A couple of week ago, former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was on life support. On Saturday, February 29th, Biden won a commanding victory in the South Carolina primary, a state whose demographic makeup truly reflects the diversity of the Democratic Party base, gave him a boost that he badly needed.
South Carolina was always at the heart of Biden’s electoral strategy — his first opportunity to establish himself as the clear choice of the party, positioned right before the critical delegate binge of Super Tuesday.
Joe Biden reclaimed his status as a Democratic front-runner with stunning victories on Super Tuesday and opened a clear path to amassing enough delegates to clinch the nomination by the Democratic National Convention.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had an advantage on Super Tuesday he will not see again: many early votes cast before moderates coalesced around one candidate. Bernie Sanders, the left wing’s champion, has dodged a knockout blow for now. While he has lost his lead in pledged delegates, he remains competitive and he has probably stopped Biden well short of an overall majority of delegates awarded on Super Tuesday.
But the results nonetheless leave reason to doubt whether Sanders can fare well enough to amass a majority of pledged delegates by the convention without yet another big turn in the race, this time in his favor. He was largely swept in the Eastern half of the country, where most of the delegates awarded after Super Tuesday are at stake. And in many states he was assisted by large numbers of early voters who cast ballots before the South Carolina race, when the party’s moderate voters were still divided. He will no longer have that advantage.
Biden swept the South with expected, overwhelming support among African-American voters, who backed him by a margin of 56 percent to 19 percent across the Super Tuesday states, according to exit polls. His success among white voters was less expected and allowed him to extend his strength well beyond the South.
He ran even or ahead among white voters in every state east of the Mississippi River, except for Sanders’s home state of Vermont, according to the exit polls, and won decisive victories in the affluent suburbs around Boston, Washington and Minneapolis. He even carried much of the old, moderate rural vote that Sanders swept four years earlier.
Biden rapidly consolidated moderate-leaning voters in the days after his landslide victory in the South Carolina primary. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar left the race and endorsed him, with the result that he appeared to add nearly all their former supporters. His strength across the rural North and in affluent suburbs mirrored their strengths in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
Biden got an additional lift as his leading moderate rival, Mike Bloomberg, dropped out of the race, and it seems Bloomberg will be willing to use his considerable wealth to support him.
Texas offered a different test. The state’s Democratic electorate is a mix of African-Americans and more conservative and affluent white voters who tend to back Mr. Biden, and younger, urban and Latino voters who tend to back Mr. Sanders. According to the exit polls, Mr. Sanders won Latinos by a margin of 50 percent to 24 percent across the Super Tuesday states, with a margin of 41 percent to 24 percent in Texas.
In an election night count that reflected the shift in the national political environment over the last week, Biden eventually overtook Sanders in the Texas returns, with a wide advantage among late-deciding voters who cast their ballots on Election Day. In a telling indication of how quickly moderate voters had coalesced behind Biden, the exit polls across the Super Tuesday states found that among voters who decided in just the last few days, Biden won by a margin of 48 percent to 21 percent.
Sanders denied Biden a more sweeping victory because of the West, where Sanders can count on his strengths among Latinos, liberals and younger, urban voters without fully facing his weakness among African-American voters and conservative rural whites. The West also has the highest rate of early voting in the country, which helped blunt Biden’s surge.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined for 22 percent support in the exit poll in Colorado, where advance voters represented the largest share of the vote of any state on Tuesday. Their support was not recorded in the election night tabulation because they withdrew from the race, but both candidates routinely breached 10 percent in early voting elsewhere in the country, including in California.
The large early and absentee vote in some of the states most favorable to Sanders helped him in the delegate count. Over all, Biden holds only 45 percent of pledged delegates after Super Tuesday, according to preliminary Upshot estimates, while Sanders is expected to finish with around 39 percent. These tallies could change depending on the eventual result in California (which might not become official for weeks), but if they hold, Biden’s delegate lead would be far from irreversible. In fact, Sanders would need to defeat Biden by only three points in the remaining two-thirds of the country to overtake him.
A three-point deficit is not a daunting handicap, certainly not when Biden was polling 20 points lower just a few days ago. But the Super Tuesday results do not augur well for Sanders’s odds of pulling it off. He remained so competitive on Super Tuesday in part because of the large number of early and absentee voters who cast ballots before it became apparent that Biden was the viable moderate candidate.
The rest of the country may not be so favorable to Sanders, either. With Texas and California off the board, most of the remaining populous states lie in the East, where Sanders tended to lose, often badly. They also tend to have a below-average Latino share of the vote.
The states where Latino voters do represent roughly an average share of the electorate do not seem likely to be as favorable to Sanders as California or Texas. Arizona, New Mexico, New York and Florida allow only registered Democrats to vote, and therefore exclude a disproportionate number of young Hispanic voters — many of them registered as independents — who are likeliest to back Sanders. These closed primaries will exclude many young non-Latino voters as well, posing a broader challenge to Sanders that he did not overcome in 2016 and has not yet had to face in 2020.
Biden, in contrast, will continue to find many states in the next few weeks where black voters represent an average or above-average share of the population. He needs somewhere around 54 percent of the remaining delegates to claim a majority heading into the Democratic nomination, and his path to accomplishing this might be as simple as repeating the same outcome as Super Tuesday under a more favorable set of states, without the burden of early votes cast long before he emerged as the top rival to Sanders.
A decision by Elizabeth Warren on whether to stay in the race will affect whether it becomes easier for Biden or Sanders to amass a delegate majority, just as Bloomberg’s decision to drop out already has. Each was on track to win about 14 percent of the national vote, enough to often cross the 15 percent threshold for viability and therefore win delegates that might have otherwise gone to the front-runners. In doing so, they dragged both Biden and Sanders farther from 50 percent of pledged delegates.
It is hard to evaluate how much Biden or Sanders will be helped or hurt if Warren is out of the race. One thing was clear Tuesday night: The longer she stayed in the race, the more likely it was that no candidate would win a majority of delegates before the convention.
Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York who had hoped to self-fund his way to the Democratic presidential nomination but was spurned by voters in Tuesday’s balloting, dropped out of the race Wednesday. Bloomberg endorsed Joe Biden, saying the former vice president had the best chance to win in November.
“I’ve always believed that defeating Donald Trump starts with uniting behind the candidate with the best shot to do it. After yesterday’s vote, it is clear that candidate is my friend and a great American, Joe Biden,” Bloomberg said in a statement.