polls closed at 7pm it was clear that Super Tuesday was going to play out a lot differently than it was expected to. Building on momentum from his landslide victory in the South Carolina primary, Biden dominated the Super Tuesday states. Biden is thus far winning 9 of the 11 called contests and is competitive to win the remaining three states. This strong performance was a sharp contrast to expectations which, even after revisions to be more favorable to Joe Biden post-South Carolina, still predicted Sanders would win most of the night’s contests and come away with a delegate lead, perhaps even a significant one. Instead, even with more than a million ballots still outstanding in the California primary, it is Biden, not Sanders who holds the delegate lead, and with it, a possible lock on a nomination that less than two weeks ago provoked a flurry of columns about brokered conventions.Advertisement
So, what happened to so dramatically alter the contours of the race and make Biden, not Sanders the frontrunner and quite possibly, the presumptive nominee? To be sure, much attention will be given to the decisions of fellow moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to withdraw from the race the night before the Super Tuesday contests and endorse Joe Biden with the hopes that in so doing, they could help steer the party’s nomination away from Bernie Sanders, who many in the party openly worried threatened the Democrats’ ability to beat Donald Trump in the fall as well as down-ticket races for the Senate, House, and a host of state legislative seats. But the winnowing of the field, even in the spectacular fashion it played out on Monday night in Dallas, Texas, likely has less to do with the results than the fact that Sanders’ candidacy ultimately hit the same demographic brick wall it hit in its 2016 iteration.
The Sanders campaign always understood that in order to actually win the Democratic party’s nomination, the senator needed to dramatically improve upon his share of black voters from the 2016 cycle. Black voters are the kingmakers of the Democratic primary process – win them over and you will most likely be the party’s nominee even if you struggle in the party’s first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire as the contest moves into delegate-rich South Carolina. But fail to win them over and even promising starts like Pete Buttigieg’s upstart Iowa caucus win is guaranteed to sputter out. The Sanders campaign had hoped that gains among black voters under age 40 would be enough to offset continued reticence among older black voters, but even when younger voters are more engaged than normal, voter turnout models are heavily lopsided, made up disproportionately of older voters. Sanders’ only pathway to the nomination absolutely required the senator win over older voters of color, and on Tuesday these voters, along with suburban voters of all colors, soundly rejected Sanders’ revolution in favor of Biden’s pragmatism.
Had Sanders’ revolution been more digestible, and not saddled with the democratic-socialist label, it may have fared better. Instead, it provoked outright panic throughout the Democratic party, and not just within the party’s so-called establishment. Although Monday night’s coordinated winnowing and endorsement effort was clearly organized by party elites, the rejection of Sanders’ candidacy came at the hands of rank-and-file Democratic voters, who turned out en masse on Tuesday to blunt his path to the party’s nomination. Though it’s true that Biden dominated among moderates, he also performed well among liberals, earning the plurality of this group as well while Sanders only dominated among those who described their ideology as “very” liberal. Biden also dominated among late-deciding voters, capitalizing on natural momentum from his dominant South Carolina win.
What makes Tuesday’s results most stunning, is the fact that Biden won many of these states without any campaign spending, something we’ve never seen in a competitive primary before. The cash-strapped Biden operation staggered into South Carolina on life support and had no time to transition their victory there three days prior into investment in the Super Tuesday contests, where his closest ideological rival had invested more than a half billion dollars.
Starting on 10 March the calendar moves into states ostensibly more friendly for Biden, not less. The inclusion of states Sanders carried in 2016, such as Oklahoma and Minnesota, into Biden’s win column Tuesday suggests Sanders will likely underperform the 2016 cycle, where he carried an impressive 23 states. Should Mike Bloomberg withdraw from the race, even the winnowing of Elizabeth Warren will likely not be enough to re-tilt the race in Senator Sanders’ favor.
If Biden does secure a majority of delegates, it will be under a rules system designed in part by Bernie Sanders and absent the direct influence of party elites via super delegates, a major criticism of the Sanders’ team from their 2016 loss.