Against all odds, Joe Biden surged past Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday. It was a stunning upset and one for the history books. After months of lackluster debate performances and sliding poll numbers, Trump’s impeachment scandal, and skepticism of his barebones campaign, Joe Biden managed to turn his campaign around in 72 hours following the South Carolina primary. For many moderates, the results were a relief and a cause for celebration. But the results left Bernie Sanders supporters in shock. Suddenly, they were the underdogs again. Whereas just a few days ago, Sanders’ victory had seemed all but inevitable, today, Sanders’ losses mean he will have an uphill battle in future primaries.
The key to Biden’s comeback was a combination of fortuitous endorsements and the consolidation of the field of candidates. This past weekend in South Carolina, James Clyburn endorsed Biden, which gave voters in the states, especially Black voters, the main reason they needed to vote for him. Endorsements matter and Clyburn’s endorsement put the power of endorsements on display. For many, the moment harkened back to the machine politics of the early-to-mid 20th century. For others, Clyburn’s endorsement signaled the enduring legacy of the civil rights movement. And for still more, the fact that Clyburn’s endorsement gave Biden a landslide victory in South Carolina demonstrated the power of Obama’s presidency. Try as he might, Trump has not been able to sweep aside Obama’s impact on America. Clyburn demonstrated that fact. History will look back on the Clyburn endorsement as a crucial tipping point in the 2020 Democratic primaries.
Michael Bloomberg, on the other hand, had a terrible night. Super Tuesday states were not kind to him. He failed to win any states, though he did win the US territory American Samoa. He even failed to pick up any delegates in most states, and by later on Tuesday evening, it was clear that Bloomberg would be forced to drop out. Sure enough, on Wednesday at noon, Bloomberg exited the Democratic primary race. The news was met with sighs of relief from Democrats who had worried that Billionaires like Bloomberg and Steyer, who have relied on little more than advertisements to boost their campaigns, could essentially buy the US presidency. With Bloomberg out, that thesis remains unproven. Nevertheless, Bloomberg has demonstrated that he could at least put up a fight in the primary process, and that could mean more super-wealthy candidates will pop up in future elections.
Elizabeth Warren did not do much better than Bloomberg unfortunately. She failed to win a single state, and while she did pick up delegates in some states here and there, the overall picture for Warren was disastrous. Humiliatingly, she placed third in her home state of Massachusetts. Even before Super Tuesday, calls had been growing for her to step out of the race. By Wednesday morning, her departure from the field seemed like a foregone conclusion. Leftists and Sanders supporters sought to cast their losses as the result of Warren’s unwillingness to leave the race before Super Tuesday, though there is little evidence to back up these claims. But her candidacy will begin to have a negative impact on the progressive wing of the party going forward if she continues to campaign.
Earlier in the night, before many results form major states like California and Texas had come in, Sanders sought to capitalize on his victory in Vermont with a victory speech. Soon after, Sanders argued that “what this campaign is increasingly about is, what side are you on?” He emphasized that his candidacy is aimed at taking on the “entire corporate establishment.” Sanders also criticized the “political establishment,” which he said was “working frantically to try to defeat us.” The Vermont senator went on to decry “the kind of venom we’re seeing from corporate media,” citing comments from former MSNBC host Chris Matthews comparing Sanders’ campaign to the Nazi regime.
As the New York Times wrote afterward, “though Bernie Sanders remains competitive in the pledged delegate count, the results leave room for doubt whether he can catch up before the convention, in July, unless there is another stunning turn in the race, this one in his favor. The demographics of the states that will be awarded most of the delegates from here on out are less favorable to him. And in many Super Tuesday states, he was helped by the large numbers of early voters who had cast ballots before the South Carolina race, when the party’s moderate voters were still divided. That’s an advantage he will no longer have going forward.”
Five states are holding primaries next Tuesday: Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Washington. North Dakota will hold Democratic caucuses. Altogether, more than 350 delegates will be at stake, including 125 in the Michigan contest, which will provide a test in a Midwestern general election swing state. The most crucial primary for Sanders is Michigan, where Sanders has strong support among union workers. But Biden’s appeal in the state is strong as well given his appeal to working-class voters. It will be worth closely watching how the remaining candidates do among voters in the Michigan suburbs, African-Americans and working-class white voters. If Biden carries Michigan, then Sanders will lose news cycles and fall far enough behind in the delegate count that questions about his ability to catch up will start to become more urgent.
No matter what happens, though, Biden still has a long way to go. Voters still have questions about his ability to present the kind of presidential polish that Americans expect from their politicians. As one commentator put it, “for all the former vice president’s stumbles, Democratic voters decided he was the safest bet. Perhaps all they needed was to hear him give a victory speech: That happened on Saturday, in South Carolina, where Mr. Biden seemed to temporarily erase concerns about his bid that had been accumulating for nearly a year. But there are still plenty of questions. He remains prone to verbal stumbles and carries significant political baggage. And that Mr. Biden’s fortunes have changed says more about the unusual context of this primary than the content of his campaign.”